Coastal Research Grants: write the project description

Author: Zofia Knorek

We’re officially over halfway through our #CoastalResearchGrants series. In this series, we’re walking through the steps of preparing a proposal for a coastal research grant using the Margaret A. Davidson Graduate Fellowship  application as a specific case study. Thus far, we’ve primarily focused on what you can do to prepare before you start writing. Last post, we discussed the importance of outlining your ideas. Even if you don’t have an outline ready yet, you can read ahead so you can be thinking about what’s coming down the pike. However, we highly recommend you have an outline prepared before you start working toward the suggestions on writing a first draft of your project description (research statement) that are detailed in this post. 

Do yourself a favor and format your document according to the Davidson Fellowship Request for Proposals at the outset--in this case, your project description must include a) Problem Statement and Background Information; b) Project Approach (methods and aims); c) Expected Outcomes; and d) Milestone schedule. That way, you’ll have a decent idea as to how much of your allotted space you’re actually using at any given time. As you develop your ideas from outline form to complete written sentences, try to write as you (should) speak; don’t be overly formal or casual. Sometimes this is easier said than done--writing is, admittedly, challenging! But there are tools you can use to make the process easier, including dictation software, also known as voice-to-text software. There are many free options, so if you’re unfamiliar with how they work there are low-stakes opportunities to explore. Try recording your train of thought. You’ll probably find that like many people, you can speak faster than you can type. Learn more about dictation software on Medium

Regardless of what method you use to get the words on the page, as you make edits you should seek to be careful and explicit in your word choice. Here are some more specific tips:

  • Avoid slang and imprecise terminology, including contractions, as well as jargon and overly formal language.
  • Spell out acronyms the first time you use them, and avoid using too many 
  • Don’t exaggerate; use appropriate statistics, facts, etc. 
  • Have grammar, thesaurus, and dictionary references available to use.
    • Microsoft Word’s spelling and grammar suggestions offer good basic guides.
    • Grammarly is a great free Chrome plugin that works with Google Docs, Gmail, Outlook, and more.
    • The Elements of Style by Strunk and White is a concise must-have resource for any writer. You can usually find a used hard copy online for a few dollars or search for a free PDF online.
  • Use the active voice. In the past, science writing traditionally used the passive voice, but the active voice emphasizes author responsibility, improves readability, and reduces ambiguity. Therefore, the active voice is better for method reproducibility.
  • Limit adjective (over)use--less is more. Say precisely what you mean
  • Show, don’t tell. Back up your assertions with citations and specific data and facts.

Another way to streamline your writing workflow is to cite as you write. Having a citation manager and plug-in for your word processor is key! Don’t save your in-text citations as a last step. (That said, don’t totally shy away from anecdotal information either. Your question may have come from a novel natural history observation, which you can cite as personal observation, or if someone else made the observation, personal communication.)

As you’re writing your proposal’s specific methods, it makes sense to simultaneously develop your tasks and timeline. This component is usually a table where each row is a broad task detailed in the methods section, and each column is a month. Think of it as an outline of how you’ll execute your project. You can see specific examples in the application materials referenced in the first blog post of this series.

Closing thoughts: 

One of the best things you can do for yourself as a writer is to read your writing aloud. It’s awkward, yes, but that’s the point. You’ll catch clumsy language that your eyes might otherwise glaze over after reading for the umpteenth time. And it will help you tighten your language so that your written voice aligns with your spoken voice. As you’re reading, be thinking about sentence and paragraph structure. Does each paragraph have a clear beginning, middle, and end? Within each paragraph, does each consecutive sentence build on the one before it? Consider these guides and others with the Center for Disease Control’s Clear Writing Checklist.

After you’ve done a first pass of edits, try to get as many different sets of eyes as possible on your draft, including both people who are familiar with your work and those who aren’t. At the end of the day, a poorly written proposal will sink a good research idea. Stay in the good graces of your reviewer by ensuring that your proposal is clearly written and easy to read. 

We hope you found this helpful and look forward to discussing more next week. For reference, the topics for this series are:

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

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.

Don’t forget the Davidson Fellowship is due December 10, 2021!

Zofia Knorek (@zofiaknorek, she/her) is a PhD candidate in ecology at the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences and the 2020 Coastal Training Program grant writing intern with the North Carolina Coastal Reserve & National Estuarine Research Reserve. 

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