Successful Proposal Writing

The following list of articles and links will help you hone your grant-writing skills. However, they only provide general guidance on the art of grant-writing; when you are ready to actually assemble your own funding proposal, remember to consult with your local research administration staff.


Questions about this topic can be answered by:

Brewer, G. Russell

Associate Vice President of Sponsored Research

Office of Sponsored Research

(650) 725-9060

Thompson, Kathleen

School of Medicine

School of Medicine - Research Management Group

(650) 725-0661

How To Write A Compelling Grant Proposal

Reviewers are often faculty just like you who are very busy. A reviewer must often read 10 to 15 applications in great detail and form an opinion about each of them.

Researchers who are able to express their scientific arguments persuasively and concisely win grants and get published more often. According to Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the NIH, “So many worthwhile research ideas get put into the unfunded category in reviews because the proposals are not written clearly and don’t present the importance of the research forcefully enough.”

Here are some tips for writing an application that is clear, compelling, and easy to evaluate (and approve!):

Stick with the format

Your application has a better chance at succeeding if it is easy to read and follows the required format. Reviewers are accustomed to finding information in specific sections of the application, so you must organize your application to effortlessly guide reviewers through it. This creates an efficient evaluation process and saves reviewers from hunting for critical information.

Plan ahead

Before you start writing the application, think about the budget and how it is related to your research plan. Remember that everything in the budget must be justified by the work you've proposed to do. Be realistic. Don't propose more work than can be reasonably done during the proposed project period.

Make no assumptions

Include enough background information to enable an intelligent reader to understand your proposed work. Although not a requirement for assignment purposes, a cover letter can help the sponsor assign your application for initial peer review.

Organize your thinking

Start with an outline following the suggested organization of the application. Write one sentence summarizing the topic sentence of each main section. Do the same for each main point in the outline.

Make the case

Capture the reviewers' attention by making the case for why the sponsor should fund your research. Tell reviewers why testing your hypothesis is worth their money, why you are the person to do it, and how your institution can give you the support you'll need to get it done.

Keep it simple

Make one point in each paragraph. This is key for readability. Keep sentences to 20 words or less. Write simple, clear sentences. Use the active, rather than passive, voice. For example, write "We will develop an experiment," not "An experiment will be developed."

Be succinct

Use a clear and concise writing style so that a non-expert may understand the proposed research. Often you will know much more on the topic than the reviewer, so make your points as directly as possible. Use basic English, avoiding jargon or excessive language. Spell out all acronyms on first reference. Be consistent with terms, references, and writing style.

Back to Top

Stanford Resources

The Office of Sponsored Research, Research Management Group and the  Industrial Contract Office along with your school based research administrators can help you with your proposal.

In addition Stanford offers support for your proposals from the following offices:

The Office of Science Outreach (OSO)

Stanford's OSO helps faculty engage in science outreach -- organized activities targeted at youth, school teachers, and general public that will increase their interest, understanding, and involvement in math, science, and engineering.  

The OSO serves faculty throughout the University by assisting them in creating outreach project ideas and proposals, identifying potential partners for them (both within Stanford as well as externally), and facilitating information and resource sharing among all of the University's science outreach programs. 

They can brainstorm/suggest outreach ideas to incorporate in your proposal, review and give feedback on a draft proposal, find a specific audience/partner for your project, or write/acquire letters of support from project partners/participants. OSO also provides programs faculty members can tap into to fulfill outreach requirements while continuing to conduct research and perform teaching duties.

The Stanford Center for Clinical and Translational Education and Research (Spectrum)

Spectrum is a Stanford University independent research center funded in part by an NIH Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA). Its goal is to accelerate and enhance medical research, from basic discovery to improved patient care.

International Affairs

Are you planning travel abroad to study, research, or volunteer? Will you be collaborating with international visitors either here at Stanford or abroad? If so, you must be aware of your individual responsibilities for understanding the laws, regulations, and requirements that apply. Prepare for your international academic activity with the wealth of tools and services available to you.

University Libraries Data Management Services

Data management is emerging as a key component of funding agency requirements. Stanford University Libraries offers tools and services to help researchers comply with funding agency provisions on data management and to improve the visibility of their research.

The Data Management Planning Tool provides templates, Stanford-specific guidance, and suggested answer text for creating a data management plan for your next grant submission. The Stanford Digital Repository provides long-term preservation of your important research data in a secure, sustainable stewardship environment, combined with a persistent URL (PURL) that allows for easy data discovery, access, sharing, and reuse.

Office of the Dean of Research Support in Preparing a Center Grant

The Dean of Research Office provides supplemental and complementary assistance to  faculty for support in preparing a center grant proposal.

The VPTL (Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning)

The Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning (VPTL, formerly VPOL) has enabled the creation of hundreds of online offerings in support of courses and other learning activities for both enrolled students and public audiences. Many unique MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) have been offered through Stanford Online to date, reaching millions of learners across the nation and around the globe.


VPTL also works with faculty to make proposals to funding agencies more competitive by leveraging Stanford’s leadership in online teaching and learning to better achieve broader impacts objectives. Faculty can utilize our capabilities to create and deliver online materials and courseware to more effectively disseminate knowledge; building greater awareness of research and building communities around research areas and researchers.  Faculty with successful proposals can use professional services offered by VPTL to execute on those plans. Our instructional designers consult with faculty to delineate targeted audiences and desired learning outcomes, and identify strategies for achieving those goals. Our media production team and campus studios are available to help create high-quality learning materials. Online materials can be delivered in a variety of formats through Stanford Online. Distribution may be limited to Stanford affiliates, other specific communities, or be made available to the public. Materials may also be readily repurposed for other uses. Stanford Online platforms allow for unprecedented data collection and analysis. With these data, VPTL can work with faculty to provide assessment and reporting of broader impacts results. If other channels of delivery are important, VPTL will work with research teams to make their materials available through other means.

Back to Top

General Grantsmanship

Online Resources

 New Faculty Guide for Competing for Research Funding

Proposal Writing is a short course presented by the Foundation Center, which summarizes the process for preparing a funding proposal. 

The Art of Grantsmanship was created by the Human Frontier Science Program and  focuses on how to write a funding proposal that optimizes your chances of successfully competing for research support.

Science Writing: “Your Thoughts Are Like a String of Pearls,” by Christopher Dant, PhD.  

Teaching Effective Writing Skills at an Academic Cancer Center: Reflections of an Erstwhile Journal Editor and Writer Geared toward researchers at all career levels, is a searchable multimedia collection of practical, engaging "how-to" information about conducting research.

Research Development and Grant-Writing News

Note: This subscription publication is available to Stanford users only.

Research Development and Grantwriting News January 2016

Research Development and Grantwriting News February 2016

Research Development and Grantwriting News March 2015

Research Development and Grantwriting News April 2015

Research Development and Grantwriting News May 2015

Research Development and Grantwriting News June 2015

Research Development and Grantwriting News July 2015

Research Development and Grantwriting News August 2015

Research Development and Grantwriting News September 2015

Research Development and Grantwriting News October 2015

Research Development and Grantwriting News November 2015

Research Development and Grantwriting News December 2015


AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) Articles

Back to Top

NSF Proposal Development Resources

A Guide to NSF Success  — Practical advice on how to develop a fundable research proposal (2007)

NSF Grant Reviewer Tells All — First-hand insights from the experience of an NSF grant panel review member (2003

NSF Upcoming Due Dates — Lists all funding programs offered by National Science Foundation, sortable by opportunity or due date

Back to Top

NSF Peer Review

  • NSF Merit Review Process (2014) — The National Science Foundation provides an overview of their proposal review process. This publication includes a section on how to volunteer to become an NSF peer reviewer, outlining the benefits of that service to you as a new investigator.

  • NSF Merit Review Criteria: Review and Revision (2012) — The National Science Foundation details their standard peer review process in this informative publication.

Back to Top

NIH Proposal Development Resources

The NIH Grants Process Overview provides an overview of the steps required for an application to proceed from application planning and submission through award and close out. Look to the related resources on each page for special guidance from NIH experts that can help maximize your understanding of the grants process and help you submit a successful grant application.

Many NIH Institutes publish grant writing tip sheets. Here are just a few of them:

  • Planning, Writing, and Submitting — The NIH Office of Extramural Research (OER) provides a wealth of information on funding opportunities; thorough guidance for applicants, from planning your application through awards management; and policies pertaining to all NIH components that conduct peer review. Applicants looking for guidance should start at OER’s Grants Process Overview

  • All About Grants Podcasts — The NIH has produced a series of videos to give you an inside look at how scientists from across the country review NIH grant applications for scientific and technical merit. New and established applicants will find insights and understanding that can empower them to improve the applications and increase their chances for receiving a more positive review.

  • All About Grants Tutorials and Samples — The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), a component of the NIH, offers insights into the NIH grants process.

  • Grant Application Basics — Learn the basics about NIH and what they look for in a proposal.

  • The NIH R01 Tool Kit — An exhaustive discussion of the grant-writing art from start to finish, put together by the online journal Science.

  • Strategy for NIH Funding — NIAID takes you through all the steps, from qualifying for NIH support to staying funded.

  • Grants Types Available at NIH — Lists and explains all NIH grant types.

  • NIH Guide for Grants and Contracts — This weekly publication announces new requests for applications, program announcements, and policy notices.

  • Collaboration and Team Science - A very robust guide published in 2010 by the NIH. Although published by the NIH, this Field Guide was developed to help all researchers navigate some of the rocky and murky territory associated with building a team either on their own or at the request of someone in their organization.  

Back to Top

NIH Peer Review

Understanding your funding agency's peer review process is key to submitting a competitive application.

  •  NIH Grant Review Process YouTube Videos — The NIH Center for Scientific Review  (CSR) has produced a series of videos to give you an inside look at how scientists from across the country review NIH grant applications for scientific and technical merit.  New and established applicants will find insights and understanding that can empower them to improve the applications and increase their chances for receiving a more positive review.

Back to Top

NIH Early Career/New Investigator Information

One of the key objectives of external funding for research is the development of the next generation of scientists. Many grant programs are directly related to this objective. Some examples:

  • NIH Career (K) Award Kiosk — This kiosk is designed to help investigators navigate the NIH Career Award system and decide which K Award fits best.

  • NIH New and Early Stage Investigator Policies — This website explains the National Institutes of Health distinctions between their two categories of "Young Investigator" status and provides information on grant mechanisms designed for new and/or early stage investigators.

  • NIH (NIAID) New and Early Stage Investigators — This site features information for early-career stage investigators ready for an independent research grant.

  • NIH (NIAID) Training and Career Portal — Find information about fellowships, career awards, training, and the NIH Loan Repayment Program.

  • Checklist for New Investigators — This NIAID website helps insure that all proposal development steps are covered by the-first time investigator.

  • NIH Research Training and Career Development – Learn about opportunities offered by the NIH.

  • NIH Newsletter Articles for New Investigators — These topics are appropriate for investigators submitting to any NIH institute or center, and most are helpful to investigators in any discipline. NIAID features special articles in their weekly newsletter, NIAID Funding News, targeted to new and early-stage investigators. Recent topics include "Gearing Up as New PI", "How to Pick a Project", "Application Approach: What Are Your Choices?", "A Long Hard Look at Application Timing", and "Your Application Takes Center Stage".

  • Watch the informative video from a March 2010 NIH workshop designed for those making the transition from postdoctoral to independent researcher status. Topics include “How to Have a Life,” “Negotiating a Start-Up Package,” “Networking and Collaborations,” “Applying for and Getting a Grant, and “Balancing Research/Teaching/Family/Other Commitments.” Many of these video segments are applicable to the aspiring postdoc, new, and established faculty members.

Back to Top

  • EPA Grants — The Environmental Protection Agency provides funding through their National Center for Environmental Research.

  • NASA Solicitations —The National Aeronautics and Space Administration advertises funding opportunities via their online system called NSPIRES.

  • NEH Deadlines — The National Endowment for the Humanities lists their year-round deadlines for all NEH grants programs.

  • ONR — Currently active Broad Agency Announcements and information on contracts and grants.

  • AFOSR — Air Force Office of Scientific Research Broad Agency Announcements and other programs.

  • ARL — United States Army Research Laboratory Open Broad Agency Announcements.

  • AHRQ Research Training & Career Development Opportunities — The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality provides a variety of career development and research opportunities to beginning investigators.

Back to Top