However, when I see it in my colleagues’ eyes: the tired, frantic look.
“I have no time right now”
Then I know: an application deadline is coming up. Application deadlines are strict and dangerous. We all had the servers of the grant institution crash on us those last minutes before the deadline, because everybody submits their ‘final_final_v3.1.pdf’ document 2 minutes before the deadline. So everything must be ready and done.
Unlike writing a story or a book, writing an application is (most often) a collaborative effort. Even if the full text is only from your hand you do need feed-back on the budget, feed-back from your boss or ask your students to write some small parts for you. A more likely scenario for larger applications is a chain of events that need to happen: (1) Idea, (2) formulate idea, (3) find research partners, (3) find/know/discover where to get money, (4) write sciency bits (yeah!), (5) find the right template for the application, (6) fill all that is needed, (7) the last 2%.
Yes I know it looks like I cannot count. Truth of the matter is that in order to do the research we need the money, and in order to truly work on your long-term vision you need a certain critical mass. That critical mass comes from obtaining results with a long and deep impact. I know that sounds vague. Lets just say I am not there yet. So for me this means I need to apply where ever I can. I swear I almost talk to strangers on the street to see if they have something in common with me so we can write and application together so I can get some money to do the research I want to do. By applying to “whatever” you do need to bend you previous results and ideas into the scope of the application. I think this is how the term “creative writing” was invented. If you have to bend to far, it gets broken. Reviewers see broken things, and have a magical wand to detect cracks, so be aware of that.
Sometimes you need to find new partners because the grant call requires a certain expertise you do not have and you do not know anybody in your network who does. That is hard, and cold-calling even in Academia is hard. Sometimes it works, sometimes it does not. Sometimes it does not even work after you get the money. Most of the times your collaborators that are sharing a grant and the grant writing with you want the same as you: money for their research.
So back to the writing of a collaborative piece. Now a few sciency bits (yeah!) are stuck together and from the general idea/grant-call come the aims of the project. Oh **** it is a project. Maybe do some project management courses later in the year? Then fill the template(s). Aims funnel into work-packages, which funnel into tasks. It is going great! Gantt chart made! Budget. Mmmm, better have some email/Skype with the others. Meetings with grant writing specialist (often called Research Managers or something similar): ok we have numbers on the page. Done!
Oh wait, tomorrow is Friday (the deadline is often on a Friday) and we need to still write about Societal Impact/Measuring Societal Impact/Management Structure/Project Management/Do we have all the signatures?/Something else not Sciency*. Ofter it is something you cannot decide alone, you have only a paragraph left for it, so you make the figures a bit smaller/outline a bit broader/go to font 11*. It is crunch time (your family hates you now): the last 2% are often the hardest and take the most time.
This is what makes writing applications hard and a skill you need to train. How are you clear to the reviewers? How do you get them to read the full application, because you know their time is limited as well. Reviewers are researchers like you, with deadlines and applications to write. How to get them past the abstract? The writing hook(s) we put in our stories and books apply here as well. Despite the mandatory bits and the hard parts like project management, budgets and other non-sciency bits, the text needs to be clear and well written. That takes practice as well. These almost marketing-like skills to sell your ideas in word and written text I do like, however I fully agree with some of my fellow scientist (most of whom are much better scientists than me) it should not be such a big part of the Science.
Luckily I like to write. For most is as fearful as the word deadline, I just do not like the last 2%…
*) take your pick