3 Hacks to write a winning grant proposal

Here’s what’s important when writing applications for research funding.

Funding. That might be something that keeps you awake at night. In any case it will be something you (must) think about from time to time. Apart from supporting scientists to write high-impact papers, I also help with grant writing. Winning research funds is not an easy task for any scientist. For many big grants, the success rates are lower than twenty percent. The competition is fierce.

Regardless of which type of funding you are applying for – be it time for an experimental resource or a multi-year-grant feeding a whole group of researchers – you will need to convince the funder that they should give the money to you and not the other applicants. In other words, you need to demonstrate how you and your idea stand out.

Given you’ve got outstanding credentials and a brilliant research idea (sorry, can’t help with that), how do you write a convincing grant proposal? In my opinion, the essential point here is to communicate simply and clearly. And that’s not as easy as it sounds. All too often, we get caught up in the jargon of our field or can’t get the concepts existing in our head accurately on to paper so that someone else gets it.

Today I have three writing hacks for you that will help with this:


  1. Read and apply the guidelines

This seems so trivial that many grant writers don’t take it seriously enough. If you only want to do one thing to improve your grant proposal, get the page with the funding and evaluation criteria up and read it – every word, even anything in a ridiculously small font.  The great thing with this is: The funder tells you exactly what they are looking for in a project and applicant. Whatever specific rules and guidelines they state, follow all of them meticulously. You might be surprised by how many applicants waste this chance, so it’s an easy way to set yourself apart.

A little bonus tip: When appropriate use the exact language in your application that the funders used. In this way, you’re making the reviewer’s job easy because they don’t need to mull over whether your project is a perfect match for the call or not.  If they are looking for a “ground-breaking” research idea, use that word in your proposal. It is important, however, to not just leave empty words there. Make a case of why your anticipated results would be ground-breaking, why this is an important problem to look at etc.

2. Tell a story

As humans, we are wired to love stories. A story gets our attention more easily than a list of facts. We also get more invested in stories and remember them better. Story-telling helps when writing papers and it does help for writing grant proposals too. Believe me, it’s a terrific tool. As any good story, a good grant proposal should address the “What”, “Why”, “Where”, “Who”, “How” questions. All story elements that are important for writing papers, should also be used in a proposal. And when it comes to the one element that I think is most often overlooked in proposals, it’s the element of tension – as it is for papers.

I recommend to clearly highlight the problem that your proposed research will solve. For this, I advise to provide enough background for the reviewers to understand the problem, show what has been done by others and how that still doesn’t solve the (whole) problem. Whereas it is okay to mention a more general problem in the field in your introduction, key is to be specific about the problem that your research idea will solve.


3. Make your reviewer’s life easy

Most likely the reviewer of your proposal is an extremely busy person. Most likely, they are reviewing your paper on a train journey, a flight, or with a glass of wine last thing before going to bed. Most likely they are not exactly at the peak of their attention.

Therefore, it is crucial to make it as easy as possible for your reviewer. This applies to structuring your proposal in a clear way, thus making it easy for your reviewer to navigate your document. A story-telling approach, as discussed in point 2 will help you here. It does also help to repeat and summarise the most important messages at appropriate places.

Making things easy for your reviewer also means that your writing should be clear and simple. Don’t attempt to impress them with long sentences full of jargon. You might think that this demonstrates expertise, but it doesn’t. It’s going to work to your disadvantage. Because if your reviewer doesn’t get immediately what you’re writing, they are not going to waste any more time on your proposal and move on to the next one. Therefore, keep jargon to a minimum, clearly introduce and explain field-specific terminology and use those words consistently. Texts are generally easier to read when the sentences are shorter rather than longer, and if you use verbs instead of nouns when possible.  

Apart from adopting a clear structure and writing style, don’t forget the layout and design of your proposal. Check the application guidelines to see what is required and allowed. If you can, use spaces between sections, subsections and paragraphs. Then think about how you could use different colours, font sizes, and bold and italic fonts to structure your application and highlight any important bits.   

There you have it. These three tips will help you to write a grant proposal that stands out by writing in a simple and clear manner. Sometimes it can be hard to take a step back and to really get into the shoes of your reviewer. For this reason, it’s always a good idea to have a friend, colleague or mentor read your proposal before you submit it. If you would like some professional support with writing a proposal that tells a convincing and clear story, I can help. Contact me now to discuss what the best way would be to work on your proposal or check out the different packages I offer.

Good luck with your application!  


I’m Dr. Anna Clemens, a scientific editor and writing coach for scientists. I give workshops about scientific writing, offer strategy calls and edit papers and proposals. I’d love to work with you, please click here for more information.

I also regularly blog about scientific writing and write articles about science for magazines and websites. I hold a PhD in Chemistry/Materials Science.

When I’m not at my desk, I’m probably out and about with my dog and assistant Zuza.

I’d love to connect on Twitter (@scientistswrite) and Instagram (@scientistswhowrite)