The importance of a positive tone when writing your grant application

looking_glass_300x300Guest Blog by: David A. Konkel, Ph.D. Co-Director, Office of Editorial & Communications Services Institute for Translational Sciences

Your grant application is a sales pitch for your novel ideas, and for the project in which they will be tested. One of the “tricks” employed by successful salespeople is to use language that makes the prospective customer envision him or herself as already owning and enjoying whatever it is that’s being sold. A good salesman doesn’t ask “if perhaps you were going to buy a new car today, what color might it possibly be?” Rather, he pulls out an order form, starts to fill it out, and asks “what color is your new Mercedes going to be, Dr. Smith?” It’s the same principle as “the suspension of disbelief” crafted by a good novelist or film director, while avoiding at all costs any language or image that reminds the reader or viewer “it’s only a movie.” Yet when writing grant proposals, many applicants use a hyper-cautious tone, full of tentative phrases and conditional verbs that may be appropriate in a scientific paper, but which greatly weaken the impact of a grant proposal.

The equivalent of the salesman’s trick in a grant application is to use language that makes the reviewer envision the proposal as presenting an ongoing, already successful project that requires only further financial support to reach its full potential and have great scientific impact. Every use of a phrase such as “our proposed experiments,” “our proposal” or “we propose to…” undercuts that goal. Speak of “our project” or “our research plan,” rather than “the proposal” or “our application,” and say what you will do, not what you propose to do. Avoid the terms “our proposed research” or “the proposed experiments,” and the construction “we propose to…” – the only thing you should be proposing is a hypothesis!

Similarly, use the future tense (“we will”) when speaking of the experiments to be conducted; the conditional (“we would”) should be reserved for describing the alternative approaches you might take should something unexpected occur – using “will” there can confuse the reviewers, making them think that what’s meant to be a contingency plan is part of your main research strategy instead. Using the conditional in describing your main experimental plan indicates doubt, translating to “if we were fortunate enough to be funded, here’s what we would do.” However, using “will” for your expected results may give the impression of hubris; “should” is a good word to use there, implying “if our hypothesis proves correct, this is what we expect to happen.”

Finally, avoid constructions such as “the goal of this application is…,” or “In this proposal we will…” Not only are they inconsistent with the approach outlined above, but they are factually inaccurate. The goal of any application is the same – getting the money! And you can’t actually do anything in a proposal – only in the ensuing project once the application is funded.


1 Comment on “The importance of a positive tone when writing your grant application”

  1. Connie Barton

    Very good advice for new investigators as well as experienced investigators. Great Article Dave!