Writing for Reviewers

April 12, 2016

Grant proposal writing can be an intimating undertaking. You take a piece of your life’s work, attach a price tag to it, and send it to strangers to judge. But thinking about it that way negates the fact that you need money to do your life’s work, and those strangers have some to give. So rather than focus on the intimidation, let’s look at it as the opportunity it is and find a way to improve your chances of success!

One of the best ways I can think of to achieve this is to consider your reviewers. As they are judging your proposal (Let’s step away from the notion that they are judging you. They are not. They aren’t even judging your life’s work. They are judging the proposal you sent them and that is all.), you need to be thinking about them when you are writing. Since it is supremely unlikely you will ever know the names of your reviewers, you need to consider what you do know about them and how that influences your writing.

We have one fact to work with: they accepted the invitation to be on the review panel assigned your proposal.

Obvious? Yes. But there is a lot in there. So, let’s start.

They accepted the invitation.

While it may not be entirely fair to assume that people who accept this invitation also likely agree to many other commitments, it is the safe way to bet. So, let’s agree that your reviewers are overworked, stressed, and tired. But, they also are kind and helpful people who will honor their commitment.

Think about the things you like to read and don’t like to read when you, like your reviewers, are overworked, stressed, and tired. You probably like articles that get to the point. So, give them a proposal like that. Write as clearly as possible. Avoid jargon. Ask yourself if you can say something in fewer words or smaller/simpler words. Stay on target by providing only the details that focus on your project and the sponsor’s mission. As you write, think: “Is this too technical to read on an airplane?”

They are on the review panel.

Your reviewers agreed to review the proposals in your area. This means they are comfortable reading proposals in your field, but “in your field” and “your place within that field” are quite different.

This means two very important things:

  • They are unlikely to have the same technical awareness of your subject area as you do.
  • They are aware of the work in the field, so your background does not need to be all encompassing.

You ought to write as if you’re writing to a graduate student. There are terms you are going to need to define and concepts you are going to need to explain, but you can and should write more technically than you would if your target readers were the general public.

They are assigned to review your proposal

Your reviewers are reading your proposal because they were assigned to it. You need to help them get excited about your project and want to finish your proposal. So, take a moment and ask yourself, “What about this project is the most interesting?” and make sure you highlight it. Also, consider these tips for making your work more readable:

  • Hook your reader at the start of your proposal with:
    • A contrast or paradox about the project
    • A statistic that shows the magnitude of the situation
    • A question to engage the reader
  • Then as you write the rest of the proposal, remember to:
    • Use shorter sentences
    • Use active voice (we will achieve X) rather than passive voice (X will be achieved)
    • Not use more than one adjective before a noun

They will skim the proposal because they promised someone that they would. But do your part to ensure they enjoy reading your proposal. That will help you quite a bit when it is time for your proposal to be discussed. If they enjoyed reading it, reviewers will be more likely to want to fund your work!

As you write, remember your reviewers are only human, and give them something they will enjoy reading: a clever idea clearly and passionately presented.

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