Writing Scientific Proposals in Many Easy Steps

If you’re a scientist or engineer, you’ve got a pretty good chance of having to write a scientific proposal. If you’re an academic scientist or engineer, your chance goes up to around 100%. That’s one of the downsides of getting to choose what kind of research you’re going to do: you have to convince people to give you money for it.

Writing proposals is one of those skills that most of us have to learn by doing. A lot of PhD programs don’t offer any training in it, which is surprising given how critical it is to many PhD’s later work. Even Engineering Barbie has only one piece of advice regarding proposals.

Writing Proposals is Hard!, says Engineering Barbie

But why is it so hard? Writing isn’t easy for scientists and engineers at the best of times. Expressing scientific concepts clearly and succinctly takes a lot of work. But far worse is that proposals are, at their heart, a sales document, and if we were interested in being salespeople, we’d have had our soul removed long ago. The mere thought that we might have to sell ourselves and our ideas is enough to make us need smelling salts.

Bill Gates saying nothing.

A lot of that reaction comes from experience with selling and salespeople. How many times have you had to listen to a lot of empty words about a product? How much of sales pitches consists of fluff instead of real content?

A small jar of Marshmallow Fluff

To be clear, that’s not the kind of sales I’m talking about. Nor am I talking about convincing people that they need things they don’t. What I am talking about is showing people that you have a scientific or engineering project that will meet their needs. Otherwise, why should they give you money? Just because you’re an awesome person? Sadly, that doesn’t work as often as you might hope.

If you can get past the idea of sales as a four-letter word and realize that you can sell without sounding like a used-car salesperson, you’re on the right track. But what are you selling? The potential customer has a problem that you’re trying to solve. Do you know what that problem is? Sure, the NSF is looking to support fundamental research, but that’s too general. What’s the specific focus of the solicitation you’re responding to?

Imagine that you want to buy an HDTV. You don’t know much about them, so you wander into a nearby Best Buy and collar two salespeople. “I’m looking for an HDTV. What can you recommend?”

Giant wide-screen TV

“Well,” the first salesperson says, “this TV’s DMex expansion capabilities integrate into its XMB user interface.”

“Uh-huh,” you say. “What do you think?” you ask the second salesperson.

“I get 9% commission, so I’d suggest you look at the larger TVs.”

Too often that’s what our proposals sound like. As scientists and engineers, we have a bad habit of jumping straight to the interesting technical details of our solution. We don’t present a big picture connecting our solution to the customer’s problem. And we focus on us and what we want and what we’ll get out of being funded instead of focusing on the customer, what they want, and what they’ll get.

So, okay, what are we selling? It’s not ourselves or our company or organization, at least not directly. What we’re selling are benefits — specific benefits. We’re providing a new capability that the customer needs. We’re solving a problem. We’re doing research that’s in line with what the customer’s been tasked with funding.

Before you write word one of your proposal, come up with an overarching proposal theme that captures what you’re offering. How does what you’re proposing to do meet the customer’s needs? What makes your approach best? (Quantify “best” with numbers if possible.) What will the customer get if they fund you? What’s exciting about your proposal? That theme should run throughout your proposal.

Do you know what the customer wants? If you’ve never spoken to the sponsor or customer before and are just throwing your proposal over the transom, you’ll have to guess at what they want based on the solicitation. Ideally you’ll have talked to them ahead of the request for proposal (RFP) and have some idea of what will get them to sit up and take notice. Maybe the customer needs a sensor with twice the range of the ones they’re using now. Maybe the sponsor is really excited about applications of quantum computing, even though the solicitation doesn’t specifically mention QC. Whatever the customer’s hot buttons are, your proposal needs to push them.

Once you know what you’re selling, what your overarching theme is, and what your potential sponsor’s hot buttons are, you can figure out what you’re going to do. Describe what you’re going to do in general terms, then break that down into tasks. Determine what your schedule is going to be and what milestones you’ll hit when. The solicitation may specify some of these details, in which case don’t leave them out. You’d be amazed at how many proposals don’t actually adhere to the solicitation’s guidelines.

Unless the solicitation doesn’t give you room for it, start your proposal with an executive summary. That’s a slimmed-down version of your entire proposal, not an introduction. Its purpose is to grab the reader’s attention and give them a high-level view of your proposal. Right now the NSF gets some 40,000 proposals. It funds roughly a quarter of those. I’ve written proposals where three proposals out of thirty were funded. Can you imagine having to read through thirty 50-page proposals? Sometimes the executive summary may be all an evaluator reads, at least at first.

The executive summary should focus on the sponsor and their needs. Link your proposed solution or research to the customer’s problem. Hit any hot buttons you know they have. Steal wording from the RFP — people want to hear that you understand their problem, and you want to speak their language when you talk about their problem. Focus on benefits that the customer will get over any specific features you’re offering. Most importantly, the executive summary should have a low technical focus. Remember, some funding agencies or companies have non-specialists or even non-technical people perform a preliminary evaluation.

The rest of my recommendations are a grab-bag of tips and tricks. Writing is a complex skill, and I’m not going to teach you how to do it better in another five hundred words or so. But what I can do is give you some general guidelines.

First, write with images. People remember images more easily than they do text, and images will stand out more if any evaluators end up skimming through the proposal. You may want to go so far as to create a general outline, then populate that outline with images before you begin writing the proposal’s text. That way you’re writing to the images, instead of inserting images after the fact.

Second, when you caption your images, don’t just state the obvious. Use your captions to interpret the image. Reinforce any sponsor benefits the image is showing. For instance:

A laptop
Figure 7. Laptop.

If evaluators skim your proposal, they’re more likely to read captions than any other text. Why waste that opportunity? And don’t be afraid to use longer sentences in your captions.

A laptop
Figure 7. Laptop-Based Client for Evaluating Images in the Field. The sensor’s TCP/IP interface and laptop-based client let users see the LIDAR’s images while data is being collected instead of after the fact, preventing time wasted collecting poor data and thus decreasing operating costs.

Third, use active voice.

Fourth, use active voice.

Fifth, use active voice.

I know, I know, we think passive voice makes our writing sound more objective and sciencey. It also makes our writing sound boring and stilted. “A regression analysis was performed to determine the best-fit curve.” Ick, ick, ick. Remember: a proposal’s purpose is to sell someone on your ideas. Active voice is more convincing and persuasive. “We” and “our” are not bad words. “We will do stuff” is better than “Stuff will be done.”

Finally, while you’re using active voice, try to keep your subject and verb as close together as possible. The further apart they are, the harder it is to see what’s going on in the sentence. Consider this sentence:

If any member of the board retires, the member’s interest in the company, at the discretion of the board, and after notice from the chairman of the board to all the members of the board at least 30 days before executing this option, may be bought by the company.

While the sentence has lots of dependent clauses hanging off of it like leeches, that’s not the only problem. The sentence is written in passive voice, and the subject and verb aren’t even in the same zip code. Let me highlight the subject and verb.

If any member of the board retires, the member’s interest in the company, at the discretion of the board, and after notice from the chairman of the board to all the members of the board at least 30 days before executing this option, may be bought by the company.

Changing the sentence to use active voice helps some.

If any member of the board retires, the company, at the discretion of the board, and after notice from the chairman of the board to all the members of the board at least 30 days before executing this option, may buy the member’s interest in the company.

Bringing the subject and verb together make the sentence even clearer.

If any member of the board retires, the company may buy the member’s interest in the company at the discretion of the board, and after notice from the chairman of the board to all the members of the board at least 30 days before executing this option.

It’s still a big, clunky sentence, but at least you can get its gist quickly.

My suggestions aren’t panaceas. You’ll still write a lot of proposals that won’t get funded. But by writing better, more readable proposals you’ll improve your chance of funding.

18 thoughts on “Writing Scientific Proposals in Many Easy Steps

  1. ACTIVE VOICE IZ ACTIVE … I have to make those changes to our actual-not-hiding-it sales documents all the time. The product *will* do these things, it’s not a “maybe” or “possibly”.

    In the technical marketing world, the whitepaper is the proposal. You have to make it sound like you’re solving a problem for the entire industry when in fact you’re just trying to sell a small box with wires coming out of the top. Which reminds me, I have this product coming out next month …

  2. Excellent post. For ages I’ve been saying that technical writers should stop trying to avoid the first person. My big pet peeve is when people use “the authors” to refer to themselves. It oozes pretention, and makes me confused as to whether said authors are talking about themselves or talking about the authors of the paper they most recently cited.

  3. Doc….sometimes you really scare me. That’s it…I am going to be forced to remove your brain and makes clones of you for my daughter’s invasion force to conquer the Universe.

    You will become her personal Jango Fett…think of the endless possibilities.

  4. abovenyquist: Ew. I run into that one from time to time, and have been guilty of it myself.

    Oompa: There’s only one question, though: do I get a jetpack?

  5. Wow! That was an awesome post. Thank you so much for writing that. I’m thinking about printing it out and handing it out to my coworkers. Whoo, I thought I was going to have to buy a book on the topic. Thanks Doc!

  6. Cool. There’s still a lot I didn’t cover, like how you decide whether it’s worth writing a proposal in the first place (and that I’m still bad at), so additional books might not be a bad idea. Although I bet they won’t have Engineering Barbie.

  7. Back in school, two of my technical lab courses had to carry an official “writing” component. That meant that in addition to my EE professor grading our lab reports for technical content, an English grad student got to grade them for quality of writing.

    At the tutorial session we were offered with said grad student, she basically forbade us from using passive voice. We were pretty much told that our writing component grade would get killed if we didn’t maintain active voice. That’s okay by itself, but in discussing how to handle it, she also told us we should avoid using “I”. Since these were lab reports about my own work, that meant that I was reduced to writing about myself in the third person. To keep it from being monotonous, I had to come up with about three or four different “names” for myself (“the experimenter”, “the student”, etc.). As abovenyquist says, the writing came across as incredibly pretentious. I got an A on every one of them, but I hated every moment of it.

  8. Unfortunately, the kind of drum-beat prescriptivist advice like I offered above can be taken way too far. There are numerous cases where a passive voice construction is just fine, and in fact better than active voice. I tend to drum “use active voice!” into people’s heads because they avoid it at all costs, but it’s not an iron-clad rule by any means, despite what Strunk & White say.

  9. High praise indeed. Though I should probably wait and see if I win my next proposal before crowning myself King of All Proposaling.

  10. I have to say that I like that idea of having reports marked on their writing. Just a pity to hear that it was done by a grad with a stick up their … can I say “arse” here? Too much Strunk & White, too little LanguageLog.

    It likely won’t be relevant for me, since I’ve fallen out of academia (and work), but would you recommend ‘hiring’ a professional writer to help? It’d have to be someone with the time and background to understand the work and proposals, of course, but still an outsider in some sense. Someone whose primary talent is writing and salesmanship. That’s easier for a big group with funds to spare, obviously, but it might conceivable be possible for beginners on a case by case basis. Or by trawling their circle of friends.

  11. That was a really good article, thanks.

    Still don’t know how I’m supposed to write about my own skills and their application in my workplace without it sounding just plain wierd, but I did enjoy Engineering Barbie. Maybe I will bamboozle my tutor with her. Does she play dress up as Strategic Manager Barbie?

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