Grant proposal writing for teams: Avoiding Frankenstein’s monster

By Lauren Gee

Lauren Gee (biography)

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

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.

6 thoughts on “Grant proposal writing for teams: Avoiding Frankenstein’s monster”

  1. Lauren: I’m a communications specialist and have found this field of team science to be of great interest given my focus on a process I train my clients on called Bohm Dialogue (David Bohm was a quantum physicist who turned to philosophy late in life). I read your piece with interest and it seems absolutely spot on. I would only add that there are some useful techniques/processes from my field of organizational development that can help in creating the shared vision amongst team members. The more upfront time that is spent on forging the shared vision, the better. It makes all the other stages you wrote about go much faster and easier. In the haste of trying to meet deadlines, there is often not enough time spent on melding the team members individual ways of looking at the project, which as you point out can then create Frankenstein’s monster. Taking the time to develop the shared vocabulary and ways of articulating the overall shared research vision is key as you suggest. Exploring team members’ underlying assumptions around the goals for the research and then helping members learn to ‘think together’ about how to structure their individual writing parts will set the stage for a good proposal as outcome.

    I feel there is much for the field of team science to learn from the many processes available from the field of organizational development.

    • Linda, thanks for your comment! I’m going to go research the Bohm Dialogue now–it sounds right up my alley 🙂 I agree completely that ‘thinking together’, and using each other as a sounding board at the initial stage, no matter how individually the sections will be written, is key to a well-written team proposal.

      Coming from a communications and administration background, I utilize organizational development practices every day in my work with teams. I agree completely that the field has much to learn from organizational development processes and theories!

  2. Thanks for putting this together, Lauren. They’re all spot on with regard to moving a team along. The only augmentation I’d make is with Tip 3. This has to do with your points on returning to the audience and how the team can better ensure they are paying careful attention to the funding agency vision. When I had to learn grant writing as a new PhD, this article below was VERY helpful for me. So I use this when I give workshops on grant writing. There are two key issues for the agency and reviewers (I’m sure there are more, but these are the two I emphasize :-). One is reading more than just the agency call for proposals; that is, for the team to answer your four questions in Tip 3, the team needs to read what has influenced that call’s generation in the first place. This, then, should help do what you’re suggesting and better frame the proposal’s place in that research space. The second, though, is making it clear to the funder, what is unique. The author of the article below noted that they need to explicitly understand how you are adding something to the field. He states: “Study sections are looking to recommend proposals that will add something new to a field – grant applications that have what Greenhouse calls “a vector” associated with them. “The work should move the field forward, not sideways,” he says.”

    How To Wow A Study Section: A Grantsmanship Lesson

    • Steve, thank you so much for linking this article! I LOVE it. I completely agree–you have to look at so many angles of the audience. What are the agency priorities? Why are they pushing funding for THIS particular theme/issue, at THIS moment in time? And how can you pivot your ideas and your team to ideally suit? I think this is why I find myself constantly reminding people that just warming up old, boiler plate text is not going to cut it–each proposal is very much its own animal.

  3. Writing early and often was the toughest for a group project that I had last year. People didn’t want to write something that was incorrect so they didn’t write anything. Things seemed to go smoother when we just put something on paper- then everyone could add or edit.

    • Totally agree! I call that “throwing everything at the wall”—often, I find it impossible to begin constructing my idea until I’ve got at least some raw material to work with!


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