Proposal Writing: It's Not Novel

tricia callahan

Written by Tricia Callahan

In creative writing, we are taught to avoid using the same words over and over and to not overtly state the moral of the story.  Adjectives become the lazy person’s way of writing and the main characters should have at least one flaw or weakness.  Good creative writers can break the rules. Creative writing is nuanced in the above ways, however none of these nuances apply to grant writing.

Grant writing (or proposal writing) is technical writing, and technical writers rely on clarity and accuracy to explain their objectives.  Definitions should be operationalized and acronyms explained.  Additionally, context matters.  A good proposal will explain not only the proposed project, but why it matters.

Unlike other forms of technical writing, proposal writing should tell a story.  Moreover, it should sell a story.  While a grant proposal is not a novel or an epic, there still needs to be a beginning, a middle, and an end.  Points made clearly in the proposal should be positioned against everything that will impact a reviewer’s decision.  Questions should be anticipated, and answered, in the context of the program’s intent, the reviewer’s criteria, and the scope of the work being proposed.

While a good proposal provides enough technical detail to assure reviewers of the investigator’s expertise, it avoids getting bogged down in technicalities and tells a compelling story.  Striking a balance between selling a story while providing technical details isn’t always easy.  It takes practice writing objectives, reading successful proposals, and feedback from colleagues and reviewers in order to do it well.

Below is a look at how to balance creative writing (i.e., storytelling) with more technical proposal writing in order to write a successful grant proposal.

Theme.  The theme of a grant proposal is a lot like character development in a creative piece.  In creative writing, it’s the main character who faces a conflict and as a result, grows or changes in some way.  In a proposal, the conflict is the problem or need to be addressed.  The problem must be placed in context and objectives that aim to address the problem must be provided.

When writing a proposal, we shouldn’t hope that our theme emerges for the reader.  Instead, we need to be very specific about the purpose of our proposal.  In fact, many well-written proposals begin with, “The purpose of this project is to…”  A well-written proposal will also clearly lay out the need for the proposed project as well as the objectives and the methodology used to meet the objectives.

Plot.  In creative writing, a plot’s structure may vary depending on the needs of the story. For example, in a mystery the author will withhold plot details until later in the story.  A proposal should NOT read like a mystery.  Instead, elements should be arranged in accordance with the sponsor’s guidelines and review criteria, and should clearly detail the steps (aka, methods or activities) that will be taken to address the “conflict” of the proposal.

Point of view.  While quality short stories and novels can be written from “first person” or “third person” perspectives, many grant sponsors recommend proposals be written only in third person.  “The PI will oversee…” or “Graduate students will conduct…”  Check the sponsor’s guidelines to see if there is a recommended writing style.  If not, be sure to read sample abstracts and proposals that have been funded by that sponsor.  Becoming familiar with, and writing in, a sponsor’s style shows that you know something about them.

Characters.  As for characters, the same applies for both creative and proposal writing: know your characters well.  In proposal writing it’s important to describe a character completely, whether they be the Principal Investigator or anyone else involved on the project.  For each senior or key person, their roles and responsibilities should be clearly outlined.  Included for each should be a biographical sketch that conforms to the sponsor’s guidelines.  Letting the sponsor know about the credentials of the people involved with the proposed project reassures the sponsor that the project objectives have a high probability of being be met.

Style and tone.  In creative writing, the style and tone “show” rather than “tell.”  Proposal writing, in contrast, is all about telling.  Tell the reader exactly what you plan to do, exactly how you plan to do it, including the setting — when and where — and what you hope to accomplish.

Avoid flowery language. Don’t pull out a thesaurus to express yourself in novel ways.  Instead, be clear and concise in your writing style. Use the same terms over and over and explain any acronyms or technical jargon that might be used in the field of study.  Avoid pronouns, like “she” and “it,” and use proper nouns instead.  For example write, “Dr. Shelley will examine revitalization of post-mortem tissue…”

Creative writing and proposal writing are similar in that the primary goal is to familiarize the reader with something, whether it be a story or a proposed project.  The difference is how styles and techniques are applied in each type of writing.  With both creative and proposal writing there is the additional goal of getting the reader invested in the story.  In proposal writing, clarity and accuracy come into play.  Balance all of this with context and the reason for writing, along with sponsor guidelines and norms, and you’ll have yourself an award winning proposal — literally!

Blog written by Tricia Callahan, Senior Research Education & Information Officer, Office of Sponsored Programs, Colorado State University