Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

TypingSo, you are writing a proposal, huh? Yeah, you are. Maybe you just submitted your CAREER proposal, or maybe you are writing to Uncle Howie for that big whopper of a carrot on a string. Either way, you are trying to convince someone that the thing you do is the bees knees. Here is one on proposal writing. Just some thoughts. I’d love to hear what you have to say – post or comment here.

I was recently having drinks with a couple WomenOfScience. We were discussing writing – mostly grant proposal writing – as it is the life blood of the academic research scientist. We were discussing how, when you write a proposal, you need to skirt the line between writing for a general audience and being technical enough to prove that you can do what you say. The women I was talking with often fall onto the “too technical” side. Oppositely, I often fall on the “too colloquial” side in my writing. Unfortunately, both of these can be deadly to a proposal.

Too Technical: It can be insulting – you make others feel stupid because they cannot understand what you are saying. It can be frustrating to a reviewer. Reviewers are all smart people with PhDs or MDs. Further, many reviewers have egos. Egos need to be stroked, and making them feel stupid is the opposite of what you want to do. Reviewers might think you are trying to make yourself seem smart by putting others down. Also, it can look like you are hiding behind jargon. People can and do assume you don’t really know what you are talking about because you are using technical terms instead of explaining it simply.  This can be difficult to control, especially is you are naturally detail oriented and really do think about your subject in this technical way.

My suggestion: Spend a lot of time on the first couple pages trying to tone it down. If you capture your audience’s attention and get them on your side, you can ramp up the technical speak over the course of the proposal. This way, the technical stuff can sneak up on them, or even seem gradual. You should always spend a lot of time at the beginning, but if you are a technophile, you got to write it for your granny. I am assuming, perhaps incorrectly, that most people’s grannies are not PhDs directly in your subfield of science.

Too Colloquial: When I write a proposal, a paper, or give a talk, I automatically go into pedagogical/educational mode. Oddly, writing too colloquially can have similar issues as writing too technically: it can be insulting. You look like you think others are stupid, and that is why you are dumbing everything down. Another issue with writing or speaking too colloquially is that you can make what you are doing sound simple or easy. I am doubtful that any science being proposed is “easy” or else you wouldn’t need the bureaucracy of the university behind you.  Yet, writing in an easily accessible way can make what you do seem unimportant, easy, or obvious.

My suggestion: Sell up the innovation, importance, and significance. If you discuss significance in a clear way, people love it. Use your gift for laymen’s terms to explain the significance of your work and really sell it. Later in the proposal, you might want to explain the experimental or theoretical methods, which are bound to be technical. Thus, you will give your work a technical expertise that will ground it.

Unfortunately, I think both of these offenses are less acceptable if you are a woman. Let me explain.

If you are too technical, you might be incompetent. You are hiding behind jargon you don’t really understand. Or, you are a bitch who is purposely making others feel stupid with your fancy words.

If you are too colloquial, you are probably stupid and don’t know the technical terms.

So, either way, you are incompetent. This is the typical issue for women in the academy – you have to be more competent than the men. People assume you are less competent if you don’t perform perfectly. So, you must walk the line – strike that perfect balance. You are won’t succeed overtime. But, you know what? That’s OK, as long as you practice, and try and try again, and listen to your reviewers. At some point, you will figure out how you are screwing up, and probably go to far the other way. If you practice enough, you should be able to strike the right tone eventually.

So, anything to add? Comment or post here! Push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post.

Comments on: "Frustrations of writing: don’t be too smart or too clear…" (4)

  1. Robin Selinger said:

    This CAREER award season, I did some pre-reviewing and coaching for a couple of assistant profs, so these issues are on my mind. Here are some rules of thumb for successful proposals.

    Rule 1: Let your enthusiasm for your research shine through in your writing. It’s not enough to say that something is “interesting.” Other options include:


    Don’t go overboard though. Adjectives such as “amazing,” “awesome,” or “fantastic” sound too informal in tone. Use your judgement.

    Rule 2: If you must use a fancy-shmancy technical term, take the time to define it. If it’s complicated, include a clear but concise explanation. Add a reference where an interested referee can seek further info if needed.

    Rule 3: If a common word can replace a fancy word, consider which is the better choice. Some fancy words strike me as boring, vague proposal-speak. Two examples:
    “Elucidate,” feels particularly lifeless to me. I prefer “explain” though I’m not sure why. Instead of “avert,” I prefer the more common word, “prevent.” If you truly need the specific or nuanced meaning of the fancy word, go for it. Otherwise, choose the more common word.

    Exception to Rule 3: If every sentence has a verb which is a form of “to be,” for heaven’s sake, use some more interesting verbs.

    Rule 4: Put the most important content at the beginning of a paragraph and highlight it by underlining and/or bold or italic fonts. Assume the referee is tired and bored when reading your proposal and take pity on them. Make it easy for them to find what is important. Many referees are not native English speakers. Older referees may be tired and nodding off when they should be paying attention. If you hide the punch line in the next to last sentence of a 12 sentence paragraph, it may not register in the mind of the referee.

    Rule 5: Look for phrases with strings of three or more connecting words, e.g. “for many of which,” and reformulate the sentence to get rid of them if possible. Such phrases make your text less readable and take up space without conveying much meaning.

    Rule 6: If your proposal involves work by more than one person, describe with care exactly which member of the team will perform which parts of the work. Do not hide behind the vague passive voice that describes work to be done while hiding the identity of the persons who will perform that work.

    Rule 7: The Intellectual Merit and Broader Impact statements in the project summary are the most important part of the whole proposal. Give yourself at least two whole days to focus on those few sentences and make them perfect.

    Rule 8: If you have access to “Turn it in” or similar plagiarism detection tools, run your proposal through it to make sure you or your collaborator didn’t accidentally cut and paste text inappropriately. If your proposal includes plagiarism, even if it was not your fault directly, you could end up in hot water.

    Happy proposal writing, everyone!

    -Robin Selinger

  2. Thanks for those insightful comments, Robin!

  3. I’ve been thinking about this post for a while.

    When I’m a referee, if there’s a part of a grant that’s too technical for me to understand (perhaps because it’s outside my expertise), I usually give the PI the benefit of the doubt. But, there needs to be at least some of the proposal where the ideas are explained more simply. I agree very much with your advice about the first two pages. For example, I am a physicist and have no biology expertise, but once I was on a panel related to biology because they wanted someone with my particular non-biology expertise. There I was, reviewing all these biology proposals from biologists. If paragraph #1 of page #1 started with a ton of jargon, that was not going to work. One way to think of it: maybe I gave them the benefit of the doubt nonetheless, maybe I didn’t do anything to harm their chances. But nor could I do anything to help their chances. On panels, it often helps if at least one person “gets” your proposal and can argue in its favor. If you have an introduction written for a broader audience, you have better chances of having more people speak in favor of your proposal.

    As far as the technical side, I like to have a section explaining the capabilities of my group, with technical details. What is the biggest/smallest/fastest/bestest thing we can measure? How many different samples can we process in a day? Whatever. Something that convinces the reader that we’ve got the technical skills to do what needs to be done.

    I agree completely with Robin about the word “eludicate”. I seldom see a grant where that word is needed.

    I agree with Robin about the italic/bold/underlining but only to a point. I’ve read some grants where each page has three or four sentences or phrases called out in that fashion, and then it gets annoying. If everything is important, then nothing is important. One thing I do related to this, though, is if there referees have specific things they are supposed to comment on, then make sure your grant is clear about where it’s addressing those specific things. For example, for NSF, I put in specific paragraphs with the heading “Intellectual merit: ” where I then elucidate how some portion of my grant meets that criterion. (Just kidding, I don’t really “elucidate” it, I just explain it.)

    I guess the part of this post that I’ve been struggling with is whether or not a grant can be too simplistic, too pedagogical. I think speaking just for myself when I referee grants, I tend to assume technical competence in everyone. But sometimes I need the answers to specific technical questions and will be unhappy if I don’t see them. Sometimes I point out that some questions aren’t answered but then give the PI the benefit of the doubt that they nonetheless have, or can obtain, the answers. Other times I think the answers don’t exist — that the PI hasn’t thought through the details enough — and then that’s a problem. But I guess this is about specific science concerns. Merely piling on the technical details won’t solve the problem if I have a question while reviewing the grant that isn’t answered.

    Well, anyway, just speaking for myself — your mileage will vary on how useful these comments are. And when I describe how I referee, that’s just my impression of how I referee, I know enough about unconscious bias to realize my self-assessment may be skewed.

  4. Thought I would share my approach to this, even though I have neither a particularly stunning success rate nor a huge amount of experience scoring other peoples’ grants.

    I think the hard challenges of striking the right tone go beyond word choice and style. It’s more about trying to get into the heads of the people who are going to be reading the proposal. What ideas are they familiar with? What are they going to find compelling? I think the ideal proposal probably lays out the underlying assumptions and background in a way that has the reviewers nodding their heads without feeling talked down to or like you are trying to dazzle them with jargon–you’re just succinctly reminding a colleague of what you both agree on. Then you propose work that will strike them as addressing obviously important problems in an insightful way.

    In other words, I think it’s about establishing conceptual common ground with the readers and then taking them one step beyond what they already knew. That sounds kind of trivial, but it can look very different if you are addressing physicists v. biologists, or people in your subfield vs. a broader audience.

    I def. agree that, like many things in science, how these things are perceived have a lot to do with gender. I think what you implied, that applications from women that hit the right tone precisely may be loved by everyone, but the failure tolerances on either side can be much more severe, is really insightful and probably touches on something pretty general about how sexism works in the modern world.

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