Andrea Halpern and Thomas R. Blackburn published a short piece in the CUR Quarterly (2005, pp. 187-190) titled “The Rhetoric of the Grant Proposal” which comes highly recommended by my research administration colleague Kendra Mingo at Willamette University.
The authors break down three rhetorical goals of a proposal: exposition, persuasion and credentialing. Exposition refers to the proposal sections that describe the idea or project. This kinds of writing usually comes naturally to faculty because it is closest to the writing employed in articles and monographs. Credentialing refers to the proposal sections that discuss the researcher’s qualifications and institutional capacity. Credentialing is also involved in selecting the most prestigious references to cite, laying out preliminary data and otherwise pointing to evidence of the feasibility of the project in the researcher’s hands. Some aspects of credentialing are less comfortable for faculty, who might find some of this boastful, but most get used to it.
By far the most difficult rhetorical goal of proposal-writing is persuasion. It also happens to be the most important. It might seem odd, but simplicity is the key to effective persuasion. Recall the five-paragraph essay you learned to write in fifth grade. The first line of each paragraph signaled the content and the last sentence summarized it. While arguably old-fashioned or boring, this kind of structure lends itself to proposal writing. If you lose the reader’s attention at any point, the argument breaks down. Clear structures and markers in the text allow the reader to follow the author’s thinking.
Persuasive sections benefit particularly from close attention to the organization of the passage. Making an argument requires that the reader follow you systematically from step A to step Z. Each step must be obvious and in the correct order. Well-structured paragraphs are key here: Each must open with an informative topic sentence and should stick to the point at hand. A highly recommended tool for ensuring good organization is to work from an outline, even if that is not your usual practice. To emphasize your movement from point to point in your argument, use linking language whenever possible. This allows you to flag your argument progression by use of terms such as “in contrast” or “nevertheless” or “another source of support” as you open each paragraph. A reader should be able to generate the originating outline from text, if both outline and resulting text are well organized.