Reflections on proposal writing

by Bernhard Streitwieser, Senior Research Associate, Searle Center for Teaching Excellence

Bernhard T. Streitwieser, PhD

Senior Research Associate

Searle Center for Teaching Excellence

Teaching Associate, SESP

Northwestern University

 printable version (doc)

Reflections on the Craft of Proposal Writing

Some Basic Advice:

  • Start early on writing your proposal and planning your research
  • Write, rewrite and write some more (old advice from Chris Hager who said "In this case it's ok to feed the Waste Paper Basket God")
  • Make generous use of all resources available at NU and elsewhere
  • Think carefully about the feasibility, manageability, size and scope of your project: Produce a solid study rather than aiming to write the definitive book on the subject (do that when you're an established scholar)
  • Pick a topic about which, more than anything else, you are deeply passionate
  • Remember: In the end, it's all about the money. Ask yourself why the funder should feel confident putting their money into your project. You need to be able to answer that simple question clearly, succinctly, and convincingly.

What I generally look for when I review proposals (at least in my first read):

  • Does your proposal fit the mission and parameters of the grant; does it address the RFP?
  • Where does your proposed project fit into a bigger picture. I.e., what/where is the gap in the extant scholarship that your project will address?
  • What is your specific question (word it clearly!) and why does it matter (the old 'so what?' question)
  • What, exactly, do you plan to do? How will you be able to carry it out successfully?
  • Answer clearly how you plan to conduct the study, why have you chosen your particular method, sample, analysis technique, theoretical framework, etc., and what makes your project manageable so you will be able to complete it successfully. Will you be able to produce meaningful results that answer a specific question, advance your field, address the problem you've specified, help humanity, etc.? [Advice: site supportive scholarship to explain and justify your chosen research method(s). I.e., for qualitative research projects, Michael Patton's book,Qualitative Research and Evaluation Methods, is very good.]
  • Is your budget carefully thought out, judicious, and reasonable? Again, is your project worthy of Funder X's money??

Additional, nit-picky advice (or, what irks me in proposals I’ve read in the past):

  • Never, ever have typos in your proposal; that will sink your chances immediately!
  • Avoid colloquialisms and hyperbolic terms common to college student speak, like 'super, blew my mind, intense, amazing,' etc.
  • Avoid study abroad cliche terms and expressions when describing your past experiences abroad, such as 'it was amazing!;' 'it totally changed my whole view of the world;' ‘it completely transformed me;’ 'it blew me away!' etc. While all of these things could feel completely true to you, you will come across more credibly if your enthusiasm is substantiated by cogent explanations that convey meaningful experience and genuine, deep learning.
  • Avoid using flowery, literary prose (especially evident in English major essays, I've noted!). Proposals should primarily state the case, support the rationale, and concentrate on being clear and to the point. It is not necessary to entertain the reader with literary flourishes (and many people who try them unfortunately often sound silly or pretentious).
  • Avoid coming across as somehow privileged, rich, or coming from a family tradition of great thinkers. You may be one or all of those things but hint at it illustrious background modestly and carefully. There are ways to make it clear that you’ve had a nice life and are grateful for a good upbringing—and that this background has made you more generous about helping others as a result,, etc—but respectfully tout your experience, background and credentials without outright indicating how rich your parents are or how accomplished and smart you and/or your siblings are, etc.