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Grant Architecture

In recent grant cycles, perhaps fueled by my skill in trimming verbiage, I have received several proposals that were well over the agency's stated page limits. Exasperated, I stomped over to my grant colleague's door to vent my frustration.


In response, she said, “Don't they follow the architecture?”

“Indeed not,” I replied. Both of us, as artists, approach proposals with a mind to the presentation – the arrangement and attractiveness – of the words on the page. “How can I get faculty to write to the limits without a need for extensive cutting, reorganizing, and rewriting?” I thought. Could architectural principles be applied to grant writing? Turns out, a focus on the underlying structure of a building, much like a grant document, can benefit from using basic design principles.

  1. Outline. So often grants are written without any substructure. I offer the archetypal template with grant instructions, but the first draft is often a motley of concepts that do not flow and paragraphs without a clear purpose. The design concept of “axis” could be used to set the page layout by building a simple outline with a set of logical, stepwise sub headers to align content with the grant theme, present a continuous flow of interlinked concepts, reinforce the project's purpose using repetition, and complete the flow for impact.
  1. Tables. Proposal aims and corresponding milestones are frequently buried in long, unfocused paragraphs. One of my favorite grant tools is the timeline/milestone table. The design concept of “hierarchy” applies; tiers of information can be used to partition the elements visually into size, shape, and placement. Tables naturally offer architectural structure – bins for information that is more easily comprehended in an orderly format. Words and space – and consequently, time – can be saved.
  1. Flow Charts. Many grants lack basic graphics, which can be used to bring clarity to the project design. In my early years on grant teams, I learned to create effective graphics, often conceived as scribbles on paper. Here, the design concept of “symmetry” would add value to the writing process. Flow charts create needed space by condensing words into a picture with a legend. Adding a splash of color and getting the team to fill in the holes can produce a delightfully asymmetrical configuration of graphics that includes conceptual models, schematic design diagrams, and data.
  1. Callout box. All too often, the grant goals/approach are blurred by a lack of attention to central ideas. Another design principle, “rhythm,” can be used to refine the grant architecture further. The partition of information into a box, adorned by highlights, bullets, or columns, can highlight or “callout” defining features of the proposal. When placed within the related descriptive text, this box will create a visual break. This tool is particularly valuable for addressing grant critiques by contrasting two or more prospective approaches. It can also be useful for highlighting testimonials, important statistics, and for emphasizing certain concepts or the central model.

The upshot of using these four design bins is to create overall balance by determining how much space to allocate for components of the message. Ideally, each section should be proportionate to the grant-scoring matrix.

Take a break and Google “architecture and design principles” for a new perspective on a tedious document and a new language to communicate with the team before the word overdose begins. An architecturally pleasing ensemble of well-outlined text along with strategically placed tables, graphics, and the occasional callout box may just produce the transformation of the reader to a grant believer.

Are you fatigued by the labor of editing grants down to the page limits?

Michele Zacks is a biomedical grant professional who works with clinical, translational, and basic science research faculty on federal and peer-reviewed foundation proposals, a specialty recently branded as “research development.” She persistently seeks to combine artistry and grantsmanship in her approach to advising her faculty clients.
GPC Competencies:
03. Effective Program/Project Design; 04. Effective Grant Applications; 07. Professionalism