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Hints for Writing a Successful Proposal

Factors important in writing a quality proposal

Introducing the research problem & objectives

A proposal's introduction will be similar in structure & content to the introduction of a research paper. In other words, the Introduction should:

The primary goal of a proposal is to convince reviewers of the significance of the proposed work. It's not enough to assert that a problem exists or that a question has not been answered. Providing relevant background information in the Introduction is important in letting reviewers know:

"Refer to the literature thoroughly and thoughtfully. Explain what gaps in the literature would be filled by your project. In the past, research proposals have not been funded when applicants seemed to be unaware of relevant published work or when the proposed research or study design had already been tried and judged inadequate." (NIH guidelines)

KEEP IN MIND that you are reviewing previous research to introduce YOUR study & to explain how your study will further the field's knowledge. Don't simply write a literature review. Use the literature to focus a reviewer's attention on the importance of YOUR study.

Describing proposed methods

The methods section of a journal article should be so detailed that another investigator could replicate the study. For a proposal, fewer details (but more explanation of rationale) are needed. In other words, you should do more than just explain how the study will be carried out; explain why this approach, & not others, was chosen. So, the methods section of a proposal should be well-documented, with references used where possible to lend support to your choices. Providing such information helps reviewers understand what's needed to accomplish the project & helps reviewers determine whether you understand what's needed to carry out this project. As pointed out in the NIH (1993) guidelines:

"While you may safely assume the reviewers are experts in the field and familiar with current methodology, they will not make the same assumption about you . . . Since the reviewers are experienced research scientists, they will undoubtedly be aware of possible problem areas, even if you don't include them in your research plan. But they have no way of knowing that you too have considered these problem areas unless you fully discuss any potential pitfalls and alternative approaches."

Some reasons why applications aren't funded

Hints for improving your application

As noted above, applications with typos & grammatical errors create a negative impression of the author's competence & attention to detail. Here are some hints for improving your application:

Avoid wordiness

Omit unneeded words and shorten wordy phrases. For example:

Important Hint: Modifiers such as very, quite, and rather are usually meaningless in scientific writing.

Use active voice (but not excessively)

PASSIVE: Most seedlings were eaten by rabbits.
ACTIVE: Rabbits ate most seedlings.

PASSIVE: Territory size was found to vary with population density.
ACTIVE: Territory size varied with population density.

PASSIVE: From field observations, it was found that all radio-tagged individuals remained on the study area.
ACTIVE: All radio-tagged individuals remained on the study area.

PASSIVE: Several marking techniques were used.
ACTIVE: I used several marking techniques.

A well-written, easy-to-read methods section includes a mixture of active and passive writing!

Pronoun Reference

Make sure all pronouns can be easily identified. For example:

UNCLEAR: Northern Cardinals have been the focus of work by several investigators (Smith 1985, Jones 1992). They typically initiate breeding behavior in March.
BETTER: Northern Cardinals typically initiate breeding behavior in March (Smith 1985, Jones 1992).

FAULTY: Farrar and Calie (1993) examined the foraging behavior of House Sparrows. They reported that their diet consisted primarily of seeds.
BETTER: Farrar and Calie (1993) reported that House Sparrows feed primarily on seeds.
BETTER YET: House Sparrows feed primarily on seeds (Farrar and Calie 1993).

Make sure each verb agrees with its subject

Do not lose sight of the subject in a sentence by focusing on modifying words, such as prepositional phrases, occurring between the subject and verb. For example:

The size of all territories was [not were] reduced at high population densities.

The dominant male, along with his subordinates, defends [not defend] the den site.

The color and shape of the beak are [not is an] important taxonomic features [not feature].

Avoid repetition

Some sentences or paragraphs are wordy because the writer includes the same information twice. For example:

WORDY: In Cupp's study, he found that temperature had no effect on display rates (Cupp 1993).
CONCISE: Cupp (1993) found that temperature had no effect on display rates.

WORDY: The ostrich is of moderate economic importance according to Hamilton (1988), who reviewed the importance of the ostrich in detail.
CONCISE: The ostrich is of moderate economic importance (Hamilton 1988).

Make sure that paragraphs are coherent units of thought

Paragraphs should be logically constructed passages organized around a central idea often expressed as a topic sentence. A writer constructs, orders, and connects paragraphs as a means of guiding the reader from one topic to the next, along a logical train of thought. Topic sentences often occur at the beginning of a paragraph, followed by material that develops, illustrates, or supports the main point. Also, be sure to vary your sentences. Pay attention to the structure, length, and rhythm of your sentences. If your writing is unvarying and one-dimensional, you will not get your message across as effectively.

Links to useful sites about scientific writing