Image via Wikipedia

Clare Rathbone, a memory researcher at Oxford Brookes, recently sent me the following Unsolicited Advice article by Julianne Dalcanton on how to navigate the early stages of writing a grant proposal:

Discover Magazine Blog:

In the blog, Dalcanton suggests a method for a) overcoming the scary blank-page and b) vetting grant proposal ideas at the earliest possible stage. as follows:

…I start a stupid ASCII file with two sections:

  1. Selling Points
  2. Potential Weaknesses to Shore Up

I then start filling out each with short bullet points listing every possible argument for or against what I’m proposing.

Dalcanton suggests working on this ascii file for half a day or so and then doing something that would never have crossed my mind – sending it to the experts and collaborators from whom you might normally solicit feedback at a much later stage.

Get their feedback about what they think the strongest selling points are, what their additional concerns are, and what arguments they would use to shore up weaknesses. Expand the file accordingly, so you have a record of everything that you think needs to go into the proposal. You’ll probably find that it’s a huge time savings to get this to your collaborators in this form, before you have a 10 page latex file with embedded figures.

This is brilliant. You seek feedback on the core idea, so you don’t have to write proposals that simply won’t appeal to reviewers. Now it’s obvious that this is what I should be trying to do with grant proposal ideas anyway, but the ascii file provides a way of seeking peer-review at this early stage and overcoming the myopic optimism can all to easily cloud judgement and drive a great deal of personal investment in an idea that simply won’t fly.

I have almost emerged from one of the most challenging times in my first year at St Andrews, a period of sustained grant-writing.

Below are some tips and resources that have helped me during the past few months.  Some of the resources are specific to St Andrews (where I am) and the BBSRC (who I am applying to) but most are non-specific.


– A condensed guide to grant-writing from Edinburgh’s Prof. Alan Bundy

– The Chronicle’s guide to how to fail at grant-writing

– Chapters 8 and 9 of The Compleat Academic.


 Read the grant-, scheme- and electronic application-specific guidance notes and organise your application, particularly your Case for Support according to their requirements.
e.g. BBSRC (funding body)
Je-S (electronic submission system)

– Get hold of applications that others have submitted to the same or similar funding bodies. This is probably the most reassuring thing you can do in the early stages of an application.

– Make sure you keep up with changes in funding policy. Twitter, RSS feeds, e-mails doing the rounds at work will help you to make sure you’re not tailoring your grant proposal to a priority that recently been de-prioritised.



– Go through official channels with your costings
but beware of accepting place-holder values that your finance representative puts in for you, for example, in pooled staff costs.

– Should you be successful, you will have authority to spend funds that you have applied for as directly incurred but not those applied for as directly allocated. (Just so you know.)

– Read the guidance notes. Don’t apply for stuff that seems reasonable, but that the guidance notes state should be provided by your home institution (e.g. a desktop computer for day-to-day work)


– Give yourself plenty of it. Not only will it make the experience less stressful, it will also allow you to take time out of the all-consuming process every now and again. A fresh eye spots mistakes in text that a tired one doesn’t even bother reading.

– Be aware of the deadlines

Speak to people (Head of School, Director of Research, your friends in academia) about when you aim to have the grant submitted.  They will give you an indication of when you need to submit it at your end in order that it can by submitted to the research council or charity at their end and still make it in before the deadline.

Finishing touches

Daniel Higginbotham’s guide to visual design. Great for polishing those figures and making pages of dense text comprehensible.