By Lauren Gee
Writing a grant proposal as a team has many pluses—a plenitude of viewpoints, a wider wealth of knowledge to pull from, and a larger pool of resources to help edit and finalize the proposal. Too often, however, a team-written proposal turns out as “Frankenstein’s monster”: a mess of disparate parts, thrown onto the page. Agreement is missing throughout, with no consistency in terms of vocabulary, style, or even tense. So how can a team work together, from day one, to write a successful, cohesive proposal—how do we avoid Frankenstein’s monster?
Tip 1: Share a vision . . . and a vocabulary
One of the most important things in the team proposal writing process has nothing to do with writing. It is vital for teams to meet before writing begins in order to discuss their idea of the project’s shared vision. Taking time for everyone to share their vision of the project will allow everyone to understand the “pressure points”: the areas of misunderstanding or difficulty within the team’s vision of the project’s goals and outcomes. The group can then work together to decide on an overarching vision for the project, and can then post it in an easily accessible location—a team website, Dropbox, or bulletin board. When writing the proposal, team members can (and should!) refer back to this shared vision in order to keep the goals of the project in mind.
During this initial development meeting, it’s also useful to construct a project dictionary. Team members can list words and phrases that they think will be used often when writing the proposal, or words that have a “difficult” definition—for example, the term “risk” has very different definitions for an insurance adjustor and a skydiver. Ensuring that everyone on the team shares the definitions of common words will be essential when writing the proposal. Develop a team dictionary containing most-used words and their agreed-upon definitions, and post in an easily accessible place.
There’s an obvious theme in these suggestions: consensus early on leads to easier writing (and editing!) down the road.
Tip 2: Write early, write often
When writing as a group, it’s important to acknowledge the different styles of productivity amongst the team. However, the grant writing process is absolutely dependent on deadlines, and it will be important for the group as a whole to decide on—and adhere to—a specific timeline.
In writing as a group, a “divide and concur” philosophy can often be the most effective. This entails assigning specific writing tasks to different group members, then allowing time for the members to come back together and provide feedback, as shown in the example in the box below. All of this occurs well before final editing or proposal deadlines, allowing time for mistakes to be made, ideas to be shared, and suggestions to be taken.
Tip 3: Return to the audience
When in the middle of writing a proposal, it can become difficult to remember “the point” of the project. For example, when writing a technical description of the proposed work, it’s very easy to spend pages and pages describing the technological elements of the research, or the state of the field itself. However, if every person allows themselves to be carried away, the final proposal could be hundreds of pages long! It’s important, when lost in the weeds of proposal writing, to always return to the audience—to ask yourself:
WHO is the intended audience for this proposal?
WHAT is their vision/mission?
HOW will this project/idea help fulfill it?
WHY should they care?
The easiest place to discover this information is, of course, the shared project vision that your team developed before writing began.
In this tip you can see the integrated nature of team proposal writing: while time spent pre-writing, developing team definitions, structures and timelines may seem like a poor use of limited time and resources, it is in fact a vital step in the proposal development life cycle!
Tip 4: Creative chaos . . . and final approval
Once the elements of the proposal have been assembled separately, it’s time to put everything together. But, outside of the specific guidelines of the funding opportunity, what is the best strategy to assemble the parts into a whole?
Often, utilizing the method of a collage can be the most useful option. In this method, the proposal elements are all laid out in an agreed upon measure—paragraphs, pages, sections, etc. In this form, you can physically move the sections around, trying new combinations to see what is most effective. Effectiveness, in this case, means what organization best communicates the shared vision to the proposal’s audience?
While it’s important for creative chaos to reign at this time—it is vital for team members to be open to change, and even the deletion of, their writing—there comes a point at which final decisions must be made. This power of being the ‘final reviewer’ often goes to the primary investigator, who is bestowed with the power of veto: they can confirm or decline the ideas of the group, in order to assemble a clean, finalized proposal.
It is important that the group feels that the final reviewer has an understanding and a dedication to the group’s shared vision and vocabulary. If this trust is missing, the group may be uncertain whether the work they’ve done to this point has even been worthwhile! The final reviewer therefore has a dual responsibility: they must communicate the team vision effectively, specifically, and concisely . . . while also complying completely with the funding agency’s guidelines. While this is a difficult task, the ground work that has been laid before by the team will be of integral value to the final reviewer’s last editing process.
What do you think?
Do you have experiences to share about writing successful grant proposals as a team? Are there additional tips you can add? Have you been part of a team that produced Frankenstein’s monster? Would any of the tips above have helped?
These tips are also available as part of the Intereach webinar series: Avoiding Frankenstein’s Monster: Proposal Writing for Teams! by Lauren Gee (November 12, 2018 listed as Best practice grant proposal writing for teams), see https://youtu.be/Lb-cm-agm_4
Biography: Lauren Gee is the Research Development Associate in the Office of Campus Research Development at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, USA. Her expertise lies in multidisciplinary/interdisciplinary team science, team dynamics, and the construction of compelling grant proposal narratives. She has worked on “big bet” proposals for diverse organizations, including the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, National Endowment for the Arts, and the US Agency for International Aid.