Tips for Successful Grant Writing: The First Step Is to Just Start

Jul 07, 2021

By Oladapo Yeku, MD, PhD, FACP

Grant writing is an absolutely essential part of academic medicine. Whether it's writing for funding support for basic science experiments or procuring funding for translational aims associated with a clinical trial, the ability to successfully compete for federal and private/foundation funding is a critical (and non-negotiable) skill. Despite some of the obfuscation around grant writing, it is a learnable skill. And with enough time, mentorship, and practice, anybody can significantly improve their grantsmanship. Here are some of the tips and tricks I have learned along the way.
Start somewhere, start anywhere, just start writing. One of the most challenging aspects of scientific writing (or any writing project) is getting started. Waiting for the perfect opener to overcome the activation energy required to begin could needlessly delay you. Do you find it easier to start writing the preliminary data section first? Start there. Are you more comfortable starting with the introduction section or even aim 3? Then put those words to paper. You will eventually need to harmonize your entire grant around your specific aims page, but don't let this deter you from beginning to write. As a matter of fact, I always title the first version of my grants as "version 0," fully acknowledging that I need to work up to a "version 1" before sharing it for feedback.
Read the instructions carefully. Once you feel like you understand the full scope of the grant announcement and the associated requirements, then read it one more time. Ensure you note all associated deadlines, page limits, formatting, etc.
Fully understanding the instructions is about more than just following the requirements for your submission—you need to understand the audience/funder's interest. For instance, certain federal grants favor projects/experiments that lend mechanistic insight into a disease or process; other funders (including many foundations) are very interested in how your discoveries can be applied to patient care or improvement in certain outcomes. For the former, it might make more sense to start with your clinical trial in aim 1, followed by your translational objectives in aim 2, and then finish strong with a third aim focused on mechanisms. In addition, the sections on impact and innovation should strongly emphasize the significance of your clinical trial in uncovering underlying basic science/mechanisms. For a clinically focused grant, you might be best served by reversing the order, guiding the reviewer through how your basic/translational research has or will inform your clinical trial proposed in aim 3—and further emphasizing the bench-to-bedside logic in your impact statement. (I use "aim 3" here as a placeholder for your last aim; your project may have a different number of aims.)
As you gear up for the process, make sure you get lots of different examples of funded grants. You can often get these from a mentor or colleague if you ask nicely. I have learned so much from other people’s writing styles simply by reading through their grants and using them as templates. For instance, it might make sense to present the preliminary data for the entire grant before delving fully into the aims. For other types of grants, it makes more sense to present the relevant preliminary data for each specific aim immediately prior to that aim. I would also strongly recommend joining or creating a writers’ circle comprised of colleagues who are also writing grants with a similar time frame as you (you don't all have to be writing the same grant for the same funding agency). This helps keep you on track, and you can read/critique each other's grants. This also helps reduce some of the isolation of writing alone.
Give yourself more than enough time. When I applied for my National Institutes of Health (NIH) F31 grant, I submitted the grant on the due date. This was back when paper copies of grants had to be mailed in, and I remember walking to the UPS drop box with my mentor during a snowstorm to drop it off. Then we both wondered aloud if the UPS pickup would still happen during a snowstorm. (Fortunately, it worked out. In those days, the NIH went with the timestamp on the pickup, not when it arrived at the NIH). You can avoid this sort of nail-biting suspense if you plan.
Aim to get your grant completed 1 to 2 weeks before the submission deadline. The reason for this is to allow yourself enough time to get through the parts of the grant that require the help of other people. You can't rush the people who voluntarily review your grant (mentors, friends, etc.); neither can you rush the biostatistician, budgetary review administrator, or institutional signatory official. All these people are likely working on other grants, all with tight deadlines, and will need enough time to go over your grant carefully. You will also need time to respond to their queries. It might be helpful to break down the submission deadline into mini-deadlines (to complete the introduction, specific aims, methods, send out for internal reviewer feedback, budget, etc.) to help keep you on track. 
Spend a lot of time on your specific aims page. Write and rewrite this section until it shines with the brilliance of a diamond. The specific aims page is the blueprint and the foundation of your entire grant. A weak specific aims page or a specific aims page that becomes incongruent with the rest of the grant (perhaps due to sloppy editing) is the fastest way to get your grant tossed in the “was not discussed” pile. Once you have your specific aims page done, get this out to as many people as possible for feedback. The more people who read your specific aims (mentors, colleagues, friends), the more feedback you can incorporate into your grant. Even if you personally disagree with a suggestion, ask yourself, why would someone make this suggestion in the first place? Perhaps an opportunity exists to clarify your writing. Sometimes, even when I disagree with my reviewers, I write rebuttals to their comments/suggestions into the grant (usually in the alternatives and pitfalls section). If your internal grant reviewers can think of it, the actual reviewer can probably think of it too. 
Work with a biostatistician. Nothing more needs to be said about that. If you are also proposing a clinical trial, work with a patient advocate. The sooner you get these people involved, the better. Don't even try to fight it. Their insight will be immeasurably valuable.
When it comes to the section on pitfalls and alternatives, be sure to list technical and scientific pitfalls and alternatives. It is not enough to say that you have the resources and the expertise to complete the required aims. As a reviewer, I might ask myself if you have thought through the possibility of your drug not significantly inhibiting the target kinase or if there are other escape pathways. In addition, you can write an entire thesis about how many possible kinase mutations can lead to every combination of anticipated results—still, you don't want me wondering if you even know how to run the western blot required to evaluate any of those kinases. It would help if you outlined robust alternative explanations for various result scenarios. You need to outline who will be doing the experiments, and how, and who will help you if you have technical difficulties. (It would also help to get letters of support from these people).
Finally, get as many people to proofread your grant as possible. Most grant reviewers will excuse a typo here and there; however, run-on sentences and poor grammar will sink your proposal. In some cases, I have asked friends with no scientific background to read through my proposal and highlight things that don't make sense or typos in general. Their lack of scientific experience makes them read every sentence in its entirety, unlike a colleague in the field, who might skim over things (their opinion is still valued, just in a different way). On a similar note, I highly recommend having a content expert (besides your mentor) read through your grant. You might be surprised that a particular assay is no longer the gold standard, or worse yet, what you identified as a gap in the field has recently been plugged, and you missed the article(s). 
Despite having the best idea in the world and writing the most coherent grant ever, do not lose heart if your grant is not funded at first. Even if the critique appears harsh, it is essential to remind yourself that it's not personal (it often feels personal). I generally don't read the critique for my unfunded grants for a least a couple of weeks after notification—I think of this as a cool-down period. Once you feel better, give the comments a read and incorporate changes into the next version of your grant and try again with a different funding agency or the next funding cycle. 
You're probably going to be writing many grants throughout your career; why not find a way to get competent at the process and enjoy it too? 
Dr. Yeku  is a medical oncologist at the Massachusetts General Hospital, and a graduate of the fellowship program at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. His research interests include both clinical and laboratory-based translational research focused on chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy and other forms of immunotherapy for the management of gynecologic malignancies. Disclosure. 
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