Motivational gurus encouraging us in the use of positive self-talk have become so commonplace that their entreaties can begin to sound ridiculous: from curing our own diseases to making ourselves millionaires before we’re 40 to climbing Mount Everest, they insist that if we only set our minds to it, we can make our every dream come true.
While the attainment of grandiose objectives may appear to many of us to be beyond the power of self-inflicted brain-washing, there is a nugget of truth in all the hype. A positive attitude can most certainly contribute to the achievement of smaller goals — such as writing a funding application.
Many applicants for research grants fail to consider the potential impact on a review committee of the prose in their applications. They are unaware of the damage they may be doing to their chances of success with overly technical language, illogical statements and a range of other impediments to clarity. In addition, some undermine their own strengths by allowing their hesitations and concerns about their work to permeate the entire proposal.
A hesitant or negative tone in a proposal normally arises from a negative or hesitant approach to the project itself — in other words, it is a sign of lack of confidence. Most people early in their careers lack confidence in some areas relating to their work, and researchers at all stages can feel their confidence falter when they face more intense competition or move into a new field. Under such circumstances, it is easy to imagine that all of the other applicants in any given competition are superior scholars with far more worthy projects.
In addition to concerns about their own work, applicants may be steeped in negative statistics relating to grant-application success rates in their disciplines, geographical regions, or genders. They may dwell on rumors they have heard that review committees give preference to applications from major institutions, or they may still be reeling from previous rejections. Whatever the cause, many applicants have already given up hope before they complete the first line of the application form — and their negative attitudes are reflected in their proposals.
Imagine yourself as a member of a grants-review committee that receives two applications of approximately equal merit. One includes such statements as, “A general review of the literature indicates that this topic has likely not been previously investigated,” or “Weather permitting, we hope to carry out these measurements during the months of June and July,” or “Although none of our previous work in this area has been published, we have received excellent advice from one of the journals to which we have submitted, and we intend to revise and resubmit,” or “By investigating the characteristics of chalogenide glass, we hope to determine new future potential roles for it in the field of microphotonics.”
Contrast these statements to the following: “While this relationship has been studied in subtropical conditions [8, 9, 12], our study will be the first of its kind in a temperate zone. This is important for the following reasons…”; “Field testing will take place on 10 days in June and July; alternative dates have been identified in case of unfavorable weather”; “Several articles describing our related work are currently in development”; “Our research will contribute to scientific knowledge about the role of chologenide glass in the developing field of microphotonics.”
The first examples convey a tone of tentativeness and lack of confidence, while the latter are more positive and more assertive — and therefore more convincing.
Truth and accuracy are two hallmarks of the investigative process: knowledge cannot build on knowledge if there are flaws in the foundation. However, there is more than one way to say anything, and through careful proofreading that includes a “search and destroy” approach to tentative and negative terms, writers can increase the strength of their applications without altering any of the facts. Phrases like “We hope to” and “It appears that” are weaker than “We will” and “Research shows.” Sometimes entire sentences need to be revised to accentuate the positive. “While it is true that Dr. Schmidt has never before worked on a kinesiology project, his extensive research experience in biology will contribute to our work,” becomes much stronger when refocused and made more specific: “Dr. Schmidt’s biological perspectives on muscle spindles will contribute significantly to our study and its subsequent dissemination.”
Quite aside from monitoring the writing itself, there are ways to get yourself into the right mindset to improve the confidence of your approach — and, in turn, of your grant proposal — before you start to write. Short-term measures include writing first drafts first thing in the morning when you feel most confident and at your best, taking a few minutes before you write to review your achievements to date, and reminding yourself of your passionate convictions about the need for the research with which you are involved. Even sitting up straight and taking a deep breath can help.
In the longer term, you have the opportunity to build the necessary bedrock for confidence by becoming knowledgeable about every relevant aspect of the project as far in advance of writing the proposal as you can. Knowledge is the foundation on which confidence is built. You need to make the case for your project air-tight, in your own mind as well as those of the reviewers. If you are concerned that you have missed something in a literature review, go back and look again. If you feel queasy about your skills at data analysis, hire a consultant and add the cost to the budget.
What happens to your funding application once it reaches the reviewers is beyond your control, but you do have control over what you submit — and through that, over the outcome. Although it is worth noting that you can go overboard in the opposite direction, (some applicants end up conveying a message to reviewers that says, “You know who I am. The excellence of this project should be obvious. Now hand over the money”), the first and most important contributor to an effective funding application is your attitude toward the task. If you do not feel confident, you need to get yourself to feel that way. And if you can’t do that, at least make sure you sound that way.
Mary W. Walters  is a freelance writer and editor who has worked with academics for more than 20 years. She is the author of Write an Effective Funding Ap p lication: A Guide for Researchers and Scholars (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009). The former awards facilitator at the University of Saskatchewan, she now lives in Toronto where she consults and gives workshops on effective grant-writing.