Coastal research grants: draft an outline

Author: Zofia Knorek

We’ve made it to the third of six posts in the #CoastalResearchGrants blog series. We’re walking through the steps of preparing a proposal for a coastal research grant using the North Carolina Coastal Research Fellowship application as a specific case study. Recall that “grant writing” is really ~80% preparation and only ~20% writing. The suggestions from the first two weeks were focused on the things you should read about and the folks you should talk to about your ideas before you start writing. By now, you should have a somewhat firm understanding of the task ahead of you: what the components of the application are, who you need those components from, and when you need them by. Ideally, you’ve started thinking about the why and where of your project and discussed it with your advisor and the program coordinators.

This week, we’ll continue exploring the why and where concepts of your application, but the primary focus will be on how. How will you get the application assembled? Start by making a plan and getting yourself organized with an outline

Remember, you’re usually not starting from scratch!

Look for content and inspiration on how to structure your application package in the following places:
  1. The Request For Proposals (RFP). Start with the required application components and use the numbered list included in the RFP verbatim as your section headers.
  2. 2019 application materials from past NCCR Fellow Sarah Donaher and the author of this post, Zofia Knorek. You have access to at least two complete applications, but perhaps even more--remember to ask your lab mates and peers if they have applications they’d be willing to share.
  3. Your prior proposals/additional written content. If you have a couple paragraphs of background information written in preliminary research materials or another proposal, start by transforming that information back to an outline format. Sometimes that looks like full sentences as bullets, but the point is to distill out the key information. This exercise makes a blank page far less daunting.

Let’s break down the description section a bit more. This section is where you show the funding agency how your idea is relevant to their needs, and your opportunity to hook them with explaining why the question is important to answer. It’s not always explicitly an application component, but many grants expect that you provide a needs statement. Suggestion: break the “2. Description” section from the RFP into two sub-sections: background (how) and statement of the problem (why). The statement of the problem section is a good place to put your questions/aims as a complement to your hypotheses.     

Consider the following guiding questions as you develop your outline:

  • How do your goals and objectives overlap or fit with the Management Plan(s), Strategic Plan, and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Statement?
  • How will you evaluate your work if you are awarded the fellowship? Think about both 1) what statistical analyses you plan to use to interpret your data and 2) how you’ll determine the “success” of your project. If you’re planning a specific outreach activity, how will you measure impact?

The more detailed you make each section of your outline, the easier it will be for you to write a full draft of each component. You can build your outline iteratively, as we started to here- start with the basic requirements or “bare bones”, then start to flesh it out. There is no one correct way to go about this process. If you have an approach that works for you, use it! But if there are a couple parts of your outline that you focus on detailing more than the others this week, we’d recommend they be 2. Description and 3. Materials and Methods.

Closing thoughts 

Spoiler alert- I made an outline for this entire blog series. I started with a basic outline of the weekly topics I wanted to cover, and then filled in the details week by week. I use an agenda to outline my day. I use a trail map to outline my hiking routes. The point is that outlines are super versatile tools, so use them in a way that works for you. Indeed, outlines are so critical to the grant writing process that the first basic rule in Karsh and Fox’s The only grant-writing book you'll ever need is “Before You Write One Word, Make an Outline” (more on some of the other rules next week). So don’t skip it! 

Catch you next week. For reference, the topics for this series are:

  1. Before you write
  2. Solicit early feedback
  3. Draft an outline (this post)
  4. Write the research statement
  5. Prepare a budget and additional materials
  6. Assemble and polish the application package; intangibles 

Don’t forget the Coastal Research Fellowship is due December 7th at 5pm!

Questions? Requests for content to cover in future posts? Have a resource you think everyone should know about? Join the discussion with the #CoastalResearchGrants hashtag.

Zofia Knorek (@zofiaknorek, she/her) is a 3rd-year PhD student in ecology at the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences and Coastal Training Program grant writing intern with the North Carolina Coastal Reserve & National Estuarine Research Reserve. 

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