Money flowing from a jar

3. Write crystal-clear grant applications thanks to Maeda's simplification algorithm

Remove the clichés, don't write a review, highlight the keywords scored by reviewers.


Most grant applications fail because their central ideas are not clear enough. Think about it: the funding decision is taken by panel members who are generally not experts in your field, and who only take 20 minutes to read your proposal. How can you make sure it is crystal-clear even under these conditions? I recommend to use a simple, but powerful procedure to simplify your writing, Maeda's simplification algorithm, which I explained in a previous post. The algorithm consists in 3 steps:

  • Remove the obvious;
  • Remove the meaningless;
  • Replace them with the meaningful.

Let's see how they apply to a proposal, step by step.


1) Remove the obvious: drop the clichés

What's obvious in research proposals? Clichés. In this regard, my philosophy teacher in high school gave us a very useful tip. She said that for our final exam, we could almost be sure to pass if we neither:

  •  started our discussion by writing "Since the beginning of time man has enjoyed philosophy";
  •   nor used the example of Nazism to illustrate our points [that was in 1989, please replace with your favorite high school dissertation cliché].


Caveman Philosophising

"Since the beginning of time man has enjoyed philosophy…"

She explained that so many pupils used these clichés that all teachers were sick of it – to the point that if you avoided them, you were rewarded! We all know such clichés in research proposals. Here's an example:

   "Disease X affects Z million people … It is a major health problem… It has profound social and financial consequences… Therefore we must find a cure".

All this is obvious and therefore needn't be said. Instead, you could just start with the point of your article or proposal, e.g.:

   "80% of patients who take the current therapy for disease X experience severe side effects".

If you were a reviewer, you'd be glad to skip the usual bla-bla and understand straight away the author's main point, wouldn't you?


2) Remove the meaningless: don't write a review

What's meaningless for evaluators? Everything that's not useful to understand your project. Therefore, the background section shouldn't be a review of your field. Instead, it should focus on justifying the choice of your three research objectives. For example, if the goal of objective 1 is to assemble a linguistic corpus, you should explain why this corpus is necessary: what's been done so far, what's missing, why you can do it, etc. Same for objectives 2 and 3. That's it! No need to write a novel.

This point follows the Chekhov's gun principle, which we saw in a previous post: everything that is introduced at the beginning of a play must serve the story. Unfortunately, many researchers are misled by the templates of funding applications, which often improperly call the background section ‘State of the art’, and they write a general overview of their field. Don't do it! You're just wasting time, space and confusing reviewers. Instead, focus on justifying the choice of your 3 objectives.


3) Replace with the meaningful: use headings that contain the keywords scored by reviewers

What's meaningful for reviewers? Whether your project matches the funding criteria that they are required to score. Consequently, a grant application must be ‘speed-scorable’, i.e. reviewers should be able to instantly find whether your project meets the funding criteria. The best way to do this is to use headings that contain the corresponding keywords. For example, if reviewers score the "Development of new model systems", you should include a heading that uses these very keywords for the paragraph that describes your new model system:

 We will develop a model system of tachycardia [=Paragraph heading]

Paragraph details...
Paragraph details...

Composing speed-scorable applications is absolutely crucial, and that's why a whole chapter of my book The speed-readable grant application is devoted to it.


I hope you're starting to get the hang of Maeda's simplification algorithm and to see how powerful it is. In the following posts, we will see how it applies to other aspects of communicating your research: articles, talks, figures (in a previous post we applied it to CVs)...

Meanwhile, if you want more advice about writing clearly for non-expert reviewers, you can download my free guide on the subject: Being clear without dumbing down.

Wishing you fruitful research.


PS: for any question, comment, or suggestion for future posts, please write me at Nothing is too big or too small.


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