Reprint 2007: Why Academics Have a Hard Time Writing Good Grants Proposals.

Author:Porter, Robert
Position::Academic writing - Reprint


My technique for getting a paper published: Start by thinking of a jazzy title, one that will tempt readers to dive in. In the summer of 2006, "Why Academics Have a Hard Time Writing Good Grant Proposals" seemed jazzy enough, and it worked. The paper was inspired by a phone call from a senior scholar at Virginia Tech, well known in his field, who was quite put out when his grant proposal was declined. Sensing the need for a consultation, I asked him to bring me the proposal, together with reviewers' comments. He did, and when he plopped the papers on my desk, on top was the lead reviewer's evaluation summary, which began "Reads like a journal article." A light bulb went off.

I had known for some time that successful grant proposals had a different style and feel than scholarly articles in academic journals, but I never thought very clearly about exactly what made the two styles so different. As I started to focus on the subject, several contrasting qualities were immediately evident, and others fell in line as I worked through the first draft. The paper seemed to write itself, and it was actually fun to do the necessary revising and editing before shipping off the final product to compete in SRAI's 2006 Symposium competition. To my surprise and delight it took first place, and was published in the Journal of Research Administration's Fall 2007 edition.

Looking back ten years later, one has to ask, has much changed since then? The answer: Not much. If anything, proposal writers are under even greater pressure these days to express their research ideas in clear, concise and persuasive prose, in a style that meets the heightened expectations of today's reviewers. For more than a decade, I have travelled throughout the country conducting grant writing workshops based on ideas in the paper, ideas that have been well received by researchers in many universities.

More recently, with generous support from SRAI's International Fellowship program, I have delivered similar presentations at conferences of the Association of Research Managers and Administrators (ARMA) in the United Kingdom and the European Association of Research Managers and Administrators (EARMA), which meets annually in various locations on the continent. Though funding sources and reviewing procedures differ a great deal from country to country, I'm delighted to report that the headaches associated writing strong grant proposals appear to be universal.

So I'm honored to learn my paper has been selected for reprinting in SRAI's 50th anniversary edition. I sincerely hope it will continue to be of help to grant writers and research administrators alike.

Robert Porter, PhD Grant-Winners Seminars Knoxville TN 37920 Tel: (865) 577-4816 Email:


When they are new to the grant game, even scholars with fine publishing records can struggle with proposal writing. Many are surprised to find that the writing style that made them successful as academics is not well suited to crafting a winning proposal. To succeed at grant writing, most researchers need to learn a new set of writing skills.

Academic Writing

For purposes of this discussion "academic writing" is defined as that style commonly adopted for scholarly papers, essays, and journal articles. The following is a typical example:

Taken together with the findings from the present study that (a) workplace aggression in the primary job was more closely associated with negative work experiences and (b) both situational and individual characteristics played a role in aggression in the secondary job, future research might benefit from a greater focus on the subjective salience of the job as a moderator of the relationship between workplace experiences and supervisor-targeted aggression. Indeed, despite the differential effects of situational and individual difference factors on aggression, it is notable that the individual difference factors exerted a consistent but relatively low-level effect on aggression across contexts, whereas the more salient situational experiences exerted context-specific effects. (Inness, Barling, and Turner, 2005) Look at the Difference

To start, glance at the first pages in any sampling of winning grant proposals. The first thing you notice is that they look different from pages in typical academic journals. Sentences are shorter, with key phrases underlined or bolded to make them stand out. Lists are printed bullet style. Graphs, tables and drawings abound. Now read the pages more carefully. The writing is more energetic, direct and concise. The subject matter is easy to understand, as there are fewer highly technical terms. Each time you learn something about a subject entirely new to you. You are intrigued by exciting new ideas that have a good chance for success. In short, you quickly agree that the review panels made the right choices in funding these proposals.

The lesson here is a hard one for beginners: Success in grant writing is a matter of style and format as much as content. Make no mistake--the best written proposal will not win money for a weak idea. But it is also true that many good ideas are not funded because the proposal is poorly written (New & Quick, 1998; Steiner, 1988). Sometimes the failure is due to a weak or missing component that is key to a good proposal. The research plan may be flawed or incomplete. The evaluation methods might be inadequate. The researchers may not be qualified to carry out the work. But all too often, the core problem in a failed proposal lies in the writing itself, which bears too many characteristics of academic prose. (A baffled professor once came to my office bearing the written critiques he had received from reviewers of a failed proposal. One of them included this killer remark: "Reads like a journal article.")

Contrasting Perspectives

To understand the dimensions of the overall problem, consider...

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