In this article, we discuss the core of RDI (Research, Development & Innovation) activities, namely how to write winning grant proposals. We will provide concrete tips for both alleviating the process of writing and defining the central message of a proposal.
Anybody seen good quality grant proposals? Well, no wonder if you haven’t – they can be hard to achieve. However, they do exist in heaps and share some common features. In this article, we as grant writers, i.e. experts in writing especially proposals, share some thoughts and experiences on how to reach an adequate level of writing. And why is this important? Writing proposals is at the core of RDI activities leading to external funding of which higher education institutions (HEIs) depend on increasingly more and more. In other words, we need the money like do several others. As funding is limited, competition becomes constantly tighter combined with the development of funding instruments. Thus as requirements increase, so does the need for the quality and quantity of good writing. Makes sense – doesn’t it?
How to get there – the art of process writing
Let’s start with some basics. Firstly, there is no magic to good quality writing. It’s work, sometimes even a lot of work, simple as that. The good side of it is that it can be practised and it has a steep learning curve with growing experience. Taking your first steps into proposal writing or being a veteran, in Laurea you are in good hands, there is expert support available provided by RDI services. We offer help for all phases of proposal preparation, writing included, naturally.
To get started, write. Anything. Words, titles, bullet points, sentences. Start with the easy or attractive sections or either mechanically from the start. Because words lead to words, usually, but not always. If writer’s block rears its head, stop, or continue with another section. Let the brain do what it is good at –processing. Then come back to your text and letters might fall into place. This takes us to the most important resource of good quality writing by far, time. If you are lucky, you have plenty of it but unfortunately quite rarely this is the situation in real life. Then it is about pushing yourself, concentration and typing. Also, in this case you will make it and reach the deadline. (See also Honkonen 2021, and its list of references.)
In a nutshell, the art of good proposals lies in process writing in which time is the key, again. In process writing, text originates through interphases of editing and elaborating. The winning idea and expression develop gradually so time is needed for structure and clarity. Reading background material and thinking are important parts in allowing reflection of your text both internally and externally. The latter refers to getting comments to your text from someone else. In general, they are useful as such and at least they might give you new insight. Central features of process writing are flexibility and individuality referring to each writing process being unique applying especially well to writing proposals.
In process writing, you might not proceed systematically from the beginning to the end but the following four phases can be identified (see also Servo 2019). If you are lucky, you might even have time to go all of them through.
- Contemplate and write down notes (information, experiences etc.) on your topic using different techniques, e.g. mind maps, brainstorming.
- Explore the topic. Gather background material extensively from different sources.
- Start writing, structure the text and create a frame.
- In the first draft, concentrate on documenting the contents without focusing on language.
- Ask for feedback on your text and/or read it critically. The meaning of feedback is not to criticize but to offer fresh angles and ideas as well as to show how the text appeals to the reader.
- Define your topic all the way and make distinctions between relevant contents and irrelevant details.
- Elaborate the structure according to aim and core content.
- Deepen your topic, utilize your sources and clarify the order of your text if it not defined by the proposal requirements.
- Go through the structure of sentences and paragraphs.
- Concentrate on the beginning and the end. The beginning raises interest and the end is to be remembered.
4. Finalizing and publishing/submitting
- In proofreading, go through the entirety of the text and wording
- Make sure the layout is neat
- Once you have made it this far, it is time to let go of the text. Just push “Send” or “Submit” and wish for the best.
What to reach for – the importance of impact
In all forms of writing, the most important thing is defining your central message. In the context of writing grant proposals that message amounts to your ‘winning argument’, i.e. reasons that irrefutably show that your project should be funded. This is also related to the art of ‘pitching’ or being able to summarize your project in a few sentences. Even better if you are able to formulate the central idea just in one sentence. You are in a competition for funding after all, and if it is too difficult to apprehend what you are up to, your proposal faces the dreaded phrase, ‘no funding’. All roads lead to Rome, and in a grant proposal all lines lead to home. Every sentence, every paragraph and every section should strengthen and justify your central idea, thus building up your case with a convincing story or narrative. Defining the crux of a proposal is almost never easy, since it should be so convincing, satisfying, and ground-breaking that any person reading the proposal would think in awe “This project is a killer – it must be funded!”. Again, the key for clarity is writing and rewriting until you arrive at Rome, the perfect summarisation of the project.
A particularly useful writing tool for capturing the essence of a project is the NABC model (Innovation English 2021) that basically asks you to define the need (‘N’) for the project, your chosen approach (‘A’) for answering the need, and the benefits (‘B’) of your solution over competing alternatives (‘C’). There are not any definitive or authoritative version of the NABC model, and the one below is our development of the concept (see also Talvinen 2020, Ch. 4). It is a tool purported to help you in formulating the central idea of your project, and it can also be effectively utilized in composing the abstract or the first paragraphs of the proposal, giving the reader a concise overview of the project and its relevance. The various aspects spelled out in the model are crucial for the reason that reviewers and funding decision makers are always asking these very same questions when reading grant proposals: Why is the project needed in the first place? Is the alleged solution plausible and better than potential alternatives in the business? Does the project team have all the needed competences and resources for proving the solution within the asked budget and time frame?
Why / need. Justify why the project is needed and what is the problem to be solved. Explain also why the project should be carried out right now, for topicality is an important part of the project’s relevance. State briefly why you or your group are the best option for solving the problem.
How / approach. Your chosen approach for solving the problem. Often this can be just briefly described, for the rest of the proposal explicates how the RDI work is actually carried out.
Benefits. Present the major outcomes the project generates. Also describe the main beneficiaries of the project. Many funding bodies expect you to describe the overall impact in the proposal, and potential future beneficiaries can be stated too. It strengthens the expected impact of the project, if you are able to delineate how the project can have other positive effects or impacts in the future, besides the main beneficiaries.
Competition. Other grant proposals in a funding call are your strict competitors, and you should think about what makes your project special and worth funding. You should ensure that the project perfectly addresses the objectives of the call and is also otherwise concordant with the funding agency’s strategic priorities. In other words, find out what kind of impact they are expecting from RDI projects. This is a competition in which rules are published in call texts and evaluation criteria defined in review forms.
Team and resources. You have to show that the project team has all the required competences, collaborators, networks, and infrastructure for successfully conducting the RDI work and reaching the set objectives and impact.
Hopefully, with these tips you have a hunch of how to get to good quality writing. And if you don’t make it, don’t take it personally and keep trying. You gave it your best shot, perhaps in the dark, and that’s enough. At the end, there are a zillion things affecting the final success of your proposal and they are not in your hands. Writing is.