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How to Write Grants in the Arts and Humanities

Writing a grant application takes time and energy, both of which are usually in short supply to busy professors and graduate students. Adding to this disincentive is the fact that many grants are competitive, some highly competitive. The odds, in other words, are not in favor of winning. Additionally, few departments give a faculty member much credit for winning such a grant, much less for applying for one. Nevertheless, winning a grant provides a personal morale boost as well as time for research and creative work, so that one is justified in spending time and energy writing fellowship and grant applications. An additional incentive is that composing a 3000-word narrative, a length typical for major external research/creative work grants, provides one with an opportunity to articulate in unusual depth (even if only for oneself) a given project.

The coaching tips provided below pertain primarily to faculty who are applying for portable and residential research grants that provide one or two semesters release time. Faculty applying for internal grants, such as for travel to archives, for conferences or special events, or for visiting speakers, artists, and performers, however, will also benefit from consulting this information.

Coaching tips for composing a successful grant application

How to Write Effective Proposals
Susan Stanford Friedman, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Grant Writing Resources
College of Letters and Science, UC Berkeley

Grant Writing Tips
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


CU Boulder Roundtable on NEH Grant Writing

CU Boulder Roundtable on NEH Grant Writing
Organized by Carole Capsalis, Director of LEAP
November 15, 2007

Roundtable panelists:

John Stevenson, moderator, AVC for Graduate Education
Michael Poliakoff, CU-System VP for Academic Affairs and Research
Martha Hanna, History, NEH individual research grant winner, served on NEH review panel
Elizabeth Robertson, English, NEH individual research grant winner, NEH Institute grant winner, served on NEH review panel

The many varieties of National Endowment for the Humanities Grants

Michael Poliakoff, who for several years held a major position at the National Endowment for the Humanities, emphasized that NEH offers many different grant opportunities, in addition to the one with which most humanists are familiar, namely, the individual research grant. These other grants include public programs, preservation and access grants, challenge grants, We the People grants, digital humanities initiative, summer seminars for college and university teachers, and federal/state partnerships, in our case the Colorado Endowment for the Humanities: Faculty members interested in applying for grants other than the individual research grant should contact NEH program officers, who are very willing to provide information and coaching regarding the grant in question.

How to write a winning application for NEH fellowships and faculty research awards

All panelists contributed to the discussion—summarized below—about how to write the best possible application for an NEH fellowship.

To maximize chances for success, grant applicants should compose narratives that are clear, well organized, and free of jargon. It is true that someone applying for a grant in history will have his/her application reviewed by other historians, but they will likely be from fields of history other than that of the applicant. Not surprisingly, many reviewers will have little or no familiarity with the specific issues in the applicant’s research area. Applicants, then, should make few assumptions about what the reviewers know. Consider writing the application as if your audience were composed of educated non-academics. Explain who major figures are, why a particular event matters, and so on. All panelists emphasized the importance of avoiding jargon, which is both off-putting and often obscurantist.

To achieve the goals of clarity and organization, applicants should ask others to read their application. Revising one’s grant, often many times, is typically a key to success. If your grant is turned down, write immediately to ask for comments from reviewers. People often apply more than once before winning.

The opening paragraph is crucial. Here, the applicant must provide not only a clear thesis statement, but a compelling one as well. The applicant must “hook” the reviewers from the outset, so the reviewers want to know more about what the applicant is researching. As one panelist stated, “A topic not worth doing is not worth doing well.” Applicants must demonstrate that their topic matters, that it is important, that it makes a difference.

Applicants should indicate how their work is situated within the current conversation in their fields, but must not get so involved in a literature review that insufficient space remains to articulate one’s own project.

In making the case for their proposals, applicants should use a rhetorical strategy that emphasizes their authority and competence in regard to the project. Hence, applicants should avoid passive voice when possible, e.g., instead of saying “It will be demonstrated that...,” one should consider saying: “I will demonstrate that….” Demonstrating one’s authority and competence does not mean resorting to jargon inaccessible to those outside of one’s research area.

The fact that an applicant has a big reputation in no way insures that reviewers will give his/her application stronger weight. What reviewers look for are strong, well written, and compelling projects.

It is important to elaborate on the thesis statement, either in terms of specific chapters, or in some other sequential form. In this connection, provide a one-year work plan showing how you will complete your manuscript.

On the application form, make sure you check the appropriate research area, so the most qualified reviewers will assess your proposal.

You need to know enough about your project to write a strong proposal. Sometimes, people apply too early in the research project, so they are not able to write a very convincing narrative. If your research requires archival work, explain what archival work you have already achieved and what further work you will have accomplished by the time you propose to begin writing your manuscript.

Make sure you answer all questions posed in the application form. Reviewers are on the lookout for justifiable reasons to reject applications!

Planning ahead is important. If you plan to coordinate an upcoming sabbatical with an NEH fellowship, you will need to apprise yourself of pertinent deadlines. Typically, NEH fellowship deadlines are in May, although please consult the NEH website to be sure.

Deadlines for other grants vary, but keep in mind that planning for large-scale grants—such as NEH institute grants—takes a considerable amount of lead-time, at least two years.

A contract with a publisher is not necessary, but may be a “light plus” for your application.

Grant applications that propose turning a dissertation into a book have virtually no chance for success.

Finally, a note on letters of reference: all panelists agreed that it is much better to have well-informed, detailed letters from professors who know your work, than cursory, less-well-informed letters from academics with high reputations.