I3: Proposal Writing Tips

When we talk to Principal Investigators (PIs), a common question is typically “Are there any tips for writing a strong grant proposal?”. We offer a virtual office hour (VOH) annually that covers this topic. If you missed the last VOH on this topic, you can read a recap and download the slides here.  

Below we provide some common advice on proposal writing. 

  1. Start with a compelling idea – Your proposal should excite readers by conveying how you will advance the way the scientific community thinks about your topic. Do your homework and make sure to include relevant citations in your proposal. 
  1. Start early and schedule adequate time – Plan ample time to check and recheck the proposal to ensure that all sections are cohesively presented. Ask for letters of collaboration, biosketches, etc. as early as possible. Allocate sufficient time for all team members, collaborators, and others to review your proposal (see point #6 below).  
  1. Develop a checklist of all needed NSF criteria and deadlines – Thoroughly read the program announcement or solicitation, and the proposal preparation instructions of NSF’s current Proposal and Award Policies and Procedures Guide (PAPPG, NSF 23-1). Follow all the instructions closely! Ensure that all required elements are included and all formatting instructions are strictly followed. 
  1. Consider the reviewers – Write clearly and concisely! Your proposal is likely to be reviewed by both broadly trained biologists and subject area experts that work in your specific field. As such, your proposal should strike a balance between clearly outlining specific aims and methodologies, while also describing the importance of your objectives and approaches. You want all reviewers to be able to easily understand your plan, why each piece is important, and which team members will carry out the various aspects of the work. This is where the assessment of a colleague who is not a member of your project team can be particularly helpful. 
  1. Proofread your text and figures – Typos can be distracting, so take the time to carefully proofread both your text and figures. Ensure any figures and figure legends included are easy to read. 
  1. Find a proposal-writing mentor or ask for a peer-review – Ask for feedback on your proposal from colleagues, especially those that have been successful in securing NSF funding. Your colleagues can help identify confusing areas in the proposal and provide advice for strengthening the proposed research and broader impacts. Have a generalist read the proposal draft, not just individuals who are very familiar with the research area. 
  1. Broader Impacts can be diverse and should be related to your project – The great thing about Broader Impacts is that there are a vast number of ways to benefit society. Pick goals that are relevant to your proposal topic and develop corresponding activities that you are passionate about. Examples can include, but are not limited to, increasing and including underrepresented individuals in STEM; improving STEM education and educator development; increasing public engagement with STEM, developing a more diverse, globally competitive STEM workforce, and more! Look at the NSF Broader Impacts page for some more discussion on this topic. The ARIS Broader Impacts Toolkit is an additional resource that can be helpful when developing your Broader Impacts. 
  1. Craft a reasonable budget – Ask for what is needed to carry out the work you propose. Think carefully about the amount of monetary funds and amount of time needed for each team member. Justify each expense and don’t forget to budget for your Broader Impact activities (if funds are needed to accomplish them!). For more information, see this blog post.  
  1. Get to know your NSF Program Officer (PO) – A PO can help provide guidance on many aspects of the proposal development process, including determining whether your ideas fit within the scope of NSF’s funding opportunities. If you are uncertain about anything in a program announcement, solicitation, Dear Colleague Letter, or the PAPPG, contact us! For questions about the suitability of a potential proposal to the program announcement or solicitation, it is most helpful if you include a 1-page summary of your research plans for the PO to review. If you are new to NSF, you can also attach your Biosketch or CV to that email as a way of introduction. 
  1. Don’t get discouraged! – Even experienced grant writers have proposals declined. Follow the guidance on revision and resubmission, and try again!  

Happy proposal writing!