Category Archives: Writing

So You Want to Write a Grant Proposal: The Rocket Science of Do’s and Don’ts

I have just finished submitting a proposal to DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, for my company Rocket Science Technologies. It was a long, grueling effort, first defining the technology and concept we were going to propose, assembling a team , writing the proposal, estimating the program/project, reviewing it, and then finally submitting. It was challenging, as proposals usually are. This one had its own particular difficulties because I had to put together a team not only to respond to the BAA, but who would also be available to work on the project should we win. My consulting company is built on a virtual basis. We have consultants scattered around the country. That wouldn’t work for the proposed program. We needed personnel who could work in a company lab to develop the required hardware. Fortunately, between LinkedIn and some networking we assembled a slam bang local team.

I consider myself a trained proposal writer and manager, having spent more than a decade with a company providing proposal training in support of their own internal proposal management system. I’ve also had training elsewhere with a similar process. The trouble is all of the training relies on the infrastructure of a centralized location, a department in the company (or supplied by an external consultant) that includes proposal and book managers (i.e., managers of the technical, management and cost volumes), editors, and illustrators, as well as a designated area isolated from the rest of the company for the team to work undisturbed. Unfortunately, in many of my recent proposal efforts, I didn’t have the luxury of that kind of infrastructure and support. Certainly not for this last proposal. Still, I think many of the lessons I learned in my formal training apply. It just requires a bit of ingenuity and perseverance to translate to a small team, or even to one-man band grant writer.

Here are some of the do’s and don’ts of writing a proposal/grant application I think you will find helpful that I’ve learned over the years:

Do: answer the question “why you or your company.” Don’t: do not write a technical treatise. One of the biggest mistakes engineers, scientists, doctors, and other professionals make is the belief that immense technical detail will sell a grant reviewer. Nothing could be more wrong. A proposal is a marketing document and is not a technical report. Its purpose is to convince someone to buy your services or product. Furthermore, the trend today is for page-limited, shorter proposals. The BAA I just responded to was for millions of dollars, and yet the page limit of the technical section was twenty pages. Even more telling, the section for describing our innovation was only three pages long. The remaining seventeen pages was a description of our approach to the problem, i.e., a mini-program plan, and a description of our team and its capabilities. The technical description is just a portion of what you need to win the grant. Remember, a request for a grant or proposal is usually issued to solve a problem the issuer has and can’t without your help. You need to convince the reviewer of the benefit of your solution and that you have the wherewithal to solve their problem. The answer is more than the technology. It’s you as a company or a researcher. Your background, talent, and past experience. It’s the approach you’re going to take. You must convince them they can trust you with their money. A technical treatise does not do that.

Do: create a theme. Creating a proposal theme is one of the first things you should do, even if it’s just you doing all the writing yourself. A theme contains customer benefit(s), feature(s) of your product/service/research that provides the benefit, and a collaboration that provides factual backup to prove your claims. Why is a theme important? Consider it your elevator speech, you know, the one you’re trained to give when someone asks you what you or your company does. A theme is a summary statement provided upfront to your customer that answers the question why you or why your company. It sets the tone and points the reader in the direction you want him or her to go. A theme also serves to focus your writing. Everything you do in the technical write-up should support your theme. It is also useful to write a theme statement for each of your major sections, again to focus your writing and to focus the grant’s reviewer on why you should be awarded the grant/contract. Answer the question why they should select you.

Don’t: Do not have the program/project manager/researcher manage the proposal. This was one of the things I suffered through on this last proposal. I was wearing both hats. If you’re a one-person band, so to speak, try to get someone to help with the details. The program/project manager/researcher is responsible for the technical content of the solution, the actual technical solution. The proposal manager is responsible for packaging the solution into a tight responsive document, ensuring it meets all the requirements of the grant RFP. On this recent BAA, because of the nature of the team I was wearing both hats. I found myself writing consultant non-disclosure agreements and consulting agreements while I was trying to writing the program plan and putting the proposal together Those were incompatible activities. Don’t try to do everything yourself, even if the grant seems small enough. Something will fall through the cracks if you do.

Do: make a plan and stick to it. Lay out a plan and a schedule and keep to it. You’ll be surprised how fast the 30 days allowed by the government for an RFP response passes. The plan doesn’t have to be a treatise. It can be a schedule, a proposal outline with page limits for each section, and assignments if others are working with you. (Don’t forget the themes.) You will find if you’re running a team that at some point you will need to say “no more technical work. Finish your writing for review.” There are few things in life that are quite such a hard stop as a proposal due date. Even for taxes you can get an extension. For most proposals you can’t.

Don’t:  do not skip internal reviews. Even if you’re a one-person band you need to have someone review the outline to make sure it meets all the proposal requirements, and to read the proposal at the end. Not just copy edit. It’s best if you can find someone knowledgeable but who may not be the expert in your specific field that you are. See if you can convince them that you deserve the grant. If they get lost in your technical jargon, most likely the requesting agency’s reviewers will, too. In addition, your internal reviewer may also help you make a salient point to support your position.

Oh, and good luck.

A Tool for Fiction Writers Not To Be Overlooked

I just finished the draft of my second novel and now face the dread chore of editing. At best editing is a chore, at worst a nightmare. Time and time again, self-published authors are chastised for their lack of or poor editing. Likewise, agents and publishers gripe about the poorly edited manuscripts they receive. Readers complain how reading a poorly edited book can be distracting. I sometimes find myself re-reading a sentence in a purchased e-book because it didn’t make sense or was so poorly structured. I have put books down when errors made it too difficult to read.

Why don’t writers edit their book? I guess there may be some who think their writing is too good, that they don’t need to edit other than maybe an MS Word spellcheck. Some don’t even think they require a spellcheck. For others, it’s a simply a chore they don’t want to deal with. For the many, if not most, it comes down to a matter of cost. A professionally edited 80,000 word novel, depending on the kind of editing, can cost from hundreds to thousands of dollars.

So writers either don’t edit or they try to do it themselves. As it turns out, most authors are simply not good editors for a number of reasons. First, a writer author has too much invested in what he or she has written. The forest for the trees sort of thing, as well as an inherent bias. Second, editors have a knowledge and experience base that many authors don’t have. There are self-help books but even if you gain an understanding in the knowledge of the basics, you don’t have the experience to apply it correctly. And, last, the talents required for editing are very different from those for writing. The freedom of creativity for writing and the discipline for detail involved in editing are often at odds. There are a few people who might be fortunate enough to have both but for most theory talent lies in one or the other.

So what is one to do? The costs associated with releasing a professional looking book can add up, i.e., cover art, professional formatting, a website, editing, etc. Even for someone who is going the traditional route, editing alone can be expensive. You could do, as I did, and marry your editor. Actually, I didn’t find out about her editing skills until after we were married. In truth, she’s not a trained professional editor. She is a fair facsimile with a BA in literature and an MS in library science. She’ll catch most of the errors but may not be as nuanced as a professional would be in things like point of view. However, her editing tightens up my work and provides an outside look at the novel flow and the characters.

I have found a tool online which makes her life easier and will catch many basic errors in writing, and significantly improves up my writing. It’s called AutoCrit and can be found at First, let me say I have no connection to AutoCrit other than as a user. Second, I’m not advocating AutoCrit as a replacement for a professional editor. However, in my humble opinion, it does a creditable job of the strengthening a manuscript. AutoCrit is a subscription service starting at $5/mo for a basic package allowing you to edit 1000 words at a time, a platinum package at $8/mo allowing 8000 words at a time and a professional package with no word limitations and a clever add-on that allows you to compare your writing to a norm for your particular genre. For me, I find this feature neat because as a science fiction writer engaged in detailed world-building I find myself in a constant battle with the so-called passive voice and the use of, to put it mildly, uncommon words. The AutoCrit genre add-on is still in its infancy and has its limitations. However, they’re working to expand its capabilities.

AutoCrit allows you to address many of the basic ills of writing. Your working tool is a dashboard with headings: Home, Pacing and Momentum, Dialog, Strong Writing, Word Choice, Repetition, and Compare to Fiction. Home gives you a Summary. More on that later. Pacing and Momentum has two subheadings: Sentence Variation and Pacing. Dialog involves Dialog tags and adverb usage (he pontificated warmly). Strong Writing involves more Adverb Usage, Passive Voice, Showing vs. Telling, etc. I won’t bore you with a complete listing.

AutoCrit allows you to directly upload a Word document but I found that capability of limited use because Word idiosyncrasies force AutoCrit to strip out all of the special formatting such as bold and italics. I write in the third person subjective with lots of italics so it would be painful for me to have to go through and reformat the corrected section or chapter once I downloaded back to my computer.

Instead, I’ve worked out my own methodology. I use the cut and paste function and then let AutoCrit do its thing. The home page gives you a summary of most of the major issues. If, for example, you click on repeated words, AutoCrit highlights them. I use that as a guide and place the two documents side by side and work my way through the suggested corrections for each category. AutoCrit provides a comparison of your writing to published fiction such as “ly” adverbs, passive words such as “was” and “had”, sentences beginning with an “ing” word, and many others. The ratings of these individual categories go from “great” to “excess.” AutoCrit will also suggest how many changes of a particular correction you need to make. For example, AutoCrit may point out 36 “had” and recommend eliminating twenty.

I work my way through AutoCrit, using the highlighted words to identify suggested changes until everything is rated good or excellent (with the emphasis on excellent) on the Home page.

My 4000-word Chapter One of my second novel was reduced by more than 300 words after using AutoCrit. I deem it’s now ready for my wife or a professional editor to review. Is it ready for publication without an editor after I use AutoCrit all the chapters? In my mind, no. I believe I still need the professional touch and an outside view. I am also having three beta readings before I complete the AutoCrit. I’ve asked the beta readers to look at plot, characterization, pace, and consistency, before I spend the time using AutoCrit and editors to work on the book.

My process for editing my novel, in order, involves the following process:

  1. MS Word spellcheck with some grammar check,
  2. beta readings,
  3. AutoCrit by me,
  4. editing by wife, and
  5. a final top-level read by a professional editor who provides this for a reasonable fee.

What if I weren’t married to my editor and couldn’t afford the professional editor for a final look? There are alternatives such as author working groups that may provide some help in this area. Still, I’d say my book is infinitely better by using AutoCrit than without it. At least, it’s a step in the right direction. If you decide you can’t or won’t pay for a professional editor, then AutoCrit and other software packages like it are certainly better than doing nothing.