I have been helping social science and humanities researchers with grant proposals since April 2005. In that time, how I approach the task has shifted. Those shifts have not been arbitrary. I am learning all the time. And I adjust my practice based on what I’m learning.
I am not an editor. Or a grant writer.
In my experience starting with a draft is frustrating for both of us, especially if you don’t send me that draft until fairly close to the deadline.
You might think it just needs tweaks and copy edits but I’m betting it doesn’t.
If it really does just need that, you don’t need to pay me. Go to your Research Services Office or whichever office of your university helps with this stuff. Talk to the Associate Dean for research. Ask a colleague who’s been successful at securing a grant. (You should do that anyway, even if you also hire me.)
The way I work now, we start with a conversation.
Why a conversation?
The impetus for designing my service this way was the recognition that I was seeing the same problems in many proposals. I’m a sociologist. I look for explanations in bigger structural issues. And I found them.
Asking good questions is one of my superpowers. In this conversation I can ask questions based on my understanding of the granting process that help you articulate the things that need to be in the proposal.
If necessary, I also help you reframe the proposal from this thing you have to do to something that you want to do because it will help you do the research you most want to do (whether you get the grant or not).
“Why do I have to continuously explain why this is important?”
There are things that need to be in a grant proposal that are obvious to the researcher. Because they are obvious, it is really really difficult to articulate them. And it feels like a waste of time.
Explaining why your research is significant is probably at the top of the list of obvious things that are really frustrating to write about.
You know what you want to do. What is obvious to you, and thus most frustrating to write about is why it is important. And yet that section, also known as the literature review, is probably the most important part of the proposal from the point of view of getting funding.
You can write the best methodology section ever and if it isn’t clear what you hope to achieve and why that is significant for audiences that matter to this funder, you will not get funded.
That’s why I am happy to spend a whole hour asking you questions so that I can help you write it. An hour in which you are not tearing your hair out and writing drafts that need to be completely rewritten.
After the conversation
After we talk, I send an e-mail. Most of the e-mail messages I wrote last year after these initial conversations contained an outline of the literature review section (called Context in a SSHRC application).
I don’t know the details of the literature but I can write an outline, based on our conversation, telling you which bits of the literature to talk about in what order and how much detail you need for different parts.
I also usually try to clarify what your objectives are in a way that makes sense to people who aren’t already embedded in your particular field of research.
What’s new this year
This year I adjusted again, to provide you with support in between the meeting and having a final draft.
It’s not the writing of the proposal that is the problem. Writing is easy. It’s the thinking that’s hard. And it really benefits from an approach that includes lots of time to mull things over.
I don’t have to throw everything at you after the meeting. I can give you a “start here” suggestion and add next steps as you need them.
I created a whole bunch of worksheets, colouring pages, and even audio files to help you with specific parts of the process. Not everyone needs all of them. It’s useful to have me suggest a specific approach to deal with a specific issue you are facing right now. And then to say, now try this.
I support you in developing this more sustainable habit of thinking and writing with e-mail check-ins. I encourage you to also work on writing articles and other important tasks simultaneously. I also encourage you to take time off, go to the lake, play with your kids…
Then when you have a full draft, I read it and either confirm that it’s great or make final suggestions for edits. All of this in plenty of time for you to do whatever your institution needs you to do before submitting it to the agency.
Making the process and the product better
My goal is to do more than help you write a better grant proposal. My goal is to help you write a better grant proposal in less time, with less frustration.
All the energy and time you save can then go into your actual research. Or revamping that course you’ve been meaning to restructure. Or a real vacation that enables you to return to work refreshed, rejuvenated, and more productive than before.