An inappropriate tone -- one of arrogance or apology -- can condemn a substantively sound proposal. Remember that the reviewers are not just funding your research idea; they are investing in you and in the likelihood that you will be able to carry out the proposed research. The tone in which you express yourself is likely to influence the reviewers' estimation of you and your capacities.
Be confident. Your writing should convey a respectful confidence. Expressing a measured confidence in your research and yourself is likely to enhance the reviewers' faith in your ability to carry out a rigorous academic investigation. To do this, use straightforward language and simple verbs (avoid using the subjunctive or excessive conditional clauses). Instead of, "If I am funded I would hope to conduct interviews during the final phase of my research," say "I will conduct interviews during the final phase of the research" Avoid the passive voice as much as possible. The passive voice avoids specifying who or what did, does, or will do the action of the verb. The result in most cases is a less direct and often less confident tone. Rather than, "the research will be conducted over a one-year period," write, "I will conduct the research in one year."
Be passionate. Do not hide your passion for your project. There are few graduate students in the humanities and social sciences in search of fame or fortune. Indeed, most care deeply about their work, are often normatively engaged with it, and are truly excited for the opportunity to do original research. When these attitudes are expressed through your writing, they may help pique the interest of even the most jaded reviewer. Communicating this passion is easier for some then for others and must always be done carefully. It may help to start by reflecting on what made you interested in your topic when you first got involved and why you are still keen on the research. Do not state your feelings in the proposal directly, but express your passion in the way you frame and tell the reviewer of your story, your approach, and your work's import. The key is to express these sentiments while maintaining a respect for the formality of the proposal format.
Avoid arrogance and apology. One of the fastest ways to estrange a reviewer is to write your proposal in an overly arrogant or apologetic tone. You must find and respect the line between being pompous and being confident; apologetic and modest; passionate and unprofessional. Make sure the information you convey about yourself is information that the reviewer really needs to know for your role in the project and is not simply thrown in to impress. Express your enthusiasm through your topic or approach, not through personal information about yourself. Do not apologize for what you do not know, but focus on what strengths you bring to the research and how you will systematically overcome your shortcomings (e.g., language training). Finally, get friends, preferably close, honest friends, to read your proposal with tone in mind and ask them for candid comments.
Proposals are frequently the products of innumerable drafts and revisions. While the linkages between and among the sections may be clear in your head, they may not always be so evident to readers of your proposal. As you revise, concentrate on ensuring a high degree of coherence, the logical and smooth integration of the text's various sections. For your proposal to be successful, it is essential that the research question you propose is logically linked to the methods you plan to employ, and that your theoretical frame adequately justifies the empirical cases and context which you hope to explore. And these linkages must be made explicit. The following paragraphs point to four common sources of discontinuity and disconnection. As with everything else, the only way to ensure continuity is to have others read your proposal.
Questions and Methods. Your research question (or questions) will be one of the most scrutinized sections of your proposal. Reviewers will closely consider whether the methods you propose to use are adequate to gather the information you need to answer the question(s) convincingly. We suggest that you place each question on one side of a sheet of paper and carefully map out how the methods employed will help you gather the information needed to answer each question.
Case and Theory. After taking years of course work and preparing for qualifying exams, researchers tend to organize their proposals around their theory. This can be all too apparent in the proposal itself and can result in the history or description of the research site and background seeming disconnected from the research itself. Often in these situations, a researcher will attempt to make the case or topic fit their theoretical framework too neatly exposing their ignorance of what is certainly a complex reality. Conversely, many students offer theoretical frameworks that come across as weak justifications for spending time in a place that interests the researchers. Such attempts are often very transparent and may raise a red flag to reviewers. To avoid this, carefully justify why you have chosen your case and how this selection relates to a broader theoretical debates and concerns. Similarly, make an effort to emphasize why this theoretical frame is particularly well suited to the trends and patterns unfolding in your area of interest.
Project and Time.
One of the easiest ways to determine if researchers are realistic is to look at what they intend to do in the allotted time. Most first-time researchers, eager to overcome the shortcomings of past efforts, drastically overestimate what they can accomplish. Your timeline -- a concrete part of your research design -- must persuade the reviewer of two things. First, you must demonstrate that you have a good idea of what conditions are going to be like on the ground. If you cannot travel long distances during the rainy season, you must schedule this into your plan. Second, you must show that you have prioritized the methods and approaches you are going to use. If answering your research question depends on a particularly kind of data, a good portion of your timeline should be dedicated to its collection. Speaking to others who have recently completed similar project or even trying out some of the methods at home will help you realistically understand the time needed to complete your proposed project. For more on this, refer to the
Research Design tab in Nuts and Bolts
Budget and Project.
Quite often researchers have lofty ideas and ambitious goals, but the proposed budget appears insufficient to complete the research. Skimping on the money you ask for does not increase the chances of getting funded. Moreover, if your budget does not match the cost you will incur in your project, it conveys the impression that you do not realistically understand your research and may cause your proposal to be rejected because the project appears infeasible. If you need more money than the funding source offers, mention other sources you will be approaching for funds. Be specific about what costs you are asking a particular grantor to fund and what parts of your budget you are asking other donors to fund. To assure coherence between your budget and your proposal, be honest, realistic, and transparent in matching your budget to the actual work you will need to do to carry out the research. For more on budgeting, and sample budgets, refer to our Budgeting tab in Nuts and Bolts