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Office of Sponsored Programs
Teachers College, Columbia University
Teachers College
Columbia University

The Drafting Process

Proposal Development: Drafting Stages

Beyond the strictly scientific content of the proposal, you can strengthen the narrative portion of your proposal by keeping the following in mind:

  • Proofreading counts!
  • Sponsor space, type, margin and font requirements must always be respected. Proposals are rejected outright if you try to squeeze things; the NSF Fastlane system will not allow a proposal to be submitted unless its requirements are strictly observed.
  • Know your audience. Scientific review panels are typically composed of both experts in your research area and experts in your general discipline. Define terminology that may be unfamiliar to non-experts. This is even more critical in curriculum development and institutional proposals, where the reviewers are likely to be drawn from among experts in education rather than a particular discipline.
  • Write the proposal in "one voice." E-mail has made it considerably easier to work on proposals with collaborators at other institutions. However, it is jarring to reviewers if the component sections of a proposal differ widely in tone or style and may lead to doubts about the collaborators' ability to coordinate their activities. The problem is particularly acute in interdisciplinary proposals, in which collaborators may have entirely different professional vocabularies. In such instances, use the vocabulary most appropriate to the agency to which you are applying.
  • Avoid "boilerplate" language or statistics in the proposal narrative (though boilerplate is often necessary in other sections). Institutional and programmatic proposals will typically need information about the College, its mission, facilities, faculty and student body that you will need to cull from other sources. It is important to select only the information that has a direct bearing on your proposal, even when other information sounds impressive.
  • Look for opportunities throughout the proposal to stress the ways in which your project meets the stated objectives of the sponsor. Many proposals state at the beginning that they address one or another funding priority and never allude to those priorities again. More than simply stating which priorities your proposal will address, sponsors like you to demonstrate how specific aspects of your proposal meet their priorities. While it is probably counterproductive to structure your proposal around such a demonstration, there will almost certainly be natural places where the contiguities between your proposal and sponsor goals can be emphasized as you revise subsequent drafts.
  • Evaluation and dissemination plans are key factors during the review of institutional and program development proposals. Reviewing proposals in your area funded by the same sponsor is almost always a worthwhile step, especially if you have never submitted a proposal of this type before. Investigators will usually respond favorably to requests for copies of their proposal on those occasions when the proposal is not readily available on a sponsor web site.

In addition to the narrative portion, there is certain standard information sponsors typically request with a proposal:

  • Biographical Sketches. Federal proposals typically limit biographical information to just two pages per key project personnel. This limitation is significantly shorter than the typical academic vita. It is a mistake to create an all-purpose two-page vita for use with all your grant applications. There may be small differences in the information requested each time and each application biography should be tailored to highlight those elements of your professional background most directly relevant to the proposal. Sometimes this emphasis can come at the expense of mentioning more prestigious professional attainments if they have no direct bearing on the proposal or occurred more than five years ago.
  • Current and pending support. Investigators with substantial support already in place or pending may raise questions in the sponsor's mind as to whether they would be able to perform the work involved. If you report more than one or two current or pending awards, include information on course release and the percentage of your effort reported on each of them. Effort on all projects plus teaching and other duties cannot exceed 100%.
  • Facilities and resources. These include any resources or services the College provides that can contribute to the project. Don't mention facilities or equipment that have no direct application to the project, but don't overlook things such as computing facilities, which are relevant to almost any project.
  • Review of the literature. At a recent talk given by former Federal review panelists, there was a consensus that nothing dooms a proposal more effectively than a failure to cite a panelist who feels they should have been cited. Unfortunately, there is no way to be certain who will ultimately review your proposal, and NIH is the only agency that routinely publishes lists of its review panelists. To minimize this possibility, make sure your references list is thorough and up to date. If you are consciously failing to cite a particular researcher's work for scientific reasons, you should request that person not be asked to review your proposal.
  • Potential reviewers. Sponsors will usually honor your wishes when it comes to people whom you don't want to review your proposal. You should use this section to name anyone who might have a conflict of interest in reviewing your proposal. Sponsors are less likely to honor requests regarding whom you do want to review your proposal, but there is never any harm in asking.

Applications, Submissions, and Reporting

Finding Funding Resources