Proposal writing tips and best practices
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The New Faculty Guide to Competing for Research Funding
We offer all University affiliates access to an electronic version of the New Faculty Guide to Competing for Research Funding, a resource for those who are new to submitting proposals, and reference for those with more experience. Contact us for a PDF copy of the guide.
Our top 10 proposal writing best practices
Through our extensive experience in assisting with proposal writing and our lessons learned, the Research & Proposal Development Services team has collected some of the main tips for successful proposal writing.
Prewrite and refine your ideas
Consider a graphic that encapsulates your plans
Write a project overview and get feedback
Get good at tailoring a funding database
Cultivate your research support team
Assemble proposal writing tools
Manage reviewers’ natural skepticism
Understand Broader Impacts and cultivate partners
Know that proposal writing is often iterative
Be a continual student of the proposal writing process
Five steps for developing a competitive proposal
Step 1: Do Your Homework. The first step in applying for any funding opportunity is doing some critical initial research. A search of projects recently funded by the program will help you determine whether a project similar to yours has already been funded.
You can often access abstracts of recently funded projects on a funder’s webpage. Our team will help with this kind of background research, but ultimately, the researcher, as the subject matter expert, will want to read the abstracts to determine whether there is a fit between their research and the funder’s portfolio.
Step 2: Prewriting One of the most critical steps of proposal development is one that is also most often overlooked. A good proposal writing experience requires planning and prewriting. We often recommend that PIs begin by asking themselves critical questions that will help them shape, scope, and articulate the goals of the project. One of these sets of questions that may be useful is the Heilmeier Catechism. In answering these questions, you may find that there are aspects of the project that reviewers will want to understand that you haven’t thought about yet.
Step 3: Write the project overview. The next step we recommend is to use your prewriting exercise to create a one- to two-page project overview. This is like an executive summary that you may share with those in your support network to get initial feedback on the proposal concept. Colleagues, mentors, and your research development team are all good initial audiences for the project overview.
Eventually, you will want to share the project overview with the program officer or the opportunity manager of the funding opportunity you are considering. Getting feedback from this individual, if you are able, will be helpful in making sure the proposal is on target and a good fit for the opportunity.
Step 4: Contact the program manager. We recommend that you send an email to the program officer, briefly introducing yourself, attaching the project overview, and asking for a brief phone call to discuss the programmatic relevance of your proposal.
All program officers are different, and respond differently to these requests. Our advice is to be persistent, follow up, and perhaps try contacting more than one individual at a funding agency if you don’t get a response.
Of course, if you are able to have this conversation with a program officer, be sure to listen to the advice being offered. This is your opportunity to tweak your proposal to better fit the opportunity, or to find another opportunity that is a better fit, before you invest time and energy in writing a full proposal.
Step 5: Putting the pieces together. Once you have the technical and funder-specific feedback you need to be successful, it’s time to write the full proposal. We can provide suggested outlines and templates that are compliant with sponsor guidance and culture, and read and improve drafts of your narrative documents. Work with our Sponsored Projects and grant coordinator contacts to finalize and submit your proposal. For NSF and NIH grants, use the following guides to complete your proposal: