Flaming motorcycles and 6 other tips on acing high-stakes writing

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rep do writing tips motorcycle 550x413pxAgonizing over that memo to your boss? Consider the pressure on researchers applying for major grants. The next several years, if not the trajectory of an entire career, can hinge on how they write roughly 600 words in an application that can run dozens of pages.

"I like to geek out on Specific Aims pages, because they are one of the most vital parts, if not the vital part, of an NIH grant," said J. Nicholas Dionne-Odom, Ph.D., assistant professor in the School of Nursing and holder of several million dollars' worth of current grants, including NIH R00 and R37 awards. "This is the page reviewers read first. This is where they form an opinion of your grant,” and as they continue on through the rest of the grant, reviewers will be looking for reasons to confirm that opinion, Dionne-Odom said. “So, you have to make sure that every single word you use is the word to put in that place."

Dionne-Odom shared his hard-won advice on writing compelling Specific Aims pages this past fall as part of a six-week Grant Proposal Development Academy co-hosted by the UAB Center for Clinical and Translational Science (CCTS) Training Academy and the UAB Office of the Vice President for Research. (Watch Dionne-Odom’s presentation here.)

But it doesn't matter whether you are a budding investigator or a business officer, project manager or any other employee on campus; nearly everyone needs to persuade others in writing at one time or another. The next time you sit down to write a proposal, memo or application, consider Dionne-Odom's advice.

1. Get pumped

"The introductory paragraph introduces your topic and captures attention," Dionne-Odom said. "It really needs to feel like a motorcycle jumping through flames. That's the kind of excitement you typically want to give as a litmus test about how it's striking people when they read it the first time.... You really want to capture their attention."

2. Don't waste time on the obvious

"If you are studying heart failure, I guarantee you every reviewer [of heart-failure grants] is going to know there are 6.5 million people who are affected by heart failure," Dionne-Odom said. "So why even waste time on that kind of statement? Just jump right into the very problem you are going to address."

For a grant application, that is "the significant gap in knowledge that directly relates to this critical need that the funding entity is targeting," Dionne-Odom said. If you are proposing a new program or initiative in your department, focus on the critical need that this program will address.

3. Stress over your hook

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The first sentence of the first paragraph of a Specific Aims page is the hook, Dionne-Odom says. "It's the first impression, the first thing people see," he said. "You want to briefly describe what your proposal is about," or how it will solve the critical need you outlined in your introduction. "Ideally, this should also convey a sense of importance or urgency," Dionne-Odom said. "Those of us in health care, especially, like to calm people down... Not in a research grant. You want to make readers anxious and barely able to sit in their seat. You want to stress them out."

4. Act now!

The opening paragraph must quickly explain "why it is critical that you conduct this research," Dionne-Odom said. "It's saving lives or preventing cancer, if that's the kind of argument you want to make." A proposed change in departmental procedure may not carry life or death consequences, but Dionne-Odom's two-word mantra still applies: "Convey urgency."

5. 'The only game in town'

The second paragraph of a Specific Aims page proposes a solution to the need identified in the first paragraph, Dionne-Odom said. "Your goal is to show how that solution fits the need and how you and your colleagues will meet that need... This is no time to be humble, it's time to bring out that ego," he said. The point you are trying to get across is "if you care at all about this, we are the only game in town."

6. Share the vision

The final paragraph of a Specific Aims page shares expected outcomes and impact. "This paragraph is often overlooked," Dionne-Odom said. "You want to get in the reviewer's mind a picture of you 20 years from now: 'Findings from this K [award] will lead to an R01 trial where we will...'"

Any UAB employee can take advantage of training on written and verbal communication — as well as career development, team skills and more through Organizational Learning & Development. See all the live and self-directed opportunities here.

The argument of a Specific Aims page should be structured like an hourglass, Dionne-Odom said. "Start with the big picture, then narrow down to the specifics, then go back out to the problem you set out in your introduction. Think big."

7. Details matter

Dionne-Odom is a big believer in headings, which can be a lifesaver in the midst of a sea of densely formatted text pages. On a recent grant, he added a new subhead every two or three sentences to attract reviewers' eyes to the essential material. "I intended for reviewers to copy from this Specific Aims page straight to their review," he said. "If you can give them the language they need, they will be more likely to think positively of your grant."

Showing a photo of a smiling woman lounging to read in the back of a canoe, Dionne-Odom quipped: "We wished people looked that fresh when they read our grants, but the reality is they are sitting in an airport reading a stack of papers in between flights."

Whether your reader is at home, in the office or traveling on business, the same can be said of pretty much any supervisor or decisionmaker in these exhausting times. "You have to write for that reader — that tired, exhausted reader," Dionne-Odom said. 

After all, it's pretty tough to snooze when a motorcycle is jumping through flames.