Don’t Sink the Ship: Grant Writing 101

Thomas Padilla
6 min readSep 21, 2020


In an effort to help folks writing grants … What common mistakes have you seen that sink applications?
thread that inspired this post

Grant writing season is upon us. For those new to it, writing a grant can seem really intimidating. Success at grant writing is not an act of genius. Grant writing is more about reading closely, following rules, and expressing in a clear and convincing manner that you can successfully do the work. Admittedly, things can get tricky with that last bit.

Clear and convincing are not universals. Grant writers must contend with variation in funder and reviewer bias. In some cases these biases are programmatic in nature, such as the Human-Environment and Geographical Sciences (HEGS) Program’s asserted dichotomy between Science and the Humanities, “research that is predominantly post-modern, post-structural, humanistic etc., is not a good fit for NSF”, a position NSF recently doubled down on in the face of public scrutiny:

HEGS recognizes that geography is a broad discipline that includes the natural sciences, the social sciences and the humanities. While HEGS continues to consider proposals that cover research in human geography, HEGS does not fund research that engages predominantly humanistic, non-scientific framings and methods. This has always been the case and is not a new policy or a change in requirements for proposals submitted to NSF.

In other cases, clear and convincing, can be unfairly bolstered by institutional prestige. Institutional prestige can carry for some, a baseline assurance of success in the proposed work. These institutions often signify competence through a range of normative superlatives that are difficult for the long tail of applicants to muster— massive scientific instruments, unparalleled collections, and renowned research centers paired with robust grants administration teams.

In lieu of the ability to conjure a particle accelerator or a Nobel prize winner, we can level the playing field a bit by sharing information with each other.

1. show you hear the call

Not responding to the call, not using sub heads that make it clear how the parts fit together, inconsistencies between budget
trevor owens tweet

Every grant opportunity has some version of a “call” — variously referred to as a call for funding, a notice of funding, etc. Funders try very hard to make clear what opportunity they are “calling” you to respond to. They try to achieve this by providing things like executive summaries, reports that inform the call, review criteria, and sometimes — previously funded proposal materials. If the funder does not provide access to previously funded proposal materials, try asking for them from someone who has been funded.

The call has a lot of information to process, expressed in different forms, and grant writers can often get overwhelmed trying to respond — so much so that a reviewer can gather the impression that the applicant is not effectively responding to the call. As Trevor notes above, it is good to make use of sub headings that help a reviewer work through the components of the proposal effectively. You want to minimize frustration for the reviewer as much as you can — they’ll be reading many proposals and are often juggling review duty with full time jobs.

Not all grants are equal; find the right grant for your project. Use the application as a guide, looking at word/page counts
joy banks tweet

It cannot be emphasized enough how important it is to read the call closely. Amid all the documentation it is easy to lose sight of seemingly small clues that could lead you to a stronger application. As Joy notes above, word limits in sections are intentional and reviewers will often allocate scrutiny accordingly.

2. make your work accessible

When the lay summary is written in the same highly technical language as the rest of the proposal. If you can’t explain your
jennifer gardy tweet

There are limits to what any one person or even collection of reviewers can know. Beyond that group, capacity to readily assess the value of your work dwindles considerably. Use the summary section of the proposal to make its value as accessible as possible. This is a gift that you give to specialists, non specialists, and ultimately — yourself.

I’d second @tjowens point about not responding the call. Use the call’s language in the body of the grant! Get a colleague t
megan finn senseney tweet

Part of the way you make your work accessible is to pay close attention to the language the call uses. In crafting the call, a funder will have put a lot of thought into the language they use. They will use language they believe makes the work accessible. Make use of that language in your proposal.

Not saying in the first paragraph what the project is actually about. It’s striking how often you get 1.5 pages in and think
jane winters tweet

This one is pretty straight forward.

As soon as possible, without adornment, say (1) exactly what you plan to do, (2) why it matters, and (3) who it matters for.

3. strengthen your work by building on other work

Not showing how the project you’re proposing differs from existing platforms/tools/projects In some cases it seems like an
laura estill tweet

Applicants will often try to prove value by asserting that the proposed work is novel, new, innovative, disruptive (blech - who wants that), etc. It is rarely the case that something is new and asserting so generally creates the impression that the applicant is disregarding their field.

Passive writing and superlatives/self-aggrandizing, ie this is the most innovatative database ever ( spoiler : no it’s not) o
caitlin pollock tweet

Acknowledging that proposed work builds upon prior work does not weaken its value— it enhances it.

4. show that you value labor

Related to time/labor, I see a lot of pinning the crux of the work on TBH positions, and those job descriptions can start to
megan finn senseney tweet

Increasingly, reviewers will notice if an applicant does not appropriately value labor. As Megan notes, pinning the crux of work on unicorn-like TBD temporary positions is problematic. A time worn recipe for burnout that needs to end.

Yeah, lots of bad project staffing. Like “half the budget goes to small fractions of 3 permanent highly paid staff who won’t
trevor owens tweet

How can a reviewer, in good conscience support a project that promotes precarity when the funding call provides an opportunity for more equitable possibilities? Predicating proposed work on economic injustice harms individuals, harms the field, and negatively impacts efficacy and long term sustainability of proposed work.

Guidelines like “Do Better” -Love(,) Us chart a better path.

5. show that diversity, equity, and inclusion are integral to impact

It’s not about meeting some distorted quota, it’s about the benefit to knowledge production when more minds of different expe
scout calvert tweet

In discussions of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) naysayers will sometimes cynically reduce these considerations to a quota system. As Scout notes above, DEI is not about handouts, DEI is an opportunity to create stronger projects. Commitments to DEI can be shown in a number of ways: project teams, advisory boards, labor practices, structuring opportunities for community input, and more.

6. engage with program officers

Top mistake: Failing to take advantage of opportunity to consult with program officers and/or to give them drafts to review.
tom elliott tweet

Don’t be shy. Program officers are there to help. Attend their webinars, conference presentations, use the Q & A, request meetings — some will even provide feedback on draft proposals.

wrapping up

This is an imperfect attempt to synthesize lessons from some very generous information sharing. I hope it is helpful. Good luck!

additional resources

Twitter thread that informed this post

Ten Simple Rules for Getting Grants (h/t @yeye_hdez)

On the Art of Writing Proposals (h/t @jasonrhody)

How to Get a Grant from NEH (h/t jasonrhody)

Planning your next DHAG: Idea, Audience, Innovation, Context (h/t @SheilaABrennan)

Do your Research!Preparing a Strong Environmental Scan (h/t @SheilaABrennan)

Grant Writing Guide (h/t @jimccasey1)