Proposal writing guide
Before you start writing
Before beginning to write your proposal, it is important to take preparatory steps to arm yourself with useful information. Read "Becoming a Successful Principal Investigator" by David A. Stone to get started.
Proposal writing is different from other types of academic writing. Read “Why Academics Have a Hard Time Writing Good Grant Proposals” by Robert Porter to learn why and how to adapt.
Award databases are useful for assessing a sponsor's funding trends, supported projects and award levels to make sure that your expectations are in line with theirs.
- To locate awards across multiple federal agencies, use:
- Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality
- Environmental Protection Agency Integrated Grants Management System (IGMS)
- Health Resources and Services Administration
- Institute of Museum and Library Services
- National Institutes of Health RePORTER
- National Science Foundation Awards Search
- National Endowment for the Humanities Recent Grant Awards and Funded Projects Query Form
- U.S. Department of Energy
- U.S. Department of Education
- U.S. Department of Agriculture Current Research Information System (CRIS)
- Foundation awards: Use the Foundation Center’s 990 Finder or contact Melissa Throckmorton
- Sponsors may invest in your project, and have a financial interest in the knowledge that can be gained from the research or programming. Therefore, the project must align with their mission and goals. Although it is tempting to write one proposal and shop it around to several funders, this is ultimately a poor strategy. Make sure to do your homework on each sponsor. What is their strategic plan? What are their current priorities? What have they funded in the past? Who have they funded in the past? Is your project a good fit for this sponsor?
- The Request for Proposals is not a suggestion – it is a non-negotiable outline of performance expectations that the sponsor has for each applicant. Therefore, use it to your advantage. Quote language from the solicitation in your proposal to show your project’s alignment with the sponsor’s mission.
- Write for the reviewers, not yourself. The reviewers have not shared the long journey of developing this concept to the point as it appears in the proposal, so they do not carry the same assumptions as you do. At the same time, they are experts in their respective fields with busy professional and personal lives. They will rely on your ability to synthesize and explain with the utmost clarity.
- Competitive writing style starts with clear thinking. Can you explain your project verbally, in less than 75 words? Can someone with no experience in the field understand your explanation? Would that person also be excited about the project?
- Remember that the proposal (from cover page to appendices) must tell a single, coherent story. If anything is incomplete, sloppy, or inconsistent with other parts, the reviewers will be confused. This often happens when several people are writing sections independently, and the final document is cut and pasted together. Have several people who know absolutely nothing of your efforts read the proposal before you submit it.
- You won’t be at the review to explain what is on paper. Reviewers generally have a lot of proposals to read and devote a small amount of time to each one. Use section headers, bullets, tables and figures, and white space – all formatting elements that make your proposal “skimmable” and visually appealing.
- Wow the reviewer with the first paragraph. Show your passion for the topic as well as the project’s relevance to the funder’s interests. Use strong declarative verbs and short sentences to hold their interest. Avoid jargon. If you lose the reviewer on the first page, you may never get him or her back.
- Good proposal writing always takes much longer than you anticipate. Because many funding opportunities are solicited on an annual basis, use advance notice to prepare. Solidify your partnerships and identify gaps in your team. Affirm the logic of your design. Conduct a pilot study if needed. Determine what boilerplate language you will need and where to get it. Update and collect biographical sketches. Talk with the program officer (see "Contacting Program Officers" section below) to make sure your project is a good fit. Talk to past awardees. Obtain and analyze funded proposals. Establish a work plan. Learn the electronic submission process. Take required training.
- Don’t make errors that can be avoided: You are ineligible. You include an unallowable cost. You exceed page or margin limits. You include information that is not allowed.
- Learn the game(s). There is not just one right answer to writing a competitive proposal. Try to obtain copies of funded and unfunded proposals. Serve on a review panel (see "Become a Reviewer" section below). Attend grantsmanship trainings hosted by a variety of organizations to see multiple perspectives. Ask several people, with a range of expertise and interests, to critique your proposal before submitting it to the sponsor.
A Guide to Proposal Planning and Writing, by Jeremy T. Miner and Lynne E. Miner: This article provides an overview of the key considerations you should take when writing to federal and private sponsors.
On the Art of Writing Proposals, Social Science Research Council: Although aimed at applicants to the Social Science Research Council, this publication offers quality advice that can be applied to any proposal.
One Program Officer's Candid Tips for Grantseekers, by Joel Orosz: Provides critical information for those considering approaching a foundation for support.
Proposal Writing Short Course, the Foundation Center: Essential information from the Foundation Center if you are planning to write a proposal to a private funder.
For graduate students and postdocs
Getting Your Postdoc Grant – It Takes More than Just Writing, by Dan McCurdy: This is a firsthand account of experiences, impressions and thoughts dealing with the postdoctoral grant process.
National Institutes of Health
Office of Extramural Research: Includes detailed information about NIH grants process and funding opportunities, access to forms, explains grants policy and assists with electronic research administration.
New Investigator Guide to NIH Funding: Produced by NIAID, “this document outlines strategies for gaining an NIH grant and explains basic funding concepts and processes to new and would-be principal investigators.”
Center for Scientific Review: Find out which study section will review your NIH application prior to submitting. Here, you can also find tips for applicants, such as the review criteria for each award mechanism.
National Science Foundation
Funding Policies: Maintained by the NSF Policy Office, this page provides access to the key information related to developing and submitting competitive proposals to the agency, as well as managing awards.
Merit Review: Provides an explanation of the proposal review process and gives guidance on the NSF’s two merit review criteria — Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts.
Postdoc Mentoring Plans: Proposals to the NSF that request funding for postdocs must include a description of mentoring activities they will engage in.
VCU's Corporate and Foundation Relations office works to secure private support for university priorities by fostering relationships with corporations, foundations and other philanthropic organizations. Housed in Central Advancement, the CFR staff works alongside schools, centers and research units on the Monroe Park and MCV campuses to identify and coordinate activities with corporations and foundations to secure support for research, academic and outreach projects.
Before submitting any proposal to a private sponsor, you must notify CFR staff of your intentions.
DMPTool: Many sponsors require that all applications include a data management plan describing how the project will disseminate and share research results. Use the DMPTool to create these plans, see samples and get assistance.
National Institutes of Health: "Should I Contact a Program Officer Before I Apply?"
Robert Porter: “Can We Talk? Contacting Grant Program Officers.” (Research Management Review, Vol. 17, No. 1, 2009)