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What it's like to be a grant reviewer (and how to make your reviewer's life better)

As you develop your next grant, I'd like to ask you one thing: have you really considered what it's like to be your grant reviewer?

Most grant writers don't give that nearly enough thought. They write as if they're submitting their proposal to some big, anonymous "machine" at the other end that simply sorts, collates, and ranks proposals.  But it is not a machine. There are real humans involved, and what you say, how you say it, and how you present yourself have a lot to do with how you make those humans feel.

How you make your readers feel has a lot to do with whether they're going to support your grant or not.

Yeah, I know, we academics aren't supposed to talk about feelings. That sounds woo-woo and touchy-feely.  It's not proper.

That is why most writers overlook this most basic of human phenomena, which drives nearly all of our day-to-day decisions… decisions that include whether to support your grant … or not! Yes, feelings….

Let's talk about what it feels like to be a reviewer.

After your job is done, your reviewer's job just begins. Your reviewer must slog through a whole big pile of grants (including yours), and pick out the one or two gems to fight for at study section or review panel meeting.

The one they pick is, ultimately, just a "gestalt" or a "feeling" about which one is most interesting, exciting, and compelling (versus those that are not). You have to make it easy on them to get this gestalt, without putting a whole bunch of barriers in their way.

That's what most people do. By writing a deadly serious, overly fact-ridden proposal, you put up barriers between your proposal and your reviewer. The more barriers, the more likely it is that you'll push the reviewer in the opposite direction of thinking yours is the most compelling proposal.

A fantastic proposal is transparent. What do I mean by that?

I mean that the writing doesn't get in the way of the story.

Think about a great movie or a great novel. When you encounter one of those, the fact that you're in a movie theater, or sitting with a book in your hands, becomes irrelevant. It becomes a personal interaction between you and the characters in the story. You feel that you're immersed in it.

The medium becomes transparent.

It's the same way with a great proposal. While only a few, rare grant writers can achieve this, when they do, the results are phenomenal. Especially when that kind of transparency is mixed with a great project.

How can you do this? Well, I've spent years teaching people like you how to do this, using every way I know how. I can only scratch the surface here, with some key pointers and reminders.

First, remember that your reader doesn't care about all the little details you feel compelled to put into your proposal. Why are you giving them all of those facts?

Usually, it's to prove that you know what you're doing.Your reader doesn't care about most of those details. She only cares about a few questions: Is the project interesting? Is it relevant? Is it feasible? Are you capable? Is it more interesting that the other proposals in the pile?

No amount of fact spewing is going to make up for a missing or poorly explained "why is this proposal interesting and important?" No amount of "proof" is going to convince them that your proposal is more interesting than others in their stack.

Worse, too much fact, acronym, and buzzword spewing is going to have the opposite effect of that which you want. All that does is serve to make your message more opaque. When your message becomes more opaque, your score sinks.

It really is that simple.

Yet, time and again, that's what I see people doing. I see "top-heavy" proposals where the writer feels that they need to jump right into the nitty-gritty details of the project, long before they've got the reader on board about "why is this interesting?"

So, you might say, how can I be more transparent? Here are some quick pointers to achieving this.

  1. Simplify your writing. Seriously! Your writing should be much like a conversation with a colleague in the hall, whom you're telling about your work. Or better yet, it should be like a conversation with a scientifically literate layperson who knows little about the topic. If you load her down with buzzwords right off the bat, you loose her. Just like you'll loose many of your time-pressured, overworked reviewers when you do that.

  2. Tell a story – the story of this project you're proposing. Every good proposal is a story. Really, I'm not kidding about that. When I introduce the concept, so many academics resist. "My research isn't a story, it's about facts, figures, and data! It's cold, hard, and rational!" Nope. Just ask yourself: why am I doing the specific project that I'm doing? There's always some kind of story behind that.

    Usually stories refer back to common beliefs, like about what's interesting and what's important. You have a story (whether you admit it or not), and your proposal has a story (whether you fathom it or not). Your job is to figure out what that story is, then to bring it out for all to clearly see. If you're not focusing in your writing on "what is the story I'm telling" then you're missing the greatest opportunity to write a compelling proposal.

  3. Don't use words like exciting, novel, compelling, fantastic, innovative, etc. These words are just triggers for reviewer resistance. A reader doesn't want you to tell her something is highly novel - she wants to figure that out for herself. We humans always believe our own conclusions more than we believe conclusions someone is telling us to make.

    So, if someone tells me something is "novel" long before I'm ready to conclude that on my own, then I actually put up a defense that says: "someone is trying to sell me an idea here, and I'm going to resist it!" All of my proposals were innovative for their time, but I rarely, if ever, used that word in the text itself. I didn't need to. I let the ideas show that I was being innovative.

    Now that I've scared you about these words, I'm going to soften the dictum a bit. You can use these words occasionally, but only once you have already shown the reader that these things are true. If you use them sparingly after the reader has already come to this conclusion, then they can reinforce the conclusions that reader has already come to. Timing is everything.

    Speaking of timing, I recently attempted to tell a joke at a talk that I gave at a big science conference. However, I felt very time-pressured due to the short time and lots to cover. So I told the punchline way too quickly, and got nary a laugh. A wise person in my lab came up afterwards and told me, "you have to give it time to breathe before you rush in with the punchline."

  4. The same is so true for your project. Most grant writers are like I was with that joke. They're in a hurry to "get to the punchline," i.e. to reveal the details of the project, long before the reader is ready.

    The reader needs time to consider the questions: why is this relevant, important, and exciting? If they haven't come to positive conclusions on those questions, do you think they want to hear about all the details of what you're doing? Of course not. Give your "why" time to breathe. That means spending sufficient time and space on it so that the reviewer has already concluded on her own that she wants to find out about more details.

    A recent comment on my one of my blogs says it all. The person said "I'd never considered spending 1-2 pages on the Significance section of my NIH proposal." Really?!?!? Then you're rushing in with the punchline way too fast. Take the reader on a journey that leads them through the Whys, Whats, Whos, and then Hows of your project! A how without a why is never going to excite anyone.

  5. Make sure you have a good set of compelling figures, sprinkled throughout. Many people skip this step. Big blocks of dense text are aggravating to a tired reviewer, whereas a simple, compelling figure is a breath of fresh air. A good figure can give an overview of your project that words can't. A good figure can illustrate a difficult concept that would be hard to grasp otherwise.

    All of my successful proposals were loaded with figures. I spent a lot of time on those, because they are important. They make your proposal look better and seem more professional. Seriously, if you don't have a good figure at least every two pages, then you are missing out on a lot of great opportunities to impress.
Beyond the issue of clarity, I just want to hit on the sleep thing for a moment.

It is tempting to miss lots of sleep as you come up on a grant deadline. Realize that if you get too far into sleep deficiency, you're going to start moving backwards. You cannot think nor write clearly after you've missed too much sleep for a few nights in a row. You'll make mistakes, and you'll work more slowly. Just don't do it. Instead, make sleep a priority, and exclude other activities - especially those that can wait until after you write and submit a great grant. Sleep will not wait for that.

I wish you all the best of success with your next grant proposal! 

By Morgan Giddings, PhD


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