Note – although this article is primarily aimed at university students writing proposals for scholarship applications – many of these principles and techniques are applicable to other types of proposals, as well.
If you’re a graduate student, or thinking of becoming one, then you’ve probably faced this challenge at least once. Common problems include not knowing where to start or what to write about, how much detail to include and how to fit everything in to the limited space allotted (which is typically only 1 to 2 pages). Like any other technical writing challenge, it pays to have a plan and it’s important to write in coherent units (known as ‘paragraphs’). Here’s some advice to help you tackle this important challenge effectively.
First – you MUST start with an outline. If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll already know why. You never write any technical piece from front to back – instead, you first frame it up, then you flesh it out. For more on the reasoning behind this approach, see the very first post in this blog.
Unlike a thesis outline – which really has to be a custom design – you can pick your ‘scholarship proposal outline’ right off the rack. It generally goes like this:
- Pitch Paragraph
- Literature Review Paragraph
- Methodology Paragraph(s)
- Research Outcomes and Significance Paragraph(s)
The names are pretty self-explanatory – but I’ll give you a few thoughts on each so you have an idea of what to include. In today’s post – we’ll focus on the Pitch Paragraph.
Writing the Pitch Paragraph
This is the opening paragraph where you ‘pitch’ your basic idea to the reviewers. I sometimes call it the ‘motivational paragraph” or the “give-a-hoot paragraph”. (You can use your imagination here to substitute something more realistic for ‘hoot’.) Whatever you choose to call it – this is where you must convince the reviewers that your research project is important AND exciting by answering the inevitable question – “Why should they care?”
Just as the best-selling novels are the ones that grab readers right from the first page, a successful scholarship proposal must engage the reviewers right from the first sentence. It’s important to keep two things in mind here. First, the reviewer is not going to be a specialist in your area; in fact, the chances of them even being in the same discipline as you are virtually nil. Your civil engineering proposal might be reviewed by an electrical engineering professor or possibly even by a biology professor, and it’s a good bet that they find their specialty riveting and the prospect of reading about yours – well – excruciatingly boring. The second thing to keep in mind is that the reviewers are each going to be reading at least a hundred applications during the adjudication process. Given these two facts, it can be a real challenge to get them excited about your research topic.
There are a few tricks for making your proposal more interesting – they generally involve borrowing techniques from creative writing – not the fiction part of it, of course, but in terms of the tone and style. This will be very different than what you’re used to doing when writing a technical report or article, so here are some specific tips.
Write in the first person and use ‘I’ not ‘we’. You want the reviewers to see you as a human being, an individual – someone who is going to be affected and impacted by getting (or not getting) this scholarship. Also – it’s just more interesting to read things written in the first person – especially after seeing 99 other scholarship proposals written in the ‘third person impersonal’. If you can let a bit of your personality and enthusiasm shine through, all the better!
Write in the active voice not the passive voice, and use active verbs instead of adverbs + passive verbs. A classic example of this in creative writing is to say, “she shouted” instead of “she said loudly”. Anytime you couple a verb with a word that ends in “ly”, you’re using an adverb. Examples are: ‘slowly’, ‘softly’, ‘excruciatingly’… you get the idea. However, you’ll need to be much more subtle in using action verbs in writing your scholarship proposal than in penning your great American novel; it can get pretty silly sounding if you overdo it.
Use adjectives wherever possible when describing things. It helps to paint the picture of what you’re planning in the reviewers’ mind, which is especially useful in the pitch paragraph. For example, saying that you’re studying the “delicate structure of spider webs” has much more allure than simply saying you are studying “the structure of spider webs”. For me, that one word ‘delicate’ conjures up an image of an intricate spider web, dripping with dew and glistening in the morning sun. I sit up in my seat, I press on with interest. In contrast, to hear that you are ‘studying the structure of spider webs’ makes me yawn and pause to check my lunch bag in the hopes that someone packed a dozen home-baked cookies in there to get me through this scholarship application review ordeal.
Use dialog instead of narration. In creative writing it’s always much more interesting to learn about something through a conversation between characters, rather than merely through a narrative description. You can employ the same tactic here with just a slight variation – the dialog is going to be between you and the reviewers. You do this by asking a question. For example, you might say something like… “Would you be surprised to learn that one-third of the world’s 6,000 known amphibian species are in danger of extinction? This includes the rarely observed Baracoa dwarf frog, one of the smallest frogs in the world.” You’ll have to admit, that was much more interesting to read than, “This research project focuses on the Baracoa dwarf frog (Eleutherodactylus orientalis).”
Take some time now to practice writing a Pitch Paragraph for your research project – you’ll find it’s a great thing to have prepared for a multitude of reasons and you’ll be ready the next time a scholarship possibility comes up. These are also techniques that you can carry forward when writing proposals after graduation – such as grant applications.
In my next post – I’ll provide some advice on the remaining three elements of your proposal. In the meantime – what’s for lunch? Hmmm…