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Ten Tips for Writing Your Proposal

Ten Tips for Writing Your Proposal

Contact the UD Contracts and Grants Office Proposal Team via email for valuable assistance with proposal development and preparation, budget preparation, administrative requirements (forms, certs.), and proposal submission.

1. Know Your Audience. Most funding agencies (federal, state or foundation) make awards through a competitive process that involves multiple reviewers, often volunteers juggling other responsibilities, who are typically reviewing many proposals under a short deadline.

  • Assume that reviewers have, at best, a knowledge of your field, but not of your subfield.
  • Do not make reviewers work hard to read and understand your proposal.
  • Organize your proposal so that reviewers can easily find what they are looking for, and how you address each evaluation criterion.

2. Read and follow all instructions found in the funding solicitation or announcement. Non-compliant proposals are often rejected without review. Not following basic instructions could cause a reviewer to question your ability to successfully conduct the proposed work.

  • Make sure your proposal fits the funding objectives of the competition.
  • Follow all formatting, page-limit and organization guidelines.
  • Understand and address non-subject-matter requirements (i.e., cost sharing, letters of institutional commitment, mandatory partnerships, regulatory certifications, etc.)

3. Understand each evaluation criterion and address each one with a compelling message. Proposals must persuade reviewers that your ideas are worth funding, and that you are the best person to pursue the idea.  A numerical score of how well you address each criterion is often used to identify which proposals will receive a deeper, qualitative review. Not addressing a criterion can prevent your proposal from reaching the next level of review.

  • Consider organizing your proposal in a way that allows reviewers to clearly see how each criterion is addressed.
  • Consider using exact phrases from the solicitation or announcement evaluation criteria to signal reviewers that the ensuing text will address that specific criterion.
  • If the evaluation criteria seem vague or missing, feel free to contact the agency program manager to get clarification. You may also ask questions about the review process and review team composition.

4. Make your best impact at the beginning of the proposal. Identify your key themes early in the proposal and reinforce them throughout. Reviewers often develop an overall opinion in the first few pages so energize them to read your entire proposal. Reviewers may even conclude an evaluation without reading a proposal to its end if they find it excessively tedious, fatiguing or uninspiring.

  • Use short sentences.
  • Highlight your most important points at the beginning of paragraphs or sections, followed by supporting details. Avoid structuring paragraphs, sections, and the entire proposal such that important conclusions come at the very end.
  • Avoid excessive jargon and acronyms which may cause a reviewer to go back and reread sections to find clarity.
  • Do not repeat (cut and paste) material in multiple sections. Reviewers may feel that you are lazy and wasting their time.
  • When appropriate, develop a theme that ties all aspects of a proposal together.

5. Build trust with your reviewers. Remember, you are asking them to grant funding for something that hasn’t been done before. This is even more important if you are relatively new to a field or early in your career.

  • Demonstrate that you understand the field or state of knowledge. This is often done through a comprehensive literature survey.
  • Demonstrate that you understand the objectives of the agency's or foundation's solicitation or announcement.
  • Demonstrate that you have the capacity to conduct the work, whether solely through your own abilities, or with the assistance of key partners, lab equipment, other university resources, etc.
  • Adequately address the feasibility of the project and where appropriate, discuss alternative approaches or back-up plans.

6. Clearly show how your proposed work will make a valuable contribution to the body of scholarly knowledge or address an important question in your field. Many agencies rate the success of their programs by how they contribute to the overall body of scholarly knowledge. Likewise, charitable foundations often rate their programs or funding initiatives on how widely the proposed work will solve societal issues or further humanity.

  • If appropriate, demonstrate your track record of publication or relevant accomplishments.
  • Consider how peer reviewed, archival publications may be viewed relative to lesser publications when describing how your work will be published.
  • When appropriate, suggest how your work will be made available to organizations that may benefit from it. For example, discuss how new educational materials will be made available to schools or how new energy-saving approaches will be made available to industry.

7. Based on your reading of the solicitation or announcement and before beginning to write, develop an outline of your proposal and a schedule for completing each section or component.  Start with the submission/due date and work backwards to develop your schedule.

  • Make sure that your outline discretely addresses the solicitation or announcement requirements.
  • Use your outline to identify components that may come from collaborators or administrative support offices.
  • To comply with page limit restrictions, use your outline to budget space for each section.
  • Use your outline to develop a schedule for completion of the proposal.
  • Depending on the discipline, structuring a proposal in terms of an important problem to be solved or question to be answered is advantageous. Such a structure typically relies on starting with a clear hypothesis or research objective.

8. Put careful thought into your title and abstract.

  • Evaluators and review teams are often chosen based on a proposal's title and abstract. Do not let your proposal be misdirected because of a poorly crafted title or abstract.
  • STEM related proposals often benefit by a clear and descriptive title. STEM reviewers may even find clever or catch titles distasteful.
  • Your abstract should be a summary of your proposal and not an introduction.

9. Rely on colleagues, collaborators or friends to review your proposal before submission. It is quite common for writers to miss their own omissions or mistakes, even after rereading their work numerous times.

10. Contact the UD Contracts and Grants Office Proposal Team via email  as soon as possible.  They can provide valuable assistance with proposal development and preparation, budget preparation, administrative requirements (forms, certs.), and proposal submission.


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