Friday, February 10, 2017

4 tricks you CAN use to save space in your proposal

It was probably unfair of me to give you a bunch of space-saving tricks last week and tell you not to use any of them, so I thought this week I should dig into some that you can use...

Use active, first-person voice:
Scholars and researchers are often trained to use the passive, third-person in their academic writing.

Here's the difference:
Passive, third-person: The experiment will be conducted by the researcher.
Active, first-person: I will do the experiment.

Why do academics want to use the passive, third person? A couple of reasons: first, it alludes to the objectivity of the research and removes the researcher from the written proposal. Second, it sounds more formal, more appropriate for the expert reviewers. But, I argue that the benefits of the active, first-person outweigh those of the former. First off, it's shorter. I cheated a little bit in my example and changed the verb, but either way, it's going to end up shorter. And when you make these changes to all of your sentences, you'll save a lot of space! Second, active, first-person is easier to read. Any good technical writer worth her word processor will tell you that!

Remove hyperbole:
I recently reviewed a grant proposal where the PI described something as "very, very important." Now, I get that it's hard in a grant proposal to really make things stand out, but this is not the way! Firstly, my loyal blog readers have heard me say this before, but I once had a Technical Writing Professor who said that there is never a good reason to use the word "very," and she had long since banned it from her writing. Her point was that it didn't add anything to the sentence. If something is important, say "it's important." Adding "very," let alone, two of them doesn't articulate anything significantly different. Now, I'll take this a step further even and suggest that not only should our PI cut out the "verys," but I would ask, is there a way you can show that this is important instead of just saying it? Is there a way to structure the description to make it clear to the reader that this is important, so that you don't have to tell them? Now, I've made this argument and lost several times before and I acquiesce that sometimes using this hyperbole cues the reader to pay close attention. So, if you must, say something is important or great or incredible, but please don't say it's very incredible.

Cut sentences that don't have a clear purpose:
I mentioned this last week, but when you're running out of space in your grant proposal, you need to be brutal. This means going through the proposal line by line, and cutting sentences or phrases that aren't really making a difference. They may be eloquent, they may be poetic, but if they're not doing the work of making your case to reviewers, they have to go!

Phone a friend:
So, after you've changed everything to active, first-person, cut out hyperbole, and brutally curtailed your proposal and you still can't find enough room for your amazing diagram (that you're keeping at a size that reviewers can see), it's time to call for reinforcements. You need to find a colleague to go through and tell you what's still in your proposal that isn't necessary and where you can condense.

These tips can help you cull a mostly-written proposal, but another thing to do is create a well-organized plan of attack before you start writing your grant proposal. If you can outline and identify what you want to do in each section first, it'll help you stay out of the weeds in your first draft. That way there will be less you need to cut later on!

Top three things to cut from your writing - Kyra Thomsen

Friday, February 3, 2017

5 tricks to save space (that you should never use)

Space limits in grant proposals are one of the most frustrating aspects in grant writing. While you're watching some of your students really stretch to fill paper requirements you give them, you're trying to slim down your compelling case and essential descriptions to meet agency requirements. We all know that culling your words is harder than expanding them (no matter what students think). Here I'll offer the requisite Blaise Pascal quote, "I would have written a shorter letter, but I didn't have the time."

So, you may be excited to learn of what tricks I've identified for saving space, but I'll immediately burst your bubble by saying that you should never ever use these tricks. Ah, that Pandora's Box of grant-writing tips! But, here's why you should not use them. Because, reviewers will immediately discover your tricks and be frustrated by them.

So, here they are...

Shrinking the type: Sure, you can fit more words in the smaller type you use, but at what point are you going to give your reviewers a headache? Be sure to keep your type at 11 point or larger throughout the whole grant.

Shrinking the margins: Genius! If you push your margins out by just a smidgen, you can get that last sentence in there. But, what does that do to the layout of your document? Nobody likes reading something that goes right to the edge of the page. Plus, if you check your agency guidelines, there are probably rules against it.

Cutting the white space: Along with shrinking margins, it's tempting to choose a paragraph structure that eliminates white space between them. But, again, nobody likes reading something where there are no visual breaks. You don't want a reviewer to look at your page and have a feeling of dread. White space is necessary!

Making figures/visuals smaller: So, you've done it! You've crafted the perfect diagram to include in your project overview that will very quickly give your reviewer an understanding of your whole project structure.  Only problem is that, to fit in this visual, you've had to make it so small that your reviewer might not be able to read the ultra-tiny labels and text...So, again that will be annoying and not useful. Give it the room it needs to be easily decipherable or cut it.

Cutting headings/guide posts: So, I'm shooting everything down! How about Headings? Those aren't necessary, right? Well, maybe not, but reviewers don't tend to read through a grant proposal from page one, chronologically till the end. I've heard several NIH reviewers say they start with Specific Aims and then go to the Biosketch. So, given that reviewers are using your grant in this way, offering them indicators, guide posts, headings, and references makes your proposal easier to navigate and easier to read. Easier to read = happier reviewers.

A classic, yet brutal, writers' mantra is to "murder your darlings." This refers to the importance of being ruthless when cutting down your writing. If it's not necessary to include, even if you said it so brilliantly, cut it, save yourself the space, and don't be tempted use the tricks above!

Writing Process and Structure - University of Wisconsin Madison

Friday, January 27, 2017

PI's? PIs? POs?

I thought I'd tackle a simple editing question today. This was spurred by an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on "Is 'Mens' Becoming a Word?'" In this article, the author notes how he is starting to see signs and uses of the word "mens" as possessive without an apostrophe. He seems open to our evolving language, usage, and grammar, but the word mens does not sit well with him.

This got me thinking about apostrophes or lack thereof that never sit well with me, and the first thing that came to mind was when I'm using the abbreviation for Principal Investigators in the plural. When I write PIs as plural, I have an urge to include an apostrophe: PI's. Why? Why do I want to do that when I'm not using the possessive? Well, it's because of other uses that I am comfortable with that use an apostrophe for the plural, non-possessive. Phrases like, the 90's or the ABC's. Neither of these phrases are necessarily possessive, but many of us are comfortable with the apostrophe in these cases, right? However, as shown in the APA blog below, we probably shouldn't be using apostrophes in the 90s or the ABCs.

OK, so I won't drag it out any further. The thing to do when you aren't quite sure which way to go or get that uneasy feeling when you make a grammatical decision, is to go to the authority. Who is the authority, you ask? Is it APA, MLA, Chicago, or Turbian? No, in this case the authority is the agency to which you're applying. If you're writing for the NIH or the NSF, go use the search engine on their site to see what grammatical rules they're using, and follow their lead. If you're wondering, like I was, about possibly including an apostrophe in the possessive form of PIs, a quick search tells us. No, neither the NIH nor the NSF include an apostrophe - it's PIs and POs.

Whew, glad I sorted that out! :)

Is 'Mens' Becoming a Word? - Ben Yagoda, Chronicle of Higher Education
Pluralize Numbers and Abbreviations Without Apostrophes - David Becker, APA Style

Friday, January 20, 2017

Tackling taboos to build collaboration

I've worked in or with institutions of higher education for 13 years, which I realize is a drop in the bucket for some of you veterans. However, in these years and with each institution I've worked with or for, I've been struck by the power that taboos and historical grudges can have in relationships that preclude a lack of communication and collaboration.

Some of these taboos are based on real incidents that have happened in the past, some taboos are handed down through successors, e.g., upon being hired, one seasoned faculty member tells the new faculty member to watch out for this department or that person. And, sometimes these taboos are completely based on assumptions, perhaps one researcher assumes that another is critical of their work and decides not to discuss or collaborate with them because of it.

My sense is that these taboos seem to manifest more in higher education for a couple of reasons. The first is that in higher education you have many faculty and administrators that are there for a long time. These folks are a wealth of knowledge and historical perspective, but they can sometimes get stuck in those perspectives and can be resistant to change or moving on. The second reason is the climate in higher education: it's stressful, competitive, and it's traditionally been set up as each woman or man for themself. To suggest collaboration in that environment seems futile, and we can see how the lone-wolf researcher is itself a taboo that wards off any attempt to collaborate.

So, taboos are a barrier to communication and collaboration, but they can be broken down to make way for relationships and research collaborations. Here are some ways to begin breaking down little taboos.

Ask about them: Much like the story of "The Emperor's New Clothes," as soon as you name a taboo, it begins to lose it's power. If you sense there is a story or a reason someone doesn't seem to want to work with someone else or you, identify it and ask about it.

Example: "So, Larry, I hate to bring this up and maybe it's just me, but every time I ask about bringing Andrea into this collaboration, you change the subject. Do you have concerns or know something I don't that makes you reticent?"

Don't assume: Oftentimes, when people sense something is taboo, they assume the worst and move along with that assumption. Along with asking about the seemingly taboo topic, make sure you're acknowledging and checking your own assumptions.

Example: "Susan, you seem to be avoiding me since I gave you feedback on your grant proposal. Am I reading into this or did my comments frustrate you?"

Research collaborations themselves can generate new taboos, particularly if the team doesn't discuss work allocation and order of authorship, or other high-stakes decisions. So, to avoid taboos in your current or future teams, begin by discussing and clarifying these items. And, whenever you sense a taboo starting to form, ask about it and check your assumptions.

Taboo Triangles - Charles M. Lines

Friday, January 13, 2017

Responding to NIH's Rigor & Reproducibility Requirements

The NIH's new Rigor and Reproducibility requirements are in full swing according to many study section reviewers. Reviewer reports of the discussions and emphasis being given to these requirements are reinvigorating the discussion amongst NIH funded researchers and those aspiring to be funded by NIH around the best way to respond to these requirements.

It's useful to consider the origin of these requirements. This NIH initiative was in part a response to several articles that came out a few years ago that reported a surprising number of research projects published in top journals couldn't be reproduced or had fundamental flaws.

These new requirements fall into four general categories:

Scientific Premise:
Scientific premise refers to the body of completed research and data (by the proposing PI and others) that form the basis or the justification for what the PI is proposing as a next logical step. The NIH wants to make sure that the research they're funding stands on reliable data and/or fills in necessary gaps in the current research.

Rigorous Experimental Design:
According to the NIH website, "Scientific rigor is the strict application of the scientific method to ensure robust and unbiased experimental design, methodology, analysis, interpretation and reporting of results. This includes full transparency in reporting experimental details so that others may reproduce and extend the findings." Thus, this is where the NIH is hoping to remedy funding research that cannot be reproduced; if experiments are designed rigorously then they remove the question marks that keep other researchers from being able to replicate.

Relevant Biological Variables:
Historically, NIH funded research that used a disproportionately high number of male animals. This had an unintended consequence on the results of such research not taking into account sex in various experiments where it might make a difference. To remedy this, the NIH is now asking for researchers to account for both sexes in research and to provide better justification if only one sex is being used in research. Although better inclusion of females in experiments is a priority, the NIH has identified other variables they want justified in grant proposals.

Authentication of Resources:
Authentication of resources is simply a requirement by the NIH to make sure the chemical and biological resources you use in your experiments are reliable.

Dr. Jennifer Kemp, the Director of the Research Office in our Department of Medicine recently offered some tips on how to address these requirements. Even if your research has always met these requirements, you need to be more explicit about them in your grant proposals. According to Dr. Kemp, each of these requirements should be addressed under a subheading naming it in your proposal. Scientific Premise should be addressed in the Significance section, Rigorous Experimental Design and Relevant Biological Variables should be addressed in Approach, and Authentication of Resources should be addressed in a new attachment.

To learn more about the NIH's requirements and Dr. Kemp's suggestions, please see the resources below:

Rigor and Reproducibility - NIH
Update on NIH Grant Proposal Requirements - Dr. Jennifer Kemp

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Reviewers are on a need-to-know basis

I recently reviewed a faculty member's grant application. It was a cool project! I could understand the importance, I had examples of application, I got the gist of how it would be carried out, etc. Only trouble was, there were quite a few paragraphs of technical information that I couldn't understand. Normally, this would be expected since many grant applications must include technical language to show reviewers, who are experts in the field, that you're on the cutting edge. However, the intended sponsor for this grant stated that they had laypeople on their review committee. So, I as a layperson reviewing this grant was a comparable reviewer.

All of this to say that when it comes to grant-writing, less is more. Your challenge is to write to your audience (your reviewers) as concisely as possible to clearly convey the great importance of your project and offer just enough justification and technical details to convince them you will be successful... and that's it! So, seems simple enough, but there are variables to consider as you decide what needs to go into and stay out of your grant application.

Who are your reviewers?
To figure out what your reviewers need to know, you need to first have a sense of who they are. Are they laypeople or experts? Are they in your field or not? Are they familiar with you or your area? To answer these questions, explore the website of your sponsor. Some sponsors will list their reviewers and some will describe the background of their reviewers. Sponsors will also describe the level of detail and background information they expect in their program announcement or grant application guide. Not surprisingly, to know what to tell them, we must first know who reviewers are.

What do they need to know?
Once we have a sense of who our reviewers are, we can then start to formulate what they need to know to make a decision on your project. No matter who they are, you always want to emphasize the importance of your work and the impact your work. You must also convince your reviewers that you will be successful in carrying out your project.

How do you best convey your project?
The language you use to convince your reviewers will vary based on your reviewers. For reviewers who are experts in your field, you'll want to demonstrate your knowledge of the field and relevant scholarship. However, make sure that you are careful that your discussion of the field doesn't get too tangential to your project. Stay focused, show your expertise, and bring it back to your compelling case. Start with your case and end with your case. For laypeople, you'll also want to convince them that you and your project are the way to go, but you'll need to use jargon-free and plain language to show them.

It may sound harsh to say, but at the end of the day, if your grant proposal doesn't speak to your reviewers in whatever way, it's your fault. If you didn't know who they would be or what they needed to know, it's of no use to blame them for that. If your grant is rejected, use the reviewer comments to better understand them as an audience so you can better write for them when you resubmit.

Confessions of a Grant Reviewer - Margaret Ring
Crafting a Sales Pitch for Your Grant Reviewer - Robert Porter

Monday, December 5, 2016

So, what do you do? (planning your holiday pitch)

Tis the season of the office holiday party! This may mean large department/university parties or lunches and/or it may mean office parties with your spouse or partner. Either way, you're bound to be asked..."So, what do you do?" We all get the question, we all expect it, but if you're anything like me it still often blind-sides you. This is a particularly difficult question for researchers, because what you do can be complex and hard to explain for different audiences. Sure, you can take the easy way out with, "I'm a Professor of Physics," receive an impressed look from your conversation partner, and ensure no further questions are asked, or you can use the opportunity to practice your research pitch with different audiences. Hey, depending on the party, maybe you're pitching someone who could be a resource.

So, this week I offer some tips on creating your holiday pitch!

Assess your audience
When headed to a social event, give some thought to who will be there and what their interests are. Will there be other researchers and academics at this party? Will there be entrepreneurs? Foundation representatives? Considering your audience beforehand can give you a headstart in planning your pitch, but don't be afraid of asking a question or two of the person you're talking with, such as, "Have you ever heard of the theory of X?" Or, "Are you familiar with Y disease?" Depending on the answer(s) you get to these precursory questions, you can skip over parts or give a brief explanation to set yourself up to describe your research.

Stay focused on impact
Key to giving your holiday pitch is to stay out of the weeds. To best explain your research, your conversationalist will likely be most interested in the importance of your work. What's the end result? If your research works to cure cancer, why not start there and offer more specifics as you go or as they ask? By focusing on the impact, your pitch will be clearer and more compelling.

Do not use jargon
I attended my spouse's office party this weekend (he works for a Tech startup) and when asked what I did, I simply said "I'm in research development." Most people thought this was just great, and the conversation didn't go much further, which was fine with me. But, I found myself wondering what picture they had in their head of research development. I'm quite certain that they weren't picturing me developing grant-writing seminars or writing this blog. Research development is jargon where you really don't know what it is if you aren't working in it and even then it's a pretty institution-dependent field. I say all this because I used jargon at this party to get out of any conversations about my work and I get the sense that some academics might do the same, drop a big word, offer no explanation and just wait for a topic change. However, you're doing amazing research, so share it with people, don't let the conversation drop prematurely. Remember, this is practice!

Offer scenarios
In an effort to avoid jargon and to better relate to your audience, think about scenarios or metaphors you can use to explain your research. For instance, saying, "Have you ever used a fit bit before?"
When someone says yes, you go on, "Well, I develop the technology that measures how far you've walked in a day." This is a very impact/application-focused way of describing what you do that most people can relate to.

Now, I'm not trying to trick you into a whole month of extra conversations about work that will make you a social outcast at next year's parties. Always, gauge what your conversation partner is interested in. If they aren't interested in really understanding your research, then let it go, ask them what they do and try another prompt next time to spark interest. Perhaps, next year, folks will be tracking you down to catch up and find out what interesting research you've been doing since you talked last.

Do schools kill creativity? - Sir Ken Robinson (This is a nice example of how to pitch your research and a funny bit about talking about research at parties)
Answering the dreaded "So, what do you do?" question - 99U