How to write a grant application: 10 tips to smash it!

As researchers, we’re not really taught how to write a grant application. It’s something that we’re meant to learn as we go, even though attracting grant funding is such a vital part of being a researcher. In this post, I share 10 tips and tricks for writing a quality grant application ON TIME.

Perhaps the most important part is that it’s not just about writing; project management is just as important when it comes to pulling together a great grant application. There are so many moving parts to co-ordinate, especially with a multi-million-pound grant, that keeping an oversight of everything is vital.

I’ve led the writing of many grant applications over the years, and secured over £10 million in funding as a result, but I’m one of those people who have had to learn through experience. So let me share some key lessons I’ve learnt along the way about how to write a grant application.

How to write a grant application - 10 tips to smash it

1. Decide who will do what

Whilst lots of people need to be involved in writing a grant application, you’ll need somebody to take a lead. This person will be responsible for things like making sure the timelines stay on track, co-ordinating the reviews, holding the master copy of the application, and costing the project.

In fact, I’ve found the most successful applications have 2 people leading them. The benefit of this is that there’s often too much work for large applications for one person to do alone, plus it’s helpful to have somebody to immediately bounce ideas off.

I’ve mainly done this in two ways. The first is where you divide the tasks between yourselves on a daily basis so that both of you are always working to your strengths. The second is where one leads on the writing and the other leads on the costs, and then you help each other out as needed. The latter probably works better, unless you already have a very strong working relationship with each other.

2. Plan out your writing timetable

If you want to avoid a last minute rush and the need to work insane hours to get your application in on time, then you need to be clear on your writing timetable from the start. To do this, I work back from the submission date and factor in review rounds to figure out when the first and subsequent drafts need to be ready. It’s usually a lot earlier than you would expect!

Set deadlines whenever you give people tasks, including reviewing the application, to make sure your timetable stays on track.

3. Engage with existing support

There’s lots of free support available to help you write your grant application so make the most of that. For example, if you’re applying for UK NIHR funding then speak with your local NIHR RDS service as soon as you know that you are going to apply. They’ll be able to advise on how they can help you – at the very least, I would book in an RDS review of the application.

Many of the larger funding streams also offer free webinars that are really useful to attend. Most universities also have their own internal support for grant applications. If you’re not sure whether your university does then check your intranet or contact your R&D department.

4. Involve all co-applicants

This one sounds obvious, but it’s easy to get caught up in the writing and forget to check in regularly with the wider team.

Phone or video calls in particular are invaluable as people often mention extra details that are important to include in the application. Weekly calls can be great for making sure that everybody is kept up to date with the progress and to chase down extra pieces of information that can get lost in an email trail.

5. PPI/E input

PPI/E (Patient and public involvement/engagement) can be really helpful in developing your application, and is required by a lot of funders. Again, there are lots of structures already in place to support this so if you’re not sure how to access PPI/E then check your intranet, speak to your local NIHR RDS service, or ask your R&D department.

Good PPI/E can take time so make sure to start this early, and keep coming back to it regularly as you refine your proposed project.

6. Send a draft synopsis out early

I recommend writing a short synopsis (usually one page) to send out to all of the co-applicants before you start writing the main application. This helps to nail down the core details and make sure that everybody has the same understanding of the important elements of the proposal.

It’s also really helpful for making sure that you can write your idea simply and clearly as you’ll need to be able to do that in the application.

7. Expression of interest

Some funders require an expression of interest to be submitted before you submit your application. Even those that don’t require this can often be contacted to check that your proposal is likely to fit within the funding remit, so it’s worth an email or phone call to ask the question. This is a great way to get some early feedback from the funder as well.

8. Make requests early

If your application needs anything from other people then ask for it as early as possible. Letters of support and external costs are the two main examples here. Often people will have their own internal processes that they’ll need to follow so it’s worth asking for these as early as possible to make sure that you can get everything that you need on time.

9. Include guidance in template

Often funders will provide a template application and guidance as two separate documents. I always go through the template and pull the relevant guidance sections into it, either as comments or a highlighted section. You can delete them out later but it’s really helpful to have the guidance visibly present as it’s easy to forget about it (and miss something important!) once you start writing and know what you want to say for each section.

10. Make it look nice

Presentation is super important when it comes to grant applications. Reviewers will read a lot of applications and won’t know it inside out in the same way that you will, so they’ll need information to be easily at hand. Things like sub-headings and bolding text can be helpful here.

Careful proof-reading is important too. If you struggle to do that objectively after looking at something in so much detail then ask a colleague to do it for you, or ask your co-applicants to keep an eye on it when they’re reviewing the application.

Want to learn more?

If you’d like more support with your writing then check out the Health Researcher Clubhouse! We have a forum and regular Q&A sessions where I’ll support you with your writing (including how to write a grant application), as well as training on writing-related topics and much more.

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