Preparing a Competitive Proposal

Proposal writing is not the same as other types of writing. It is a learned skill, a delicate dance of informing and persuading in as few words as possible. On this page you'll find insights from us and others in the field of grantsmanship. We hope you will find the resources below helpful. Feel free to ask questions. We are here to help you.

How to Prepare a Competitive Proposal: Advice from External Grants

Start with a great idea. Devote considerable planning time to developing this great idea into solid project using a logic model.  Identify a prospective funder whose interests match yours, and read their application instructions carefully. While this application instruction is often referred to as the guidelines, think of them as rules. They are rarely mere suggestions.

Within the project statement, clearly communicate the current situation (baseline) and where you will bring the situation by grant period end (outcomes). Hypothetical, somewhat exaggerated example: "Currently, only 1% of college graduates nationwide demonstrate proficiency in a lesser-taught language. Through my ingenious, replicable activities, 5% of graduates at my college will demonstrate proficiency in a lesser-taught language by the end of the grant period." This will tell the grant maker what they most want to know: how much difference will their grant money buy if they choose to invest in you. A grant maker will find your promised outcomes more persuasive and believable if they are SMART: Specific, Measurable, Ambitious, Realistic and Time-limited.

Write to your audience — the review panel that will score your proposal. Proposal reviewers are often volunteers who may or may not be specialists in your discipline. Tasked with scoring many proposals in a short amount of time for little or no compensation, they simply cannot and will not spend a lot of time fighting to understand what you mean. The proposal you sweated over for countless hours may be reviewed in only one half hour.  Clarity becomes paramount. Less is often more — don't go on and on. Avoid jargon and acronyms. Explain esoteric concepts. Help them help you by making your proposal interesting, informative, persuasive, AND concise, orderly, and pleasing to the eye.

Good luck!

How to Prepare a Competitive Proposal: Advice from the Field

Writing a winning grant proposal is a crucial career skill for so many and yet can seem dastardly enigmatic until you get the hang of it. Fortunately, many seasoned veterans have condensed their wisdom for others' benefit. Take a look at the selected resources below to shorten your learning curve.

Helping Faculty Differentiate Between the Good and the Fundable: This article from NCURA magazine (December 2014) can help grant seekers in the humanities, social sciences, and education understand how grant makers think -- how they separate proposals into the small pile to be funded and the larger pile to be declined.

National Science Foundation's Guide for Proposal Writing: This guide contains the advice NSF program officers give in answer to the question, "what makes a good proposal?"

Twenty Tips for Writing a Research Proposal: Demonstrating that effective proposal writing knows no political boundaries, this post from an Australian environmental scientist contains sage advice for any scientist seeking research funding.

The Art of Grantsmanship by Jacob Kraicer:  An experienced expert on the peer-reviewed proposal process, Dr. Kraicer distills his hard-earned wisdom into this guide which gives the reader a proposal preparation timeline.

Murder Most Foul: How Not to Kill a Grant Application: The first part in a six-part series published by Science magazine focuses on the importance of the proposal title.

Abstract Killers: How Not to Kill a Grant Application: The second part in a six-part series published by Science magazine focuses on the importance of the abstract.

So What? How Not to Kill a Grant Application: The third in a six-part series published by Science magazine focuses on strategies to avoid the deadly "so what?" response in your proposal reviewers.

Lost at Sea: How Not to Kill a Grant Application: The fourth in a six-part series published by Science magazine focuses on the super-importance of clarity, clarity, clarity.

How Not to Kill a Grant Application: Facts of the Case Thus Far: The fifth in a six-part series published by Science magazine summarizes the points made in the first four installments.

How Not to Kill a Grant Application: Developing Your Research Plan: The sixth in a six-part series published by Science magazine focuses on developing a description of exactly what you plan to do with a grant, should one be awarded.

On the Art of Writing Proposals :This nine-page article from Social Science Research Council, directed to applicants for SSRC grants, provides excellent general proposal advice applicable across many academic disciplines and funding agencies.

Writing a Successful Grant Proposal: This six-page article from the Minnesota Council of Foundation provides good general proposal preparation guidance.

Foundation Center's Proposal Writing Short Course A short course especially relevant for foundation grant seekers (less so for federal agency grant seekers).

Miner & Associates, a grant services company, writes informative newsletters and a blog on grantseeking strategy, with timely attention to NSF and NIH-related topics.

Seliger & Associates, a grant services company, skewers grantseekers and grantmakers alike in their irreverent yet insightful blog. See especially this post Longer is Not Necessarily Better. Seliger focuses on federal grants from all grantmaking federal agencies. See the archives for past issues.


Grant Writing: Strategies for Developing Winning Government Proposals by Patrick W. Miller, Ph.D. Patrick W. Miller and Associates (2009). Excellent book for those who plan to write a proposal to a government agency. Complete and well-organized, with summaries at the end of each chapter. Discusses what to do from the time your idea is a twinkle in your eye to after you've submitted your proposal.

Grantsmanship: Program Planning & Proposal Writing. By Norton J. Kiritz. Updated and expanded by Barbara Floersch. The Grantsmanship Center (2014). Widely considered to be a classic in the field. Describes how to approach each section of a proposal in lively and accessible prose.

How to Write Knockout Proposals by Joseph Barbato. Emerson & Church (2004). A quick, useful read. Tips on style, content and relationships.

Winning Foundation Grants: A Foundation CEO Reveals The Secrets You Need to Know by Martin Teitel. Emerson & Church (2012). Very readable book describes what happens behind foundation doors. The author's insights are informed by experience on both sides of the equation: as grant seeker and grant maker.