Use fine-grained sectioning in your grant proposals

Clear structure helps both the reader and the writer.

I have noticed lately that many scientists write grant proposals with little document structure. Their proposals may have separate sections for background, for specific aims, and so on, but each of these sections is basically a long wall of text. The problem with this approach is that most reviewers will not carefully read all this text, and as a consequence they will miss important elements of the proposal. All else equal, a poorly structured proposal will be much less competitive than a well-structured proposal with many sub-sections and titled paragraphs. Because grant-writing remains one of the most important skills to be acquired by junior scientists, I see a critical need to highlight the importance of fine-grained sectioning in grant proposals.

I have two specific aims for this post:

Aim 1. Demonstrate effective sectioning by writing this blog post in the form of a grant proposal. Hypothesis: By giving a clear example, I will allow my readers to quickly recognize the value of extensive document structure. I will write the entire blog post as if it were a proposal, and I will use an informative title for each individual paragraph and subsection. I will use short paragraphs that get straight to the point.

Aim 2. Use this post to promote my blog as a whole. Hypothesis: By providing useful and interesting content, I will attract more readers to my blog, who in turn will benefit from my advice. I will shamelessly promote this post on twitter and elsewhere, to the maximum extent allowed by law.


Grant-proposal writing is a crucial skill for the modern scientist. These days, being a scientist is as much about writing grants as it is about doing actual science. While we cannot be successful without doing good science and writing interesting papers, our success will be short-lived unless we can also successfully request funding.

Clear structure helps the reader. There is really only one type of reader for a grant proposal: a reviewer. And reviewers are notoriously pressed for time. Imagine having to evaluate 20 grant proposals in an afternoon. The last thing you want to see is a huge wall of text without structure and with no indication where the important pieces are located. You want short, clear paragraphs and sufficient structure, so that you can quickly jump to the relevant sections of the proposal and look up specific issues you want clarification on.

Clear structure helps the writer. As a writer, you’ll actually have a much easier time writing the proposal if you have a clear structure in mind. If you don’t know what the specific purpose of a particular paragraph is, you’re more likely to blather on and not make a clear point. On the flip side, once you’ve written the paragraph heading, all you need to do is write a few sentences that make the appropriate statement and you are done. In fact, when I write proposals (and when I wrote this post) I usually write out all the paragraph headings first and then fill in the blanks.

Advice is only useful to the extent that people see it. If my blog has few readers, then I’m not making much of a difference in this world, regardless of how good my advice actually is. Each well-promoted post on this blog increases the visibility of the blog as a whole, which will increase in turn the visibility of each individual post.

Aim 1: Write this blog post in the form of a grant proposal

Rationale. Most people tend to benefit more from concrete examples than from theoretical expositions on a topic. One could read a thousand words on effective sectioning and not have any idea of how to apply these ideas in practice. Or, one could see a simple example and immediately recognize how to apply its principles in one’s own writing. For this reason, in this post I emphasize demonstration over exposition.

Approach. I will write the entire blog post in the form of a grant proposal. I will have specific aims, which have hypotheses, approach, expected results, and so on. Each individual paragraph in this post will have a paragraph heading that states what the paragraph is about.

Expected results. I hope that at least some scientist somewhere on this planet will write a better grant proposal after reading this post. I particularly hope that this post will be useful for junior scientists who may not yet have seen many successful grant proposals.

Potential problems and solutions. First, it is possible that there are aspects to this post that are unclear or confusing. As a result, some readers may get an incorrect impression of what I’m saying. For example, someone could think that they absolutely have to provide a heading for every single paragraph, when sometimes it’s perfectly fine to have two or even three short paragraphs under one heading. To the extent that any readers express such misconceptions in the comments section, I will respond to them.

Second, if nobody sees my post, then all my efforts are for nothing. I will address visibility in Aim 2.

Aim 2: Use this post to promote my blog as a whole.

Rationale. Even the most well-reasoned and helpful blog posts are useless unless they are actually read. The visibility of individual blog posts is directly proportional to the overall reach of a blog. Therefore, I have to promote both this post in particular and the blog as a whole.

Approach. Upon posting, I will tweet about this post. I will also tell colleagues and students about it. If somebody tweets about this post I will retweet their tweet, for added social proof.

Expected results. I expect to see a spike in web traffic when my tweet posts. I further expect that at least one or two of my followers will favorite my post, and that somebody will retweet it. Finally, I hope to pick up at least one new follower on twitter as a consequence of writing this post.

Potential problems and solutions. If timing of my original tweet is poor few of my followers may notice my blog post. If I notice poor incoming traffic, I can consider tweeting about this post a second time. Further, if none of my followers tweet about my post then I have nothing to retweet. In this case, I may have to ask a student or friend to write a tweet for me. If all else fails, I can promote my post on facebook.

Claus O. Wilke
Professor of Integrative Biology


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