Grant Writing Mistakes part 94: The “Star Wars”

Have you seen Star Wars?  Even if you haven’t, you might be aware of the iconic opening scene, and in particular the scrolling text that begins

“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away….”

(Incidentally, this means that the Star Wars films are set in the past, not the future. Which is a nice bit of trivia and the basis for a good pub quiz question).  What relevance does any of this have for research grant applications?  Patience, Padawan, and all will become clear.

What I’m calling the “Star Wars” error in grant writing is starting the main body of your proposal with the position of “A long time ago…”. Before going on to review the literature at great length, quoting everything that calls for more research, and in general taking a lot of time and space to lay the groundwork and justify the research.  Without yet telling the reader what it’s about, why it’s important, or why it’s you and your team that should do it.

This information about the present project will generally emerge in its own sweet time and space, but not until two thirds of the way through the available space.  What then follows is a rushed exposition with inadequate detail about the research questions and about the methods to be employed.  The reviewer is left with an encyclopaedic knowledge of all that went before it, of the academic origin story of the proposal, but precious little about the project for which funding is being requested.  And without a clear and compelling account of what the project is about, the chances of getting funded are pretty much zero.  Reviewers will not unreasonably want more detail, and may speculate that its absence is an indication that the applicants themselves aren’t clear what they want to do.

Yes, an application does need to locate itself in the literature, but this should be done quickly, succinctly, clearly, and economically as regards to the space available.  Depending on the nature of the funder, I’d suggest not starting with the background, and instead open with what the present project is about, and then zoom out and locate it in the literature once the reader knows what it is that’s being located.  Certainly if your background/literature review section takes up more than between a quarter of the available space, it’s too long.

(Although I think “the Star Wars”  is a defensible name for this grant application writing mistake, it’s only because of the words “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away….”. Actually the scrolling text is a really elegant, pared down summary of what the viewer needs to know to make sense of what follows… and then we’re straight into planets, lasers, a fleeing spaceship and a huge Star Destroyer that seems to take forever to fly through the shot.)

In summary, if you want the best chance of getting funded, you should, er… restore balance to the force…. of your argument. Or something.

This entry was posted in Application advice, British Academy, Career Young Researchers, ESRC, Frustrations, Funding, University culture. Bookmark the permalink.