Know your audience

I recently took a grantsmanship course at Northwestern and my brain is now full. Seriously, though, I came away from the course with so much great information and advice that I could fill 10 blog posts, but I thought I would start with this: when writing a grant, always keep your audience in mind.

Image from: Giles J. Research grants: the nightmare before funding. Nature. 2005;437:308-311.

For any grant, the audience is (1) the funding agency and (2) the reviewers who are reporting back to the funding agency. That’s it. You are writing the grant for them. What does this mean? It means that part of good grantsmanship is doing as much up-front research as possible about your audience. For NIH grants, what are the mission statement and research priorities of the institute/center (I/C) you are targeting? Does your research fit into these priorities? What IRG or study section would you like to review your grant and who is on it? Print out the program announcement (PA) and study it until the pages’ corners are ratty. Check RePORTER to see what research the I/C has already funded. Is your proposal different from already funded research?

To be clear, all this should happen before writing your grant.

It seems obvious from a marketing standpoint – market research and competitive intelligence are essential first steps in promotional writing. But it’s probably not so obvious for researchers who are focused on their research program and how to keep it going, not market research!

The other part of the audience is the reviewers themselves. What are they looking for? How do they score your grant? Be sure you understand the review criteria and scoring system and keep them in mind as you write your grant. For NIH grants, each reviewer on a study section is assigned 3 grants – while they aren’t the 25-page behemoths they once were, this still amounts to a stack of paper to review. Use key words and statements that correspond to the review criteria. Make it as easy as possible for the reviewers to find the information they need to score the grant. Of course, good writing and grammar are important so that your science is not lost in bad writing, but it is just as important to keep the reviewer and the scoring criteria in mind as you write your proposal.

The takeaway message for today? No matter what kind of writing you are doing–grants, education, promotional, heck, even fiction–know your audience. And for grantwriting, do some preliminary research on the funding agency and understand the scoring system inside and out. As you write the grant, remember to step back from time to time and ask yourself if you are fulfilling the review criteria and responding to the program announcement exactly as it is written.


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