Writing Tips: Write for Your Audience, then Write Your Purpose

Have you heard the latest from the GPG about the FCOI and RCR requirements for your NSF REU? Unless you work in the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs, your first response to this question is probably, “Huh?” Now that you are most likely confused, you may decide to not read this article any further.  If you feel confused about what is going in this article, then that is not good for me – the writer – as I have already lost you, and therefore, lost your interest in reading further (but please read on, as there is a purpose for all of this confusion!).

The point I want to make in this month’s article is that, as a grant writer, it is your responsibility to make your ideas and research clear, concise, and relatable to the committee or audience that will be reading the proposal. Why does audience matter? First of all, the audience is the group of readers who decide whether or not your grant will be funded. Since your audience has the ability to decide the fate of your grant, it is important to consider what information they need to know. To know your audience is to know how you will define your purpose. If my opening sentence confused you, then that clearly shows that I did not consider you, my reader, when I wrote this article. Therefore, you may decide not to read further, and then the purpose of my article is lost. To make sure that you are always considering your audience when writing and developing your grant proposals, begin by answering these questions as you are writing:

1. Who is your audience? Is the committee or panel made up of scholars from a wide variety of disciplines or from a very focused area of study, such as biology?  Are they members of the general community without expertise in your field?  Are they researchers or members of a corporate board?  The people who read your proposal will very much impact what you write in your grant proposal and how you write it.

2. Purpose—what does your audience need to know? The goal of every grant proposal is to define the purpose of the writer—the need or issue that the writer wants to address. While most grants have specific criteria and questions that you will need to answer, the people who make up your audience will also impact the type of information you should include to define the purpose of the proposal. If you are writing to a committee from a wide array of disciplines, such as a mix of people from the sciences and humanities, certain people within the group may need more background information versus a National Science Foundation (NSF) committee made up of biologists. To make sure that you are defining the purpose clearly for your group of readers, consider asking yourself these questions:

  • Who will benefit from the project? Who will be involved in the project?
  • What goals or objectives will the project fulfill? What will the project accomplish
  • Why is this project important? Why should the reader care about your project?
  • How will the project be carried out?

If you can address these questions clearly, then you have a better chance of addressing what your readers need.  Also keep in mind that different readers will want to know different things.  While a panel of colleagues may want to hear more about the technical merit of your idea, a panel of community members may want to hear more about how the project will benefit the local region.

3. What language should you use to address your audience? The language you use to explain your purpose is as important as defining the purpose itself. Again, if you are addressing a committee from a variety of backgrounds, then you may need to use a common set of vocabulary that everyone will understand; likewise, you may need to define (or avoid) jargon or acronyms commonly used in your field of study. However, if you are writing a biology proposal to an NSF committee of biologists, then it is safe to say that you can use technical, scientific language comfortably within the context of your proposal.

When you determine your audience and their needs, then you can better determine how to help your proposal achieve its ultimate purpose – getting funded. Appealing to the needs of the audience will make your writing and your overall argument stronger. Remember that you want to convince readers to fund your project, and keeping them in mind as you write will shape every piece of information you share with them. By meeting their needs, you will be meeting your own.