In this post I want to describe the framework of a grant application. Its components are the key sentences in the case for support that define its essential message. I will explain what the sentences are and how you use them to build the framework. Then I want to explain how you can draft the sentences very very quickly.
The essential message of a grant application’s case for support is carried in twelve key sentences, which make the case in headlines. The rest of the document fleshes out that case, provides evidence and makes it believable. But the key sentences set out what has to be believed. They say what the research project will achieve, why it is important, how it will achieve its goal and what you will do with the results. That is the sense in which they carry the essential message.
So what are the 12 key sentences?
Sentence 1 is very important. Its function is to make the reader want to read on by giving them a sense of what your research project will deliver. A good way to do this is to state the overall goal of the project and to specify enough detail about the project to make it seem both feasible and distinctive. For example, the sentence “This project will develop a new potential treatment for stroke based on a family of synthetic metabolic inhibitors that our group has discovered, tested and synthesised” does all this. Like many introductory sentences, it is quite long. The length is due to extra information that makes it clear both what the approach is and that the project is building on previous work by the applicants. The project would have seemed less feasible and less distinctive if the sentence had stopped at the word “stroke”.
Sentence 2 should state importance of the problem to be solved. A good sentence 2 (assuming it’s true) would be “Stroke is the commonest cause of death and disability in the working population: each year it kills x and disables y people.” It is a common mistake to say something like this in the first sentence but it does not engage the reader so effectively as a promise that the project will solve the problem.
Sentences 3-6 state the aims of the research project. Their function is to make the reader appreciate how important it is to carry out each of the four sub-projects for which you are seeking funding. Each can be a simple statement that “We need to know” whatever the sub-project will discover.
Sentence 7 introduces the research project. It is an introductory sentence and it can help to add some complexity to make the project seem more feasible and more distinctive. For example, the hypothetical stroke project would be helped by some reference to the achievements of the research team or to the distinctive facilities available.
Sentences 8-11 introduce each of the sub-projects. Each sentence needs both to say something about what the sub-project entails and something about what it will discover. It is crucial that the discoveries match exactly the things that sentences three to six said that we need to know.
Sentence 12 says something about what will be done with the results to maximise the benefit that will accrue from the project.
Where do the key sentences appear?
Each of the key sentences should be used three times. First they appear consecutively in the introduction of the case for support. The introduction may also include some linking statements but no other substantive messages.
The sentences appear again in the main body of the case for support. This time each sentence introduces a significant section of text that fleshes out and justifies its message.
Third, the summary of the project should be virtually an exact copy of the introduction to the case for support.
How do you write the key sentences quickly?
As I will explain below, it should be possible to produce first drafts of the key sentences in less than an hour. I recommend that you use the draft key sentences as a framework for writing the two main sections of the case for support, the background and the description of the research project. As you develop these sections you should refine your key sentences. Only when you think they are perfect should you copy them into the introduction.
If you have prepared an outline of your proposed research project in the way I have recommended, it should be possible to get rough drafts of your key sentences in less than an hour. Here is how.
Sentences 3-6 should take you less than 5 minutes. It is simply a matter of writing “We need to know” in front of what you have written as the discovery that will be delivered by each sub-project.
Sentences 8-11 should be almost as quick. Each sentence has two clauses, the first says something descriptive about the nature of the research in the relevant sub project, the second clause begins “this will tell us” and then continues with whatever follows the words “We need to know” in the corresponding sentence from 3-6. I think that 15 minutes should be plenty of time to draft these.
Sentence 7 should also be fairly easy. It is a descriptive sentence that summarises the main features of the research project. These features are itemised in the first clauses of each of the sentences 8-11. You simply need an overarching summary. It should only take you a couple of minutes.
If you haven’t thought hard about dissemination it will be impossible to draft the definitive version of sentence 12 at this stage. However, you should force yourself to write something quickly now. What you write may be rather unconvincing at this stage, but the effort of writing it will be a stimulus for you to think about that phase of the project as you flesh out the case for support. Don’t spend more than 5 minutes on it at this stage.
Now it is time for sentence 1. This is the hardest sentence to write and it’s nearly impossible if you try to write it too soon. It should be pretty easy now because you have written sentences 3-12. The ideal form of sentence 1 is that it states a big question to which all of your sub-projects contribute. It then adds some detail about how you will do the project. This detail should be drawn from sentence 7. With the preparation you have done, sentence 1 should take no more than 10 minutes.
Don’t worry that your sub-projects don’t answer the big question completely. They never do. The knack is to find a big question that fits loosely, but not too loosely, around your project. It has to be clear that your project will contribute to answering the big question you have chosen. It is accepted that there is a trade-off between how completely you answer the question and how big it is – everybody knows that it took more than one research project grant to find the Higgs particle. You cope with the fact that your project will not answer your big question completely by choosing your words carefully. Notice that, in my sentence 1, I have been careful to use the term “potential treatment”. It would be foolish to claim an actual treatment. Claiming a cure would be madness.
Once you have a draft of sentence 1, sentence 2 should be very quick and easy to draft. All you need to do is to give a reason that your contribution to answering the big question is important. If it takes you more than a minute then you need to redraft sentence 1. Even with a redraft, you should have your framework well within the hour. If it takes you two hours, then you are not ready to write the grant. Find out how to get ready by reading this post.This was first posted on Andrew’s blog at Parker Derrington Ltd