The Complete Writing Guide to NIH Behavioral Science Grants provides simple and clear explanations into the reasons that some grants get funded, and a step-by-step guide to writing those grants. This volume is edited by Lawrence M. Scheier, President of LARS Research Institute, Inc., and an Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry in the School of Medicine at Washington Univeristy, and William L. Dewey, a Professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology in the School of Medicine and former Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. In the excerpt below some grant writing essentials are explained.
There are a few tried and true methods that will help you learn scholarship along the way. People working at think tanks or nonprofit groups can hire outside consultants with extensive grant-writing expertise, using this as an avenue to model writing skills. Individuals residing at academic centers can seek consultation from faculty with well-funded laboratories regardless of their substantive focus (good writing is good writing whether in chemistry or in anthropology). Something else to consider is making oneself available as a reviewer. In other words, let your parent institute become aware that you are willing to review grants or serve on committees in any capacity. This will enable you to learn first hand and gain precious insight into the machinations of how committees review grants and what criteria help applications get over the hurdle or, conversely, potentially hurt grant applicants. Importantly, this experience should help shape future submission because it should lead you to incorporate a more refined picture detailing how committees make their respective decisions regarding the suitability of a grant in addressing the prevailing science.
One positive experience that helped me to see the incredible importance of editing grants prior to submission came from a consulting relationship I had with a beltway bandit group (i.e., consulting firms located around the Washington, DC area that respond to government contracts). This company had in place a remedy to help them meet the press of submitting large volumes of grants in short spans of time. This solution consisted of using the services of an in-house ‘‘red team’’ consisting of writers or individuals with advanced graduate degrees in English, composition, or scientific writing that help improve the readability of a grant prior to submission. The ‘‘red team’’ reviews all grants emanating from the research and investigative teams at least a week prior to the submission deadline (this may not work for investigators who are up writing the night before the submission deadline!). Grammar, typos, and problems with basic sentence structure were chief targets that red team members examined. These individuals also read the grant carefully to determine if the basic appeal of the grant was driven by thematic integration. If the grant doesn’t make sense to a lay person, it won’t make sense to a reviewer, even with their stated professional expertise. Grants that have dangling participles, widows, orphans, typos, and poorly constructed grammar are headed for the rejection bin, regardless of the powerful science that may be embedded in the text.
If you don’t have the financial resources to obtain professional red team services, put one together from existing staff, including use of a thesaurus and dictionary. Further, obtain a writing style manual, such as the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, which helps dress up grants nicely, and proofread your grant until you are sick and tired of seeing it! As a starter, you can go to Amazon.com and type in APA Publication Manual—a host of re-sources, DVD and CD-ROM guides, and books come up that will give you the inside professional scoop on how to write research papers, format grants, and learn a particular publication style. There are many other styles to consider (several manuals and books by Kate L. Turabian, including the Chicago style and the Vancouver biomedical style established by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (1978), to name a few, are also available by typing in ‘‘Turabian’’ in the search box at Amazon.com)—simply pick one and utilize this style consistently.
In this regard, the following two items are critical to consider as you engage in grant writing, whether it is for the first or fifteenth time:
1. Don’t submit a grant application containing typographical errors. This is perhaps the biggest mistake even seasoned investigators make. Typographical errors are one of the foremost painful mistakes made by novice grant writers. In their haste to present a polished grant idea, investigators often fail to thoroughly check their own writing. There is no more egregious error than submitting a grant that is marred with problems, marked by grammatical errors, and replete with missing documentation and is characteristically plumb sloppy.
Take my word for it (or, for that matter, the word of any of the contributors to this book), grant reviewers are careful readers. Also note that the level of compensation for grant reviews is not what brings us to Washington, DC to engage in peer review. Rather, our concern for science, the opportunity to sit in a room with 20 or more of the leading scientists in the field, the chance to serve the institute or center that may eventually fund our own research, and the valued friendships we build are all reasons cited by our colleagues for participating in the NIH grant reviews. But the common thread that binds us all is a level of scholarship and attention to detail, which always surfaces during grant reviews.
I can think back to one review when we decided that missing sentences, poor documentation, and lack of effort in providing essential detail dropped a grant from the ‘‘outstanding’’ (1.0–1.5) category to ‘‘unscored.’’ As you may recall, unscored applications are in the lower half of the applicant pool, do not receive a score, but receive summary statements containing critiques. How damaging this must be to know, upon receiving your summary statements, that your overall scientific ideas were considered novel and appropriate but the manner in which you presented them considered so sloppy that this adversely affected your overall priority score. In essence, even though reviewers don’t make funding decisions, the grant plummeted in appeal from the higher scoring pile that is considered meritorious to the lower end of the scoring continuum, which in all likelihood meant the death knell for this grant…
…The following points should also be very helpful as you craft your grant application:
- Don’t miss on the opportunity to build essential collaborations that will help launch your own career. Make friends with colleagues who can help you during all the various stages of grant construction. Colleagues can be used to proofread your grant, submit the grant for prereview scrutiny, provide necessary expertise during execution, and give you the ‘‘once over’’ in case the grant does not muster a high evaluation and needs revisions.
- Don’t diminish the importance of the ‘‘lesser’’ sections of a grant. These might include the environment, resources page, and supplemental materials that help your grant transition from one review evaluation pile to another. All sections of the grant are treated equally during review!
- Be fastidious in the way you put your grant together, allowing yourself time for preparation, writing, routing, and obtaining necessary approvals, institutional review board certification, and eventual permission to submit from the various departmental chairs, division chiefs, and supervisors Make ready for this feedback throughout your career, be earnest, compliant, and dutiful, engage in due diligence—it pays off.