Writing anything can be a difficult process. Staring at a blank page can be frightening, especially when you have people like me saying how important it is to start with something engaging in order to get the reviewers interested in your work.

So, while I stand by how important it is to start with something engaging, I also want to take a step back from the actual writing of a grant proposal to an exercise that should help you get started. Usually, this is also the best way to realize how much you actually know about your plan.

While I step back, I want to take a moment to point out something that may seem obvious once you hear it, but it is not. When you write, you don’t have to start at the beginning. Sure, by the end, all the pieces need to be present and in the correct order when you submit the proposal, but as you are drafting, you should write whatever piece you want to write in whatever order you want to write it. Many successful grant writers write the first sentence last.

Okay, back to the point of this article.

Remember that you wouldn’t be writing a grant proposal if you didn’t have a project you wanted to do with a real question to answer. But, just because you know you want a project, doesn’t mean that you necessarily have all the pieces together in your mind when you sit down to start the grant proposal. That’s okay because some pieces, such as a reasonable timeline, how many students are required, and what might go wrong with the project are so logistic in nature that as you outline how the project will work, these answers will come to you.

In other words, rather than worrying about what you don’t know as you look at the blank screen awaiting to be filled with a grant proposal, take a moment to focus on what you do know and start building with those pieces.

The best way to do this is with the “Five W’s” of information-gathering, familiarly known in journalism [1]: who, what, when, where, and why. These questions are very old and have been found in their question form even as early as the 12th century, although their origin dates back to the rhetoric schools of Ancient Rome. These work as well as they do and have lasted for so long because while you can answer them quickly and simply, you need to respond with more than just “yes” or “no.”

So, open to a blank screen, grab a sheet of paper, or whatever you use to do your basic writing. Then write:

  • Who?
  • What?
  • When?
  • Where?
  • Why?

Without thinking too much, answer each question.

For “Who?” you need to write down the names of your collaborators and everyone else who is working on your project. If you don’t have names, refer to them as what they will do. For example, you may not be able to say “Master’s Student Mary Smith”, so say “graduate student with a background in statistical analysis.” Especially when discussing students, most reviewers assume you will recruit the exact students you need if the grant is funded, so these notes about what you need the student to be experienced in is enough of an answer.

For “What?” you need to answer what those people are going to do over the course of the project. Again, you aren’t supposed to get into too much detail with this exercise, but someone needs to be in charge, so who is the person in charge? Each of your research partners were chosen for a reason, so what are these reasons? For example, that graduate student with a background in statistical analysis might be charged with running models based on the gathered data.

For “When?” I am playing with the definition. Obviously, the answer is usually “when I get the grant award to pay for it,” but there can be more to this. For example, is this the next step in a research project you have been doing for a while, so you have preliminary data from previous work that you need to discuss? Or does something need to happen before you can do your work? For example, does a NASA satellite need to be in a certain place before you can do anything, or does some large event need to begin or end? Also, what in your project needs to be done before the next pieces can start? To go back to the unnamed graduate student who will run models, obviously the data needs to be collected before any models can be made. This last question serves as a simple way to get your project timeline started.

Where?” seems like a simple question, but keep in mind that some research can only be done with specific equipment or a group of people, without which you are not going to be able to achieve your research goals. Even if your work could be done equally well in Dallas, Texas as it could anywhere else on the planet, you do need to know where your work is being done and that you have everything you need. In the case of projects with people in different locations, what work is going to be done at each location?

Finally, “Why?” is why are you doing this project? What is your motivation? What do you want to achieve? Why do you think your way will work? “Why?” is the most essential question and the hardest to answer. In other words, what are the goals of your project? Or, when you look back on the project after the grant period is over and you are discussing how successful the project was, what will you specifically point to as proof of its success?

By the time you have this completed, you will be well on your way to developing your grant plan. There still may be questions about areas of your project, but the number of answers should outweigh the number of questions.

[1] I am aware that “how” is usually included in this list. For the sake of this exercise, I am sticking with the Five W’s rather than the “Five W’s and one H” or “Six W’s.” However, if you desire a more complete outline, by all means, add the “how.”