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A bad day for the angel on my shoulder: Practical advice for grant writing from the #devbiolwriteclub and #devbiolgrantclub

Posted by , on 11 July 2021

Hello!  Welcome back to the #devbiolwriteclub!  Over the last year or so, I’ve harangued you on Twitter and on The Node about practicing the craft of writing.  I’ve ignored any practical advice on what you should actually put on a page and instead I have focused on how to build the habits of mind that allow you to grow as a writer.  Yesterday, I launched a new Twitter project called #devbiolgrantclub, where I’ll be offering random bits of grantsmithing advice.  Today, I’ll present a “crossover episode” of the two projects. 

As academic scientists, we all know that we must master two types of writing: papers and grants.  But I don’t think enough people really grasp the fact that the two represent entirely distinct disciplines within scientific writing.  In fact, the best way to write a grant is totally, totally different from the best way to write a paper. 

Ask anyone in my lab, and they’ll tell you that I love papers like druids love trees.  Writing papers is one my life’s greatest joys. It’s also the ultimate goal of science, which is why papers are the hard currency of our field.  In fact, call me sentimental, but I see something noble in our endeavor to elegantly reveal to the world the new knowledge that we have discovered.

Just the same, doing this noble work while simultaneously contemplating my next grant proposal brings to mind a great Melvern Taylor song, from which I borrowed this post’s title.  That angel is perched there on your shoulder, egging you on as you do the good work of science.  But let me tell you, successful grant writing absolutely requires that you ignore that angel and listen very carefully to the devil on your other shoulder.

The best grant writing advice I ever heard came from a clinician from UT, San Antonio at a grant writing workshop I attended when I was in Berkeley as a postdoc.  Between solid practical advice and a riotously funny story about tequila and a big stack of grants to review, he said this:

“Listen.  You don’t have to be proud of what you wrote.  You have to get the money.”

Think about that.  Let it sink in.  It’s harsh, for sure.  It may even be antithetical to how we see ourselves as academic writers.  But it’s the ultimate truth of grant writing.   You don’t have to be proud of what you wrote.  You just have to get the money. 

Now let me be clear:  I am not talking about being sleezy or self-aggrandizing, and I’m definitely not talking about making stuff up.  Rather, I am simply proposing that you be intentional about grant writing by ignoring what you want, learning exactly what your audience needs, and providing exactly that.

To understand what I mean, consider this:  Every once in a while, I find myself with a totally free afternoon.  So, what do I do?  I go get a cup of coffee, sit somewhere pleasant, and read papers.  Maybe I grab a few from the stack on my desk, maybe I hit Pubmed to look for something new, or maybe I click a link on Twitter.  It’s a joy.

On the other hand, no one in the history of science ever said to themselves: “Gee, I’d really like to read and carefully review ten randomly assigned grants in my free time today.”  This gives us the First Principle of grant writing:

1.  Assume your readers do NOT want to read your grant. 

This is possibly the biggest concept that grant writers fail to grasp.  When you write a paper, you can reasonably assume that whoever reads it wants to read it.  They very likely share your interest in the subject.  You might even say they want to know how the story ends.  Thus, they are actually quite likely to overlook a confusing paragraph, or power through a difficult passage.  At the very least, they’ll give it a read and likely learn something. 

But your reviewer did not choose to read your grant.  Your reviewer was assigned your grant by a grant officer.  The cynical (and effective) grant writer therefore assumes that the reviewer does not care how the story ends, but does know exactly when it will end:  When the review is written and submitted to that grant officer.  

Presented with this hard fact, you might feel compelled to try to write the grant in such way as to MAKE the reviewer want to read the grant.  Don’t.  It’s too risky.  There are just too many variables.  (E.g., Sorry, you cannot ever make me want to read a grant about… well, lots of things, but I won’t name them.)   

On the other hand, there is one thing that will make all reviewers happy, and that is making the grant EASY for the reviewer to read and absorb.  More thoughts on how to do this later, but for now, let me drive home why this strategy works by presenting the Second Principle of grant writing:

2.  Accept that your readers MUST compare your grant to other grants, mentally ranking them in real time. 

This is another critical distinction between grants and papers that people usually don’t consider when writing.  If I am doing my work as a scientist, I am judging the quality of every single paper.  Am I convinced by the data?  Do I care about the conclusions?  Just the same, I am not sitting there thinking hard about whether your paper is better or worse than the last one I read.  And I am absolutely not trying to mentally rank the last ten papers I read.  On the other hand, if I am reading your grant, this is exactly what I am doing. 

This simple fact creates a very different workflow for grant readers, as compared to paper readers.  The grant reader won’t just start reading ten grants in the order they were assigned.  Instead, most reviewers will at least glance through the grants they are assigned, but then will pretty quickly decide which ones to read first – or last.  So, in very short order, a mental ranking of some sort is already starting to emerge.  This bears directly on our work as grant writers. 

Here’s another thought exercise.  You are a reviewer with a stack of nine grants.  Two are in your specific sub-field and are asking questions that you find interesting.  One grant has the minimum-allowed 0.5-inch margins, long paragraphs taking up nearly half a page, no white space breaking up the text, tables filled with huge amounts of data in small fonts, and no color anywhere.  The other grant has larger margins and bullet points and colorful diagrams to summarize key points; these are well separated by white space from the main text, and that text is presented in short, easy-to-digest paragraphs.  This second grant stops several inches short of the bottom of that last page.  Tell me, which of those two grants -that you have to read today- will you choose to read first?

This brings us to the Third Principle.

3.  Help your readers; they have to WRITE a careful review of your grant, AND ALSO several other grants.

This is the last major distinction between paper and grant readers. When I am reading a paper, I may or may not need to write about it, but if I do, I will usually end up doing so in a pretty indirect way.  I’m very unlikely to do that writing the same day I read the paper.  But consider the beleaguered grant reviewer.  Just a few weeks to read an entire stack of grants, choose which ones are better and worse, and write reviews for all of them, justifying their decisions. 

So, as a writer, this is where I am least proud of my grant writing:  In my quest to make my grants easy for Reviewers, I consider that there are sections of NIH grant review forms titled Significance and Innovation.  So, my grants include prominent, underlined sentences that read: “This grant is significant because…” or “This grant is innovative because…”.  It’s clunky, unsubtle language, and I hate it.  I hate bullet points, too.  I also despise witless diagrams that I know are oversimplified.  But if I provide these things, and do so with care and intent, it will help me get the money.

So those are three Principles to keep in mind when writing grants.  Next, let’s see how they relate to the Rules of #devbiolwriteclub.

Rules #1 and #2 tell us to do the work.  Make grant writing a specific craft you practice with intent throughout your career, not just this thing you need to do when you’re out of money.   

Rule #3 tells us to revise and edit, again and again.  When you are doing this, though, keep the Principles foremost in your mind.  Revise and edit to make the grant EASIER to read, EASIER to rank, and EASIER to review.

Rule #4 tells us to read with intent.  So, read grants with intent.  Ask you PI and your peers for grants they wrote.  Read the ones that got funded, but also read the ones that DID NOT get funded.  Read the reviews!  Here’s an idea I just came up with:  Instead of journal club, have grant reviews club.  Read a grant and the reviews together as a group.  Try to figure it out.

Rule #5 says you can’t do it alone.  So, when you beg your friends to read your grant, don’t ask them if they found typos.  Ask them if it was easy to read.  Also, recall that grants are assigned to reviewers, frequently outside their core area.  So, ask people WHO ARE NOT IN YOUR lab to read your grants. 

Finally, leave waxing lyrical and fighting the good fight for your papers. 

Write grants with a singularity of purpose: Get the Money.

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2 thoughts on “A bad day for the angel on my shoulder: Practical advice for grant writing from the #devbiolwriteclub and #devbiolgrantclub”

  1. Awesome! Straight to the point and very pragmatic. Assuming that the reviewer is cranky and short of time is quite close to the truth. Also, some grants could profit from including graphical abstracts or workflow schematics to sum it up. A good picture could add more than words.

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