As we all know, plexiglass and masks are the new norm. Sometimes these shields make it difficult to understand what someone else is saying. Have you been to the supermarket and the cashier asks you a question? Their speech is often muffled, and because of the mask there’s no lip reading to help you out. You kind of get it but not quite. I had the same feeling reading a grant the other day. I read the words, but I didn’t quite “get it.” I understood the words I was reading, but the excitement of the idea was hidden behind big words, technical terms, and vague writing. It was vague because of undefined concepts and unnecessarily complicated language. These issues, which are common in grant writing, put a barrier between the reviewer and your work. Because I was reading the grant to give feedback, I focused on what was putting the great ideas in this proposal just a little out of reach.

Before I get into how to break down the barriers, I want to take another stab at conveying their impact. I heard on a podcast once that selling (yes, we are all salesmen) can be defined as getting someone to want to participate in your story. It turns out that this idea has a name – insight selling. Insight selling has two categories, opportunity insight and interaction insight. In opportunity insight, the customer/reviewer doesn’t realize that they have a problem. You define their problem and give them the opportunity to fix it. In grant writing this comes in the form of the ever popular “knowledge gap.” The second category of insight selling is interaction insight. According to a blog post on, interaction insight is “building connections with customers by encouraging creative thinking, inspiring ‘lightbulb’ moments and challenging assumptions.” Although barriers can impact both of these categories, the biggest impact is on interaction. You want the reviewer to have an “aha” moment as they understand and get invested in your work. The barriers, which I will talk about below, block interaction and can lead to what I call the “blah blah” effect. You’re reading but not taking in the words – like when adults talk on the cartoon Charlie Brown. Although I am dating myself, Charlie Brown is timeless, no? If you’re lost, see the link at the end of this post.

Hopefully I’ve conveyed the importance of de-covidizing your research – unless, of course, your research is on COVID. Now on to the barriers themselves. I believe there are three main barriers – big words, technical terms, and acronyms. The way you use words, which involves the deep, dark forest of grammar, can also lead to some fuzziness. I’m saving that for round two. Although big words are probably the most common barrier, I covered this in depth in a previous post. See Further Reading below.

Technical terms

You will need to use some technical terms, but you want to be sure that your reviewer understands what they mean. Some terms may not even be that technical, but if you don’t remind your reviewers of their meaning your grant may suffer. For example, the grant I mentioned at the beginning applied ecologic concepts to bacteria, and – big surprise – used the word ecology. When I see the word ecology, I think electric cars, cows, and recycling. However, the true biologic definition was integral to the proposal, and warranted a revisit. Defining more common “technical” terms may cause some uncertainty, because you don’t want to seem patronizing by defining a term that readers in the field probably know, but on the other hand you don’t want your reviewer to incorrectly define your technical term. A good way of handling this is to “sneak in” a definition by adding it as a phrase offset by commas. This idea comes from the book Writing Science by Josh Schimel, which I highly recommend. Here are some examples.

We will determine whether the cells are undergoing apoptosis, or programmed cell death, by three distinct assays.

The IL-2 receptor, comprising alpha, beta, and gamma subunits, is expressed on T cells.

If you’re not sure if your reviewers are familiar with a term, the above method serves as a way to add in needed information without a separate definition. Defining terms is especially important when you are combining two disciplines, because most likely your reviewers will only be experts in one. In general, err on the side of defining technical terms. A few years ago, I submitted a grant to a cardiovascular study section and I proposed using a mouse model that caused the mouse to have increased cholesterol. I assumed that any reviewer in a cardiovascular study section would know this model so I didn’t define it. I was wrong. One reviewer, in the written feedback, did not know that this model caused an increase in cholesterol so he/she didn’t understand why I chose it. In the next grant, I made sure to define it.

Acronyms and abbreviations

Using acronyms and/or abbreviations can be a good way to save some space, but it’s a tool that must be used judiciously. Acronyms are commonly used in science, but like technical terms you need to define them, unless you think the acronym is so common that any reviewer in your field will know the definition. If you’re writing a manuscript, journal-specific instructions usually provide a list of common acronyms that you don’t need to define. These typically include acronyms such as FBS (fetal bovine serum), FITC (fluorescein isothiocyanate), etc. for those in biologic sciences. If you’re a physicist you probably have your own acronyms that I’ll never understand. For a grant, you’ll need to use your own judgement, but for the most part you’ll want to define acronyms.

One good way to irritate a reviewer is to introduce 2 or 3 new acronyms at the same time. Keep in mind that even though you define an acronym, your reviewer has to remember what it means. If the reviewer forgets, there’s a good chance he/she won’t bother to go back and find the definition, which means he/she might get confused, and we know that nothing good comes of confusion in grants! When I say “new” acronyms, I mean an acronym that your reviewer may not be familiar with, or one that you made up to save space. What do I mean by “making up” an acronym? Making up an acronym would be akin to abbreviating the song “I Shot the Sheriff”, originally by Bob Marley and covered by Eric Clapton, to ISS. That phrase is in the song multiple times. While using an acronym would definitely save space, readers will struggle to remember what ISS means, not to mention ruining a perfectly good song. Here’s a science-based example. In the past, I worked with a molecule called heparan sulfate proteoglycan, and studied its impact on the immune system. For those in the proteoglycan field, heparan sulfate proteoglycan would commonly be abbreviated with the acronym HSPG. However, for an immunology-based grant, most reviewers would not be familiar with this molecule and might forget what the acronym means. Because of this concern, I wrote out the name rather than abbreviating.

Despite the above rant, there are times when you’ll need to make up an abbreviation or acronym. This situation may occur if you have a new technique or molecule that you are mentioning frequently, especially if the item in question requires a lot of words or letters. Let’s say your grant has to do with the effect of the word “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” on viewers of the film Mary Poppins. You would want to shorten this to “supercal” or something along these lines. Not only does this word take up a lot of space, but continuously reading it takes a lot of mental effort. To give you a more science-based example, a few years ago I wrote a grant involving a peptide that I made. Rather than describing the peptide as the “N terminal 15 amino acids of a cytokine receptor” every time I mentioned it, I made up a name – N15AA.

Finally, if you’re going to use an acronym, make sure that you use it at least 3 times. In other words, don’t define an acronym and then use it only once. It takes up more space to define the acronym and then not use it, and you’re burning excess brain cells of your reader.

I hope these ideas help you dismantle barriers between your ideas and your reviewer. In COVID terms, these barriers range anywhere from a hazmat suit to a scarf-mask, but with some interim paylines in the single digits, clarity is key. Clarity comes both from reminders as to what might be confusing to a reviewer, like the above, and through awareness of the “curse of knowledge.” The curse, in which you know your work so well that you can’t appreciate what others don’t know, is very common. Getting feedback from someone less familiar with your work will make sure you ward off this evil curse.


Further reading/listening

Big Words, by yours truly

Charlie Brown’s teacher talking

I Shot the Sheriff, by Bob Marley, sung by Eric Clapton

What is Insight Selling? A Beginner’s Guide

Writing Science: How to Write Papers that Get Cited and Proposals that Get Funded, by Josh Schimel

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