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Writing the Proposal

There is no magic answer, or single way to approach writing a grant application. Obtaining externally sponsored research calls for innovative, creative, and intellectual research as well as an understanding of the technical aspects of grant writing, and the capability of searching for funding opportunities. You need to start by knowing your goals, and understanding a particular funder's priorities. Then, your task is to write a clear and compelling request - in your own voice - something that is well thought through, and that has clear significance. You are likely to find preliminary grant writing steps to be the most time consuming, but if done well, will simplify the process. If you get stuck, please do not hesitate to contact the Office of Research Support for assistance. Below you will find tips to help you write a more effective proposal.

Strategies

In the planning stage of your proposal you will want to consider your strategy. There is no one strategy for writing proposals, no all-in-one format. It is up to to each individual to develop a rhetorical strategy for a given funding opportunity. You need to understand how various strategies can be applied to the development of the proposal. Think about who your audience is and how, by choice of style and content, you may influence how that audience will interpret your proposal. While there are several approaches, one of the most flexible approaches is to consider the following four issues when starting to formulate your proposal:

  • Subject: What is my proposal about? What is it not about?
  • Purpose: What is the goal of the proposed work?
  • Readers: Who will be the primary readers of my proposal? Are there secondary readers?
  • Context: Where will my proposal be read (e.g., in a committee setting or by individuals, or both), and how may that shape the reading?

Answering these questions when preparing to write the proposal will help you write a more effective, solid proposal.

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Project Plan

A key to the development of successful research proposals is to understand the program priorities for funding entities that you approach. Background research on the organization's stated objectives, strategic plan, or funding priorities are important in matching your research focus with that of your sponsor.

Once a funding opportunity is located it is critical to make contact with the program officer listed as the point of contact on the request for proposals (RFP). The program officer will listen to your project and offer advice on moving forward with your project, or make suggestions as to other opportunities better suited for your project.

When laying out your project it is important to focus on the creation of something innovative, or something that does not currently exist. This can be exciting and frustrating at the same time because your objectives may change as your proposal moves forward. Determine the broad project goals, and then identify the specific objectives that define how you will focus the work to accomplish those goals. This is a good time to revisit the request for proposals against your original objectives and review your prior communication with the program officer. It is a good rule of thumb to merge together your objectives with the sponsor's objectives to insure they are getting what they asked for.

The sponsor is looking for something different and unique, but at the same time something that has tangible deliverables. Mapping out your top ranked objectives, identifying a possible solution to the problem, and reviewing your top ranked objectives against the goal of the sponsor will make the proposal writing process flow more smoothly.

Decide who will the beneficiary of your work. It is attractive if the project extends beyond the direct beneficiary; in fact, for some funding agencies, "Broader Impacts" is a critical review component. Demonstrating the inclusion of the audience, other institutions, more efficient employees, better relations with the community, etc., will work to your advantage.

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Research Methodology

The research methodology section is probably the most scrutinized of the proposal, because the validity of the results are dependent on a sound, well-designed research methodology. This section should not only describe the procedure, but explain to your readers why your approach is appropriate for your subject. It is very import your methodology answers the questions how and why the subject will be studied, why you chose to do it in this particular way, and cover all aspects of the process in precise detail.

A methodology should define the subject that will be studied and the conditions under which they will be studied. It is critical to provide a detailed description of the process that will be used to study the subject. Ideally, the description should be thorough enough so that other researches could replicate the study. If you are using methodology adapted from other studies, you should carefully describe and cite them. The reviewers will review your methods closely to determine whether they feel they will yield useful, valid results.

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Organization

This section will address some of the issues associated with general organization associated with writing a proposal, not with the proposal itself. Individuals who have written proposals before are aware of the typical obstacles and barriers that a proposal writer will encounter during the proposal writing process. Given most proposals are written under the pressure of deadlines (which are almost always too short), organization of the process is critical.

Proposals are often written by more than one individual. If the proposal is written by a collaborative group comprising different institutions, there more than likely will be one grants administrator from the lead institution and one or more from the other participating institutions. These individuals will work with the faculty members, and each other, in order to submit the proposal by the deadline. If the proposal is written by only one individual, the faculty member, the department chair, a grants coordinator in the Office of Research Support , and the Office of Sponsored Programs at the faculty member's institution will be involved with the process. However, regardless of the arrangement, there is usually one main writer. This individual is often referred to as the principal investigator, and it is this individual that pulls everything together into one style. This individual also works with the Office of Research Support to ensure that all the additional materials are compiled and included into the proposal package as per the funder's requirements.

It is worth the time to find someone to act as an editor for the proposal. This may be someone who is familiar with the project, but should be someone with established editorial skills. The Office of Research Support is available to assist in this area and will help to ensure that the main ideas in the proposal are clearly stated, and the proposal flows in a consistent manner. The proposal preparation timeline should incorporate time to allow for edits and revisions to ensure a flawless proposal.

Each proposal must be approved internally at the college and university level prior to submission. One must be knowledgeable of these other channels though which a grant application must go before being ready for the final submission to the funding agency. This internal review typically takes one week at Clemson University. This internal review requires that all documents be finalized in the package that is routed through all channels; in general, incomplete proposals will not be granted final approval in this internal review. The grants coordinator can advise and assist in this area.

Many of the proposals that are funded are resubmissions that were denied the first, and possibly the second time. This is not to discourage anyone from the process, but to offer a perspective of the reality of the proposal process. Don't be afraid to resubmit. Proposal submissions are highly competitive, and it is important to not take rejection personally. Each time you submit you learn something new to improve the next submission. Understanding this resubmission process as part of the process in order to receive external research funding will work to your advantage in making modifications to your proposal, and learning from prior oversights. Eventually you will get funded and you will begin to develop a relationship with various sponsors who will continue to fund you and rely on your good work in the future. It just takes a little time to get going.

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Style and Design

One challenge for many faculty members who are novice grant writers is the fact that research grants are more expansive than any one academic discipline. Proposal writing is a separate genre, with an audience comprised of various readers possibly from multiple disciplines. It is expected that you use professional terminology, but use it in a way that it can be understood from individuals from multiple disciplines. It is not recommended that the writer use arcane professional jargon, as it interferes with the reader's overall understanding of the proposal. Successful grantsmanship requires the ability to articulate the weight and implication of your work in a broader context than the fine-tuned academic tone for a particular stream of academic discourse.

Keep in mind that the readers have numerous proposals to read, and they are likely looking for proposals to discard. Reviewers usually read through a proposal by skimming some sections and paying closer attention to sections that directly reflect their interest. The challenge for the writer is to design the proposal so the reviews can choose how they want to read the proposal and access and process the text at different levels, yet be able to understand the objectives and evaluate the methodology. Eventually, the reviewers may read the entire proposal if it is chosen as a finalist for funding.

The proposal must be free of grammatical and spelling errors. The document should be visually pleasing, with headers and typeface consistent throughout. Tables, graphs, charts, and illustrations can enhance the proposal if used properly. Avoid using shading or color graphs that do not copy well. This will only distract from your proposal.

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Final Touches

Keep in mind that the difference between an awarded proposal and a runner-up was the added time put into revising the final document. With the deadline rapidly approaching, it is tempting to cut revision time to a minimum. Although you are tired and ready to ship off your proposal, you should set aside a block of time for revising and polishing. If possible, have someone not associated with the project look over the proposal in order to gain a fresh perspective. Remember that the reviewers often skim the proposal and they will catch the mislabeled tables, inconsistent fonts, and sloppy design. Spending a little extra time on the final touches will pay off in the end.

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Parts of the Proposal

Title (or Cover) Page: Most sponsoring agencies specify the format for this page. Generally, the PI and an official representing Clemson University (VP for Research or designee) sign the title page. A good title should be comprehensive, but brief.

Abstract: Most full proposals should have an abstract. This should give a quick overview of the proposal and is generally around 200 words in length. The main objectives of the project and the procedures in meeting these objectives should be part of the abstract. The abstract speaks for the proposal when the two parts are separated.

Table of Contents: Brief proposals (fewer than ten pages) typically do not need a table of contents. If it is needed, all major parts should be listed.

Introduction: The introduction of a proposal should begin with a statement of what is being proposed and then introduce the subject. Do not assume the reader is familiar with the subject. State very specifically the importance of the research.

Background: This section may not be necessary if the proposal is relatively simple and if the introduction can present the relevant background in a few sentences.

Description of Proposed Research/Methodology/Approach: This section is the heart of the proposal and is the primary concern of the technical reviewers. You must convince the reviewers that your research design is appropriate for the project you are proposing.

Be realistic in designing the program of work in terms of scope relative to the proposed time. Don't propose that you can do three years of work in one.

  • If the first year must be spent developing an analytical method or laying the groundwork, refer to this as phase 1.
  • Be explicit about any assumptions or hypotheses the research method rests upon.
  • Be clear about the focus of the research.
  • Be as detailed as possible about the schedule of the proposed work.
  • Be specific about the means of evaluating the data or the conclusions.
  • Be certain that the connection between the research objectives and the research method is evident.

Qualifications: The purpose of the Qualifications section is to demonstrate that you and your team have the experience, expertise, and facilities to carry out the proposed research plan. This section should demonstrate you are uniquely qualified to carry out this research. This is the ideal place to show the special qualities that set you and your team apart from the competition. Do not assume that the reviewers will make the connection from your CV.

Description of Relevant Institutional Resources: This section details the resources available to the proposed project and why the sponsor should wish to choose this university and this investigator for this particular research.

List of References: Most sponsors require a reference section. If a list is used, it is placed at the end of the text before the budget; however, refer to the sponsor guidelines for style and placement.

Budget: Sponsors usually specify the format for the budget and what costs are allowable. This may require not only the line budget but also include a summary and explanation (detailed budget narrative). More information on the budget section can be found in the budget development section of this guide.

Personnel Section: A curriculum vitae or biographical data sheet for each of the main contributors should be included. Most funding agencies limit this section to two pages per investigator.

Appendix: Sponsors usually specify any appendix or miscellaneous documents that are required for the proposal. Supporting materials are often arranged in an appendix. These materials may be exhibit tables, charts, endorsements of the project and the application, and consulting or subcontractural agreements. Depending on the funding agency's guidelines, appendices may or may not count toward maximum page limits.

Policies about the inclusion of supporting materials differ widely among funders. Find out if supporting materials are desired or even allowed. Be prepared to invest the time to collect resources, update a resume, collect letters, and include reference reports or whatever is needed.

Authorized signature: Authorized signatures are required. A Proposal Processing Form is routed through the department and college, and is submitted for the final authorized signature for Clemson University by the Office of Sponsored Programs. Please be sure to allow the time for the Office of Research Support to obtain that signature prior to submission. The review process typically takes one week (minimum).

Specifications: It is advised to tailor your proposal to the specifications found in the guidelines of the funding agency you are applying to. Follow the format instructions including designation of sections and sub-sections as indicated in the submission guidelines. Include only the number of pages allowed. Are there margin and font requirements? Is a cover page required? Are there electronic forms to fill out? Most agencies require electronic submission of the application through standardized electronic grants management software. These applications require considerable time to complete. Please consult with the Office of Research Support early in the process in order to download the necessary documents. The Office of Research Support is available to assist with the entire process of planning, writing, and submitting a proposal. Consider the following aspects of the process at the onset:

  • agency guidelines,
  • deadlines,
  • budget formation,
  • human subjects review,
  • potential conflicts of interest,
  • off-campus work,
  • subcontracting,
  • space needs,
  • consultants,
  • equipment needs/purchases,
  • cost-sharing, and
  • other matters that may need to be resolved.

Submission: The Office of Sponsored Programs will submit your proposal to the funding agency on behalf of Clemson University after the Office of Research Support has approved it. Signature, review, and final process typically take one week to complete. Please allow sufficient time when preparing your proposal for this process.

Additional proposal writing resources are located in the Research resources section of this guide.

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