Scienc Writing

National Postdoc Appreciation Week: Judy Swan Kicks It Off with a Proposal Writing Workshop at Penn.”

* This article was originally published in the Fall 2013 issue of the Biomedical Postdoctoral Council’s Newsletter.

By Caleph B. Wilson

The University of Pennsylvania kicked off National Postdoc Appreciation week with a very exciting two part proposal writing workshop, “Best Practices For Effective Team Writing and Developing Grant Proposals” by Dr. Judy Swan.  She the Associate Director for Writing in Science and Engineering of Princeton University’s Writing Program. Dr. Swan’s background as both a biomedical graduate student and postdoc mirrors the experiences of the postdocs under the Biomedical Postdoctoral Programs umbrella; therefore, she brought a wealth of relevant expertise. Dr. Swan’s morning session focused on writing as a team and the proposal structure.  The afternoon focused on how to move forward with developing and writing a proposal.

From the beginning of the workshop, Dr. Swan pointed out a very key point, which is this, “What distinguishes scientific writing from other forms of writing is that we write in teams.” However, postdoctoral level scientific team writing has an apparent issue. As graduate students, we are sent off to write papers and theses, alone. After finally struggling and getting something written, our PI takes the ‘correction pen’ and enthusiastically provides feedback in the form red text and comments. Our writing is hard to pin-point in all the changes outlined by ‘tracked changes.’ In order to transition to effective team writing, we have to begin to think about writing in terms similar to how we collaborate on research projects. Dr. Swan explains that in team writing “you will get a draft from people (or write one) that does not look like what you need it to look like.”  The question is this:  How do you move forward with crafting a proposal that transforms into a well written and clear document? First, determine the major expectations of the writing. Get feedback to improve your document. Finally, rewrite the document to conform to the readers’ expectations, for a solid proposal.

In the case of proposals, the funding agency’s reviewers are the reader that you are considering. The goal is to get your proposal read and scored.  This may seem like an obvious point, but in this tough funding environment the writer that passes the triage process has a fighting chance at getting scored. Moreover, a well written proposal has a stronger opportunity at scoring well.

Dr. Swan laid out a number of points that will help your proposal survive the triage process.

1) Read the funders proposal structure and submission instructions very, very carefully.

Yes, “the devil is in the details.” Groups, organizations and agencies have very specific structure and instructions. You do not want a lack of following instructions to be what tanks your beloved proposal. Remember, funders and reviewers are looking for reasons to reduce the stack of grants that they receive.

2) Make sure that your proposal has all the elements outlined by the funder.

Although, you have thoroughly read the instructions and put your grant together, it is possible to focus on some aspects more closely than others. Those parts that seem to be easier can be easily overlooked. I have found creating a checklist to be the best way to ensure that my proposals have required elements.

3) Know which parts of the grant require the most emphasis.

The type of grant can determine what elements are more critical. Because postdocs are early career investigators, some grants may focus more on your personal or leadership backgrounds. Others may need you to emphasize your science. Weight your proposal appropriately.

4) Be clear on the proposal review process.

Developing projects and executing them is stressful enough. Try not to compound your stress by letting your imagination run wild! Be clear on the time frame of the review process and how it proceeds. Moreover, do not be afraid to follow up if the review process exceeds the timetable. Unforeseeable events happen. You need to know if you should be working on a resubmission, or submitting elsewhere.

5) Write in a way that allows your reviewer to be enthusiastic about your proposal.

Enthusiasm should be the result of the rewriting that you and your team have done. An excited reviewer will likely give you a fundable score and fight for your proposal during a study section. Out of a stack of grants that a reviewer has slogged through, an easily readable and solid proposal is refreshing, according to Dr. Swan.

Prior to starting the writing workshop’s afternoon session, some of us were able to participate in roundtable discussions. Dr. Swan had us tackle the one of the most difficult parts of writing – getting words on the page. Many postdocs have to get over the hurdle of starting a writing project before moving to the team writing process. To describe this process Dr. Swan said, “It is hard to believe writing is a process of injury.”

Afterward, the roundtable discussion had some great points on how to bet the writing engine warmed up. Here are a few things that were mentioned by postdocs:

“Use your (lab) notebook to put parts (of papers) together early.”

“Write everything in your (lab notebook’s) results comprehensively. Read it the next day and refine what you wrote.”

“Write figures (and legends) first.”

“Write the introduction (and abstract) last.”

“Try writing something every day to make writing a habit.”

Overall, getting some words on the page represents the best way to get your writing moving forward. Spend some time to refine your best practices. You have a writing rhythm. Find it and writing will become routine.

Dr. Swan’s afternoon session highlighted the stages of writing. As you consider putting your proposal together, keep your process in mind. Dr. Swan mentioned this, “Writing is a physical process. What is your ritual?” For example, do you need to set aside a half-day block of time, play your favorite music and get a glass of your favorite beverage to get into your writing rhythm?

As you morph into a writing superhero prepare yourself to move through the writing stages.  That starts with giving yourself an adequate timeline to complete your proposal. Start with asking this question: How much time do I need to get this proposal written?  The appropriate answer to this question is based on a realistic assessment of your skills and the scope of the proposal. Getting through following steps is key:  1) Pre-drafting,  2) Drafting,  3) Revising, and 4) Editing/Proofing.

Pre-drafting entails everything that you do to get the background materials ready. This usually means a large and scattered pile of papers or files. What is the best way for you to manage moving through these materials? Organize them to in a way that keeps you on task. This is when you explore your ideas and develop an outline for a coherent proposal draft.

After getting your thoughts and plan together begin writing. Revisit the key point of your proposal multiple times throughout the draft. The reviewer will know your point because you will keep reminding him or her.

Analyzing what you have written is part of the revising process. Does your preliminary data support your aims? Do you need to do more experiments that are in line with your proposal? This is a good time to for the writing team of co-authors and contributors to review the proposal. Putting together the best proposal prior to the editing process is your aim.

Editing is the time to eliminate unnecessary words and sentences. Start with having your editorial support review the proposal. Multiple editors can give you a fresh perspective on the document. They will be able to help you flesh out glaring issues with readability. During the drafting process you worked steadfastly to get your words on the page. Editors should go through your proposal sentence-by-sentence. Each sentence should support the point of the proposal.

After moving through the stages of the writing process the reviewers should easily be able to read your proposal.  “We want the reviewer to make up their mind in the first reading,” says Dr. Swan. Additionally, she points out that “every sentence needs to maintain the same judgment throughout the document.”

A final take home message: If you can get the reviewer to become and stay interested in your proposal, you will be off to a good start. Keep in mind that a well prepared, edited and written proposal is both necessary and sufficient to garnering enthusiastic support of your reviewer.