4 Grant-writing Pitfalls to Avoid

May is always a blur of work for me because it’s when many NIH grant applications are submitted. It’s humbling that researchers entrust me with what often is their life work. Interestingly, I make the same four categories of broad-brushstroke edits in virtually every grant application I work on. I share them with you as pitfalls to avoid. (These apply to any kind of grant writing.)

PITFALL #1: Omitting or providing insufficient background on the research topic
Reviewers are highly knowledgeable, but they can’t be experts in every area that they read about in grant applications. Bring them up to speed by explaining

  • Why this topic is important,
  • What the overarching problem or information gap is,
  • What’s been done to date to solve the problem or close the information gap
  • How [in general] your research proposes to do that

That’s the essence of the Abstract or Introduction.

PITFALL # 2: Not clearly delineating preliminary vs. proposed studies
This is a problem especially with renewal grants. Renewals require writing a “Progress Report” of accomplishments to date, but squibs about preliminary studies can also be included in the “Approach” section, which describes proposed studies. To avoid confusion:

  • Be diligent with verb tenses.
    Show clearly what (1) happened in the past, (2) is ongoing, (3) is planned for the future.
  • Specify whether planned studies will use existing cohorts/methods (e.g., to increase statistical significance) or take a different direction (e.g., go from cell studies to animal models; see if urban results hold true in rural settings, and so on).
  • Minimize discussion of preliminary studies in the “Approach” section—unless it’s necessary for contrast.
  • Refer to the “Progress Report” section as needed—to avoid duplicate verbiage.

PITFALL # 3: Omitting figure titles and numbers within charts, graphs and tables
The online submission process turns a group of grant documents into a single, large PDF. That process can “jostle” the position of figures on a page, wreaking havoc on what goes with what if the source documents for the figures don’t have the figure title and number in them. So, if you have figures two close to each other (e.g., Tables 3 and 4) and they get “split” from their accompanying text, reviewers must re-read the text and tables to try to “marry” the two. That causes readability problems, especially with similar-looking tables containing dense data. Anything that bogs down a review works against you.

PITFALL #4: Sacrificing the story for the science
This is the most fundamental, most important pitfall to avoid. And I devote more editing time to this than any other aspect of a grant. Why? Because everyone needs to tell a convincing, cogent story of why their research is unique, important and worthy of funding. With funding becoming tighter, it’s more important than ever to ensure that reviewers clearly understand your work and its big-picture implications on their first read-through. But researchers are so close to their work and so intent on including the details of its “science” that they often forget to tell why their research is great stuff. I remind them that 200 other grants are sitting on that reviewer’s desk waiting to be read. Telling the story well gets the grant noticed.

If you can avoid these pitfalls with your grant writing, your grant application will shine!

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