The Award Lifecycle

Begin to write the proposal

A proposal is made up of multiple components that vary according to sponsor and RFP requirements. Whether writing a proposal for a research project, to develop a program, to participate in a fellowship, or to purchase equipment, there are some common elements for planning, organizing and completing the entire proposal. 

  • Develop a timetable for your writing process. Give yourself time to prepare the most competitive package possible.
  • Start your template based on the sponsor’s review criteria.
  • Refer to agency strategic plans and writing guides.
  • Follow the sponsor guidelines closely. Know the requirements—and limitations—for all proposal components.
  • Some sponsors suggest writing a proposal is like writing a story.
  • Read successful proposals.

1. Timetable

In The Art of Grantsmanship, Jacob Kraicer outlines a timetable for writing a grant proposal that begins a year before a proposal deadline. It begins with developing the idea, reviewing literature, and preparing a team. At 9 months, the PI begins to obtain preliminary data, with local university funds if available.  At 6 months, preparation of the initial drafts of the proposal begins.  At 2 months, the guidelines and RFPs should be available so that you can begin to prepare your proposal in response to the sponsor’s specific requirements and begin to develop the budget. Within 1 month of the deadline, have others review the narrative to provide feedback. The PI then has time to consider the feedback and to revise as necessary.

2. Writing Template 

One good way to begin the narrative is to copy and paste the sponsor’s review criteria or selection criteria into your document.  This will help to ensure that all of the required elements are included and developed throughout the proposal writing process. 

3. Agency Guides

Many agencies offer writing guides specific to their needs and general proposal requirements. Federal agencies often provide writing guides, conferences, and webinars to help foster the submission of proposals that align with their priorities and strategic plans. Taking advantage of these resources is a good practice for successful investigators.

Guidelines and proposal suggestions differ across research projects, program grants, and fellowships. See Useful Links for additional assistance to appropriately tailor your proposal.

4. Sponsor Guidelines

When preparing your proposal, be sure to read the sponsor guidelines thoroughly.  Requirements for both the narrative and for the budget (such as Project Directors’ meetings in Washington, DC, for some federal awards) will be included in the guidelines.  Look for webinars of FAQs offered by the agency to clarify important elements of the proposal.

5. Writing Tips

  • If you are concerned whether your idea meets agency priorities/interests, contact the appropriate Program Officer as identified in the guidelines.  The Program Officer may ask you to email them a brief (1 page or less) description of your project. 
  • Search the RFP for words such as “require,” “must,” and “should” so that you are sure to include specific agency requirements in your proposal.
  • Avoid the use of weak words.  Instead of “we hope…,” “we might…”, or “we may…”, consider stronger formulations such as “we expect…”  It is also a good idea to identify contingency plans if a portion of the research does not pan out as expected.
  • Use any required agency formatting guidelines for font and margins from the beginning of the process.
  • Obey the Three Cs—Concise, Clear, and Complete (Bourne & Chalupa, see Useful Links)

6. Successful Proposals

If you are just beginning the grant proposal process, obtain copies of successful proposals when possible. You might ask senior colleagues in your department for a copy of a successful proposal. Use agency websites to identify previous awardees and abstracts; contact the PI to ask if they are willing to share their successful proposal.
Abstracts of previous awardees are often available online: