The science and art of grant writing

As you sit down to write a grant proposal, remember one thing — you’re telling a story. You want it to be a page-turner. Your primary audience will be a few busy senior scientists sitting in front of a tall stack of applications. You should strive to make yours interesting. The specific aims page should spark their curiosity. A new solution to an old problem. Connections that have never been made before. Then you’ll get your grant.

This was the main message delivered at a half-day grant writing symposium held on July 25, organized by Stanford’s Biosciences Grant Writing Academy. “The Science and Art Grant Writing Symposium” featured 11 distinguished Stanford scientists, all experienced grant writers and reviewers, who offered up their collective wisdom on how to write an amazing proposal.

Here is an overview of key takeaways from the symposium, along with links to speaker videos and other grant-writing resources.

Know your audience

For National Institutes of Health grants, peer review committees typically consist of 20 to 30 members, and three of these reviewers, your most important audience, will be assigned to read your application thoroughly and write a critique. They’ll also assign preliminary scores for each review criterion and an overall impact score. The summaries for the top proposals are then distributed to the rest of the committee for review and discussion. Realize that most of the other committee members may only skim your first page and then look through your figures, which summarize project protocols, preliminary data, budgets, and timelines. For these fast readers, take care to make these figures clean, simple, and browsable.

Tell your story with pictures

A sure way to lift your proposal to the top of pile is to figure out how to design an overview schematic of your project in the same way that graphic novelists illustrate the action and plot of their stories. The first figure of a grant proposal should explain how all the parts of your study fit together, providing a visual roadmap for the reviewers. Spend time honing your image captions, so that busy reviewers can grasp the essence of your proposal from these alone. Consider using professional graphic designers for these images, using an inexpensive online service agency, such as or


The Biosciences Grant Writing Academy’s half-day symposium featured 11 distinguished speakers and was attended by 238 postdocs, fellows, and grad students. From left to right: Janneke van ‘t Hooft, Adriyana Barkova, Kenisha Puckett, and Courtney Stockman.

Photo:  Kris Newby


Get early feedback on your proposal

When it comes to the process of grant writing, Stanford’s Grant Writing Academy embraces the “bias towards action” philosophy of the Institute of Design at Stanford (a.k.a. the To lessen blank-page anxiety, give yourself permission to quickly pound out a less-than-perfect first draft, then build in enough time for several review cycles. Solicit feedback on key proposal components, especially the Specific Aims and Research Strategy sections. Ask your collaborators and colleagues for advice. You can also schedule time with an Academy grant coach to get help on editing, critically evaluating your grant applications, interpreting sponsor requirements, and providing strategic advice. And, finally, don’t hesitate to contact the program officer for questions related to your proposal.

Don’t submit a “wall of words”

During his “Tips on Grant Writing” session, Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne encouraged young scientists to let the enthusiasm for their research topics shine through. He recommended avoiding text-heavy “wall of words” proposals, instead enhancing readability through the generous use of text margins, paragraph breaks, figures, and tables. He suggested that grant writers follow the “Rule of Threes” when listing aims and sub-aims, since these short lists are easier to remember and more impactful.

Hone your writing skills

Stanford has a wealth of resources to hone your grant writing skills. For the basics, check out the free, self-paced “Writing in the Sciences” course, taught by Kristin Sainani, PhD.  This massive, online course has been accessed a half million times since its inception. Another essential article is, “Ten simple rules for scientists: Improving your writing productivity,” written by Todd Peterson, PhD; Sofie Kleppner, PhD; and Crystal Botham, PhD.

For hands-on assistance writing up a specific proposal idea, sign up for the Autumn Proposal Bootcamp or one of the Mini Proposal Bootcamps. Bootcamp participants develop proposals through guided exercises with an emphasis on establishing a writing practice, in-class peer review, and two-hour faculty feedback workshops. (Note: Crystal Botham is currently looking for faculty volunteers for this session; no prep is required). The applicant success rate is 40 percent since the workshop began in 2014.

And last but not least, for specific areas of proposal writing where you might need help, check out the Academy’s library of video tutorials, the ongoing series of writing events, or the individual sessions recorded at this year’s symposium.