By the time you come to read this page you may have a good idea about what you would like to research, if you can secure funding. Perhaps you feel sure about the importance of your topic and about your competence to do the work. As a result, when you come to develop your proposal, it is easy to make the mistake of focusing solely on what you want to say. You write from your standpoint of believing both in the topic and in your ability to do the research. In other words, you are ‘writing for yourself’. The problem is that you are already convinced, and it is not you who needs convincing! You are likely to take for granted that your proposed work is worth doing and to make assumptions about key concepts or methods that your audience may not share. But it is your audience whom you have to convince.
Rather than concentrate on what you want to write, it is vital to shift your focus towards what your audience need to read. This audience is small, specific, and very powerful. Its members are the ‘gatekeepers’ who will judge your proposal and contribute to the funding decision. If you want to open the ‘gate’ and secure funding, you must first convince these gatekeepers. Therefore, it is important that you develop a strong sense of the audience for your proposal writing (just as with academic writing more generally, as discussed in the Introduction.
You must try to understand your audience and its needs, and make every attempt to meet these needs. Members of your audience may fulfil two complementary roles, from which their needs arise:
· Assessors make funding decisions on behalf of the funding agency (they may be agency officials or else senior academics or research users who are appointed to an agency committee)
· Reviewers make funding recommendations to assessors (they may be academic experts or research users)
Most assessors and reviewers will act anonymously, so you will not know who the individuals are. But you can expect them to have certain characteristics linked to these roles that give rise to particular needs. You could helpfully think of them as:
1. sceptical – so they won’t accept your claims unless you can back them up
2. fair – concerned solely with the quality of your proposal
3. knowledgeable - about your field and about doing research
4. open-minded - ready to be convinced by a well-backed argument for funding
5. busy - so they like a logical proposal structure with a clear focus, written in a style that communicates efficiently
These audience characteristics give rise to needs which you can consciously attempt to meet in your proposal writing.
The combination of being sceptical, fair and open-minded means that assessors and reviewers need to see adequate backing for any claims you make in your proposal. They won’t be satisfied with mere assertions, say, that your proposed work is important. But if there is adequate backing to convince them of your claims, they will be ready to judge your proposal favourably.
Being knowledgeable means that assessors and reviewers need to be reassured that you know what you are talking about in your proposal through the knowledge that you demonstrate. So they will expect to see evidence that you are aware of what is already known and the limits of what is known in the field or in the area of methodology, and that the proposal takes this knowledge into account in seeking to fill a significant knowledge gap.
Being busy means that assessors and reviewers need an easy life! They will appreciate a proposal that is straightforward to understand and well-presented so it is quick and easy for them to grasp your meaning.
These needs and how to meet them may seem rather obvious. But if you fall into the common trap of ‘writing for yourself’, you risk failing fully to meet the needs of your assessors and reviewers. If so, they may judge your proposal negatively for reasons which you could have avoided.
Secret of success 2: write for your audience, not for yourself.
Keep the characteristics and needs of your assessors and reviewers at the front of your mind and work out how to meet these needs as you develop your proposal.