Some grant-writing advice can seem like “common sense,” while other advice may be highly specific to the Sponsor or opportunity. Below you will find the most crucial general advice for creating a competitive research proposal.
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1. Give yourself enough time to plan, write, get feedback, and revise
Planning and revising your concept and project can take several months, and you may discover the need to revisit some of your initial ideas during the course of the writing process. You’ll want to allow ample time for drafting the proposal, requesting and discussing friendly feedback, revising the draft, proofreading, and collecting/writing ancillary documents.
We suggest creating a proposal calendar with internal deadlines, especially for multi-PI projects. Add more lead time if you need to generate preliminary data. Depending on how much of your time you can spend on proposal work, we suggest allowing between 3-6 weeks to write a new proposal for a federal funder. Keep in mind that the Office of Sponsored Research has their own internal deadlines and will require that you submit the full proposal to them at least 5 full business days before the sponsor deadline (View OSR’s Internal Proposal Deadline policy).
According to the National Science Foundation, 80% of Major Research Instrumentation proposals are submitted on the due date, with 50% being submitted within just two hours of the 5pm deadline. Although it's common for proposals to be submitted on the due date, we encourage you not to wait until then. The risk is that NSF, along with many other sponsors, has strict deadline policies in the interest of fairness to all applicants, and cannot offer extensions in cases of technical difficulties or inadvertent errors. Be sure to incorporate extra time into your proposal preparation schedule for addressing any last-minute issues.
2. Tailor your project to the sponsor's needs and requirements
Emphasize what you can do to help the sponsor reach their goals, and not what the sponsor can do for you. Familiarize yourself with the research priorities and objectives of the funding agency, and their programming that applies to your research area. Select the most appropriate program for your project, ensuring that there is a match between what you are proposing to do and what the sponsor wants to support. You may want to adjust the framing of your project aims so that project/sponsor alignment is more obvious. Confer with the program officer for the opportunity you are interested in, if one is available. Some program officers prefer email contact while others prefer calls, but they agree that reaching out early and often is to your benefit as a proposer.
3. Outline a competitive concept
For any proposal, you’ll need to succinctly state the specific problem or need that your project will address as well as your research questions, goals, and/or hypothesis. This starts with a careful consideration of your project’s significance, innovativeness, and potential impact. When designing your project, consider your long-term research program and goals alongside the duration of funding you’re applying for. What exciting work can you accomplish with the time, budget, and resources allocated, and how will this fit into your broader research agenda? Don’t be too modest about what you can do, but make sure it’s realistic.
4. Vet your project ideas
To get feedback on whether your project is both feasible and ambitious enough, consider a feasibility/needs analysis. You should also seek feedback on the core ideas and scope. Do your colleagues understand what you’re trying to do? Does their understanding of what you're proposing align with what the sponsor is asking for? Are they excited about the project’s potential? These are all important considerations as you put your project concept in proposal form.
5. Know the funding opportunity instructions very well
Use them to create a template for yourself that is compliant and reviewer-friendly. Pay special attention to margins, font size and type requirements, figure guidelines, and page limits. Are you allowed to include URLs in your proposal? What kind of line spacing is acceptable? You will find the answers to these questions and more in documentation provided by the sponsor. Keep in mind that some funders publish multiple levels of guidance that may all be relevant to the proposal you’re working on (e.g., the NSF PAPPG offers general guidance, with individual program solicitations offering more specific guidance).
Let the solicitation guide the headings and subheadings you include. Not only will these headings help reviewers find what they’re looking for in your proposal, they'll also help you remember to address everything you need to within the document.
6. Consider your audience
For everything you write, think of how your audience is likely to receive it. Who are the potential reviewers and what might their background and expertise be? Often, your reviewers will be technically literate in the general field of the program you’re applying to, but not in your specific sub-field. Make sure to provide enough background and context so a reviewer who is not an area expert can understand what you’re proposing to do and become an advocate for your work.
Your reviewers are likely to be busy people who are pulled in many different directions. Make your proposal aesthetically pleasing, engaging to read, and easy to skim. Take every opportunity to capture and keep their interest, whether they have one minute or one hour to read. If a reviewer only has time to flip through all the figures or read just the first few sentences of each section, they should still get a good sense of what you’re proposing to do and how.
7. Edit multiple times in multiple ways
Most writers edit as they write, but this is not enough on its own. When you have the majority of your content in the draft, let it rest for a day or two. When you return to working on your proposal, re-read the solicitation guidelines to orient yourself to the task. Look at the draft with fresh eyes and edit for flow, length, consistency, and clarity. Identify and remove unnecessary repetition.
Ask a few trusted colleagues, both from within and outside your field, to do the same as their time permits. Incorporate their feedback (as long as it doesn’t contradict the sponsor guidelines) to improve your proposal.
Save time for a final proofread after more substantive edits have been made. It’s all too easy to introduce new typographical errors in the process of revising a draft. Ask someone else to proofread for you if at all possible.
Our Grantsmanship Resources page contains a curated list of articles and tips with best practices for proposal writing and collaboration.