Proposal Writing Techniques

Proposal writing can be overwhelming. It is a skill, and it is a skill acquired through practice.

Few people enjoy rejection, but it happens. To make your proposal as compelling as possible and avoid rejection, we have compiled a few pieces of advice. They might seem obvious, but in our experience, these rank among the most common reasons for proposal rejection.

1) Plan your time. If the proposal requires more than a narrative and a budget (e.g., biographical sketches, letters of commitment from collaborators), make sure you compile the information well before the deadline. Online application portals can (and do) have technical issues, hard copies get lost in transit, and important sections can accidentally be omitted. Please set an internal deadline that is well before the actual deadline. Last minute submissions are often rushed and contain errors, and they present as rushed with errors. Plan your time.

2) Think about who will read your proposal. Not just the peer review, but who is empowered to make the decision. Information about the selection process may be available on the funder’s website or in the specific Request For Proposals (RFP). If it is not, you may be able to learn more by speaking to a program officer at the funding source or from the Office of Sponsored Programs. This is your audience, so tailor your phrasing to be as specific as possible to the request. (It is absolutely ok to mimic the RFP’s own language. (Meaning, if the RFP states “funding to increase understanding of XYZ,” feel free to write “my proposal will increase understanding of XYZ.” And then elaborate how.)

3) Abide by all page limits and formatting requirements. When in doubt, use a common font (Times New Roman or Arial) in 12 point, with 1” margins. (Page limits or character counts may mean that you are not able to present a fully rigorous case according to the your discipline’s publication norms. That is ok.) We have seen proposals get kicked back for technical errors when, say, an extra page was added in the conversion from a Word document to a PDF.

4) State the purpose, significance, and (if relevant) guiding hypothesis of your project clearly on the first page. Do not make your audience guess or read too far into your proposal for answers. If the reviewer has a stack of 50 proposals, and yours happens to be number 49 in the stack, make it easy for the reviewer’s potentially tired brain to know exactly what you propose.

5) Strike a tone that is confident and forward-looking. Use active verbs and concrete nouns. Never write “might,” “could,” “would” or “should.”

The Office of Sponsored Programs and Research Compliance is happy to offer editing and feedback on proposal drafts. This is a free service, and we encourage you to take advantage.