Respect the work

Me, hard at work in a hotel room
'Jonathan at work' on Flickr

Recently, I had someone provide me with a project plan called something like “research-plan-v15.doc”. They had done 15 versions of their project plan. In that time, they had completed exactly zero versions of the rest of the application. As a result, the application almost didn’t go in.

When we talked, it became apparent that they were stuck trying to refine the research question and describing the associated parts of the core ideas of their project. I know exactly where they were coming from. In my own tiny applications, I have often lost focus on the rest of the project because I had become obsessed with just one part of the process.

Here are some ideas for making sure you get your application in on time, every time.

1. One complete draft

First of all, write one technically complete draft. Write it as quickly and efficiently as you can. Channel your inner grant-writing machine. Some of your references may be incomplete. Some of your finer details may be missing, but you have a draft that could, conceivably, be submitted to the funding agency.

A complete draft is a massively useful thing. You can distribute it to people who you trust: friends, family, colleagues, without having to say “It’s very rough – just an idea really…”

It will help you to work out what is weak. You will be forced to grapple with your budget, sort out a timeline, and be taken away from the ideas and into the practicalities, the nitty-gritty.

Most importantly, if you are abducted by aliens or your Vice-Chancellor needs you to work on a highly important project 24/7, you will still have something that you can submit. It won’t be your finest work and you might want to think carefully about whether it is better to hold off to the next round, but at least you will have the choice.

If you don’t have a full draft and life gets in the way, you have no choice: you will not be able to submit.

2. Write it again, and again

Be prepared to write your whole application, from scratch, three times. That’s a lot of writing. Most significant grants are 50–100 pages long, depending on how many people are listed on the front page. You might be asking for $200,000-$500,000 per year for three to five years. That’s a serious commitment.

It deserves time.

A colleague may point out a glaring hole in your methodology. The writing process itself may reveal better ways to undertake the project. Then, when you give it to someone like me, I may give you so much feedback that you may as well be rewriting from scratch.

You want to be able to fix these problems and take advantage of these opportunities. To do that, you may need to start again. Papering over the hole may not do it.

If you start out thinking that there is a good chance that you will write the whole thing three times, you will feel relieved if you don’t have to do that. If you think that you will get it right the first time, you will feel resentful if you do have to do a substantial rewrite.

3. Divide the tasks

Research applications are complex beasts. There are lots of rules about what can and can’t be included. There is a lot of information to be brought together, made coherent and rendered in the most readable form possible.

Most projects have two or more people listed on them. Generally, one primary author writes the bulk of the application, with the others contributing their information and advice as required. That means that the primary author is doing several different jobs – leading the intellectual development, rounding up all the required information,  then editing and formatting the final document.

There is no reason that all of these tasks need to be done by one person. For example, the work of chasing down the progress reports from past grant awards, which year each investigator gained their PhD, how much a hotel costs in Beijing for a month, and standardising the format of all the publication lists? These elements are not central to the project, but they are part of pulling together an eligible application. Generally, getting clarity on who’s doing what as early as possible works the best. That way, you and your colleagues know when to spend more time on conceptual development, make time to chase details, or cast your editing/proofing eyes over the penultimate application.

4. Boilerplate

I think that we have a lot to learn from commercial organisations that regularly submit tenders. Because they are constantly submitting tenders, they try to prepare standard responses that can be used for ever tender.

For example, they have a description of their company that has been approved by management, CVs in standard formats, and clear guidelines about how time and materials are costed in a budget. As far as possible, they make the process of drafting a tender as quick and painless as possible. That way, they can spend as much time as possible refining and strengthening the document.

By making sure that their colleagues have access to their CV, they can be included in a tender even if they are in the field, or on holidays. A quick phone call to discuss the concept with a trusted colleague will suffice in the first instance, then they don’t need to be consulted until they review the final document. Of course, it doesn’t always work out that way (most tenders are pulled together at the last minute, too), but we can still gain a lot from the idea.

5. Draft early, draft often

When people talk to me about their application, I ask them to send me something straight away. A one-pager, a detailed email, handwritten notes on a napkin, something, anything, please. Partly, this is so that I have a record of their expression of interest; mostly, it’s because I want them to start writing.

Getting a draft out early is a good idea for a couple of reasons. First of all, it is the best way to write. Secondly, it allows all the participants to get a clear idea of what their role in the project is. It helps to avoid the problem where someone says, late in the piece, “But surely I’m not doing all the data collection?”, or words to that effect.

This is particularly important if it turns out that there is a catastrophic problem with the funding application. By ‘catastrophic’ I mean a problem that will prevent the application going in, or result in it being immediately disqualified by the funding body. Most often this is an issue related to the budget – your project requires teaching release or a large piece of equipment or overseas travel, and the funding rules say that they won’t fund that. Sometimes it is an issue within your institution – only one application can be put forward from an institution, for example. Or it can be as fundamental as the funding agency not funding projects from your country or type of institution. Your local research whisperer can spot these things, but only if you give them a draft early on.  Reading the guidelines would also alert you to some of these issues, but we’ve saved that for another post.

Finding this out early on will save a lot of angst and heartache. Your grant will be better for it.

Smoothing out the writing process and giving it space to breathe allows you more quality time to concentrate on the most important bit: the ideas.


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