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BLOG › Breaking the Funding Barrier › Top Grant Proposal Writing Tips from a Grant Reviewer

Top Grant Proposal Writing Tips from a Grant Reviewer

July 31, 2023
6 min read
Updated:May 24, 2024


Writing a competitive grant proposal requires creativity and critical thinking.

A skilled proposal writer entwines ideas, experimental data, and a compelling narrative to create a successful application.

Honing such an ability isn’t always easy. Sometimes, the guidance of a mentor — an accomplished grant reviewer in this case — can guide a writer in understanding the expectations of the review process, identifying areas of improvement, and ultimately increasing their chances of securing funding.

Dr. Manuela Martins-Green is a distinguished scientist and Professor of Cell Biology in the Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience at the University of California, Riverside. Dr. Martins-Green specializes in cell and molecular processes of response to injury and wound healing.  She has over 130 publications on this subject and 6700 citations.

Dr. Martins-Green has served on grant review panels for prestigious agencies, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Department of Defense (DOD), and the American Hospital Association (AHA).

Despite her busy schedule, she shared her stories, experiences, and valuable insights on what she has learned from requesting and reviewing proposals.

Can you tell us about your professional background?

I come from Europe, but I was born in Africa. I received my B.S. in Biology at the University of Lisbon in Portugal. I earned a Fulbright Fellowship to come to the United States for my Ph.D. at the University of California, Davis. After completing my postdoctoral work at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the National Research Service Award, I spent a year at Rockefeller University as an adjunct assistant professor. I then became an assistant professor at UC Riverside as a cell biology professor while researching wound healing and tissue engineering.

What advice would you offer first-time applicants to make a grant application stand out?

Significance is paramount.

Significance means advancing the field. For example, if your area of expertise is prostate cancer, and your project will not advance the study of some particular aspect of prostate cancer, it is not significant.

Another critical element is to assemble a strong team. Junior faculty are encouraged to have co-investigators, perhaps more senior, who can complement the expertise of the principal investigator (PI).

When pursuing advancements in a particular field, it is necessary to recognize that your knowledge may be limited, making it vital to involve specialists with expertise in that area. The team’s composition is vital to ensuring success and preventing errors.

Another important aspect is the description of the strategic plan and approach. You’ll need to have the controls and the experimental conditions ready. Visual aids help: use tables, schematics, and pictures when possible. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.

“Visual aids help: use tables, schematics, and pictures when possible.”

Dr. Manuela Martins-Green

In your opinion, how long should it take to write a proposal?

Writing time is very dependent on the individual researcher’s writing talents. Some people touch the keyboard, and their brains flow into the paper; others have more trouble.

Far more important is to allocate time for thinking. If I submit a proposal in June, I will start the thought process the previous summer.

There are several questions to consider: what do I want to do? How do I evaluate all possibilities? What could go right or wrong? And I must produce preliminary data.

From when I start considering the proposal to the actual submission, it could take between 9 and 12 months. However, the submission process will be faster when I already have compelling supporting data.

How important is the revision process in a grant proposal?

The proposal polishing time is an essential part that must be accounted for while planning for submission. I would never write a proposal and not have colleagues review it.

I advise researchers to find seasoned colleagues in the department who do similar research. These senior colleagues are experienced in writing and reviewing proposals.

I shared my specific aims with a colleague when writing the application for one of my recently funded projects. This colleague reviews numerous proposals. He restructured my aims, making them much easier for the reviewers to follow. In hindsight, I realized, “Why didn’t I see this earlier?” However, being immersed in the subject can sometimes prevent objectivity.

Junior researchers should seek mentorship and guidance in proposal writing. Occasionally, I come across proposals that make me wonder, “Why didn’t this person seek assistance within their institution?” This is a common mistake that’s easily remedied – ask for help.

What would you tell a first-time applicant to be the most crucial part of a grant proposal?

The very first page. For example, in an NIH grant, this would be the Specific Aims page.

The first page briefly informs the reviewer about the proposal’s background, importance, and hypothesis, followed by two or more specific aims that test the hypothesis. Keeping the specific aims focused and easy to read is critical.

Following the first page, the other sections should cover in detail the project’s rationale, the hypothesis, and how it will be tested.

Besides important specific aims, what attributes of a proposal give a strong impression of the effort?

The author should have good writing skills and carefully review the proposal for grammatical correctness. An applicant should send a proposal where word and syntactic structures meet the standards and conventions.

The reviewers have many proposals to review. The frustration when an application is hard to read can often be the difference in funding. The language must be straightforward and easy to understand.

“An applicant should send a proposal where word and syntactic structures meet the standards and conventions.”

Dr. Manuela Martins-Green

Do you have any tips about submitting a project using single cell RNA sequencing experiments?

When I review a proposal, I expect the applicant already has a working protocol, found something, and is now testing it mechanistically.

For example, with the support of a Single Cell Core Grant from Parse, we investigated the cellular and molecular mechanisms of chronic wound initiation. But we had to develop a robust cell isolation protocol before producing the Evercode scRNA-Seq data. I am currently preparing a manuscript to publish the findings of this study.

It is not the method that reviewers consider but the research question. The method has to be the best one to deliver the answer.

Do you have any final remarks on grant writing and submission?

Crafting a proposal is akin to an art form. Some individuals possess exceptional skills, while others must overcome struggles with more time and effort. Mastering the art of proposal writing is often guided by colleagues who can provide constructive feedback. This is true for scientists at all levels.

“Mastering the art of proposal writing is often guided by colleagues who can provide constructive feedback. This is true for scientists at all levels.”

Dr. Manuela Martins-Green


Thank you, Dr. Manuela Martins-Green, for the valuable insights into the art of proposal writing.

Scientists like Dr. Martins-Green and her lab compiled preliminary data to support a grant proposal with an Evercode WT.

About Dr. Martins-Green

Dr. Martins-Green’s research focuses on understanding how chronic wounds initiate and develop. This remains a critical issue for people with diabetes and cardiovascular disease, who develop ulcers that don’t heal.

She recently wrote a commentary about how wounds should be treated.

Discover the secrets of writing a successful grant proposal.

About the Author

Laura Tabellini Pierre

Laura Tabellini Pierre, MSc, is a scientific and technical writer at Parse Biosciences with extensive experience in immunology, encompassing both academic and R&D research.