Always be compliant
Follow your sponsors’ rules and requirements. Developing and submitting proposals is far too much work to get rejected because your font is too small, your margins too narrow, or because you changed computers and Word versions and some of your text now places you over the page limit. Double check everything. Do exactly what the funding announcement or request for proposal asks.
Do you really understand your sponsor’s concerns? Federal sponsors often follow a research agenda outlined in strategic documents, such as the National Science Foundation’s 10 Big Ideas or NASA’s Strategic Plan. Philanthropic sponsors follow very specific missions and visions that mirror their donors’ interests. Corporate sponsors may have nuggets of information buried in news articles or press releases. Read these and make sure you know what your funder is really looking for.
Make your benefits to the sponsor, to society, to humanity, to the United States and to the American taxpayer crystal clear. Move beyond esoteric benefits to the scientific community and think big. Remember: everything has a benefit — from engineering algal biofuel to studying bee colonies to abstract art to new translations of ancient Assyrian texts.
Know thy audience
Consider your audience’s education levels, available time to read and interest in your subject. Not every proposal is reviewed by an academic panel. Not every program officer has the same power in making award decisions. Take time to craft a proposal targeted at impressing those who score it and those who actually make the funding decisions.
Be brief, be clear
Clear writing indicates clear thinking. Aim to be understood, not to intimidate or show off. Wherever possible, choose simple words familiar to your reader. Structure sentences to be understood. Strike redundant language or paragraphs (unless they repeat key messages).
Beware of the curse of knowledge
Read and edit your proposal from the perspective of someone who may not understand what you’re talking about. Knowledge has become so specialized that even people in the same field with the same education levels often talk past each other and alienate readers with excessive abbreviations, poorly defined abstractions and unfamiliar jargon.
Have someone else read your proposal before submitting
Everyone can benefit from a second set of eyes and a second brain. Send it to a trusted colleague or friend for comments and be sure to heed their input. Complex, multi-investigator proposals should go out to a review panel. If they aren’t getting it, neither will your sponsor. If they find tons of grammar or scientific errors, so will your sponsors.