Your Grant as Story – the Rogue Character
Humans are wired for story. Your grant, whether you realize it or not, has a cast of characters including a hero, villain, supporting characters, plots and subplots. If you think about your grant in these terms when you write, the ideas will flow better and your proposal will be easier for outside readers (code for reviewer) to understand.
Before I explain further, I have a confession to make. I review grants for a large government institution that funds human health-related research. I confess this because things that bug, annoy, peeve, confuse, or irritate me as I’m reading a grant might have the same impact on reviewers reading your grants. Reviewing grants is a great learning experience, and I’m here to share what I’m learning.
Today I’d like to talk about the rogue character. As mentioned above, your grant, just like a novel, has a cast of characters. Unlike a novel, however, you don’t have an unlimited amount of space and time to introduce your characters. You have one, dare I say specific, page to introduce your main characters. For the reader/reviewer, even those close to your field, getting a grip on your characters is a little like going to a family reunion where you don’t know most of the people. You’re “hanging on for dear life” to remember the name of your second cousin twice removed, who you were just introduced to a few minutes ago and is now heading towards you with his significant other.
Let’s look at an example. To maintain anonymity, I’ll stick with the reunion analogy. I was minding my own business, merrily reading a proposal, and taking notes to keep the relatives straight. I already met the problem, the drunk uncle, whose behavior has gotten out of hand. He needs an intervention. Along comes the young whippersnapper nephew, who has a special relationship with the uncle and is going to facilitate these interventions. The uncle has had this problem for a while, so he’ll need at least 3 different types of interventions. Now that I’ve met everyone, and I know the interventions, I’m settling in to see how the nephew is going to pull this off. All of a sudden, in walks Janet. Huh? Wait a minute, who in tarnation is Janet? Nobody knows her. Maybe she’s a “reunion crasher” just pretending to be a relative. I go back through the story/proposal to make sure I didn’t miss anything, and low and behold there she is. Her name is on a list of relatives, but I don’t know who she is or why she’s there. Turns out that Janet is going to play a major role in the first intervention, but since I don’t even know how she’s related, I’m a bit perplexed. In addition to being perplexed, the flow of the story is broken, and now I need a coke and some potato chips.
Needless to say, Janet’s arrival would have been a lot less confusing if I would have known ahead of time that she was coming. Maybe the author of this story thought it would take up too much space to tell me about Janet ahead of time, or maybe the author thought I was a mind reader. Reviewers get that a lot. However, just like the author of a good novel, the onus is on you as writer to properly set the stage for each of your characters.
I hope this analogy hasn’t been too much of a stretch, but sometimes it’s more fun to talk about books and relatives than signal transduction pathways. If a molecule/pathway/chemical, etc is a major part of an aim, the reviewer should be introduced and know the context prior to the aim itself. Otherwise, you run the risk of confusing your reviewer. In the world of grants, confusion = no. And on that happy note, I’m going back to the story. Turns out the drunk uncle was an American spy in Russia during the cold war. Might explain the vodka.
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