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Special Guest Interview: Grant Writing Advisor Shares Insights for All Writers

In this post, I’ve interviewed Ben Arenger, PhD, a grant writing advisor, to share his thoughts on the process of grant writing. I met Ben via LinkedIn; after we connected, we scheduled a networking call given our similar backgrounds in writing and higher education. We had a conversation where we swapped strategies and approaches to writing and advising writers. Because I felt that Ben’s insights would also be valuable to my clients and readers, I then decided to formally interview him for my blog.

Ben’s insights apply not only to researchers but also to anyone who ever has to write persuasively. I see common themes in his advice that pertain to a broader audience; for instance, Ben implicitly makes the point of needing to write from the reader’s perspective, a principle I apply on a daily basis. He explicitly brings up some of my favorite ways to describe strong writing: clear, concise, coherent, and compelling. Last but not least, Ben is also a clear example of how a person (a PhD-holder or otherwise) can leverage his or her skills to transition into a new and exciting field, a topic that has been covered in recent posts. I hope you enjoy this interview!

Heidi: Can you tell me about your background and how you got into advising on grant projects?

Ben: Sure! Broadly speaking, the different threads of my academic background and experiences have all fed into my career path of becoming a grant writing advisor.

Literature, language, and film have long been passions of mine, which is reflective of my educational background. I realized this about halfway through my undergraduate studies at Oberlin, when I started taking film and literature classes. Even though my major was in Politics, I increasingly sought out courses centered on art and textual analysis.

In 2001, for my last semester of undergraduate studies, I enrolled in a study-abroad program in Madrid with the goal of turning years of language study into fluency. I fell in love with the language and culture and decided to pursue a career in teaching Spanish and understanding its culture. I eventually went on to earn a master’s degree from NYU and a doctorate in Spanish literature from Rutgers.

For me, advising in grant writing has been a way of putting all of these pieces of my background together. When you advise on a grant, you need good reading interpretation and analytical skills. My coursework and research in literary theory at NYU and Rutgers trained me to read documents using precisely those tools.

Also, writing a grant is an act of translation, of taking something that is normally framed for one audience, and reworking it so that it reads well for another. In this respect, when I advise on grants, I engage my skills in language translation to think about the most effective ways to rework specialized academic language into a compelling grant proposal narrative.

In the early stages of my doctoral studies, I applied to humanities-focused grants and received incredible help from the grants office at the School of Graduate Studies at Rutgers. I was moderately successful with applying for funding, as I received a grant from the Spanish Ministry of Culture to conduct archival research in Madrid in 2008. Fellowship advisors from the Office of Graduate External Support provided me with crucial help. In 2012, after two years of teaching expository writing in the Writing Program at Rutgers, I successfully applied to become a fellowship advisor.

Heidi: Do you have an area of focus in terms of disciplines? How do grant projects differ across disciplines?

Ben: When I was first hired as a fellowship advisor in 2012, I assumed I would only be helping students in the humanities because that was my background. “I’ll be helping the humanities students, and the STEM fellowship advisors will help the STEM students” is what I thought, but I was mistaken. I quickly learned that, along with the team of four other advisors, I would be working with scholars applying to any and all funding applications Rutgers graduate students were working on. The portfolio of awards I advised on ranged from the NSF, NIH, Fulbright, the Mellon Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and hundreds more.

Through the six years that I served as a fellowship advisor, I provided guidance on external funding to nearly 1,000 graduate students and postdocs in the humanities, STEM disciplines, and the biomedical sciences. The projects were vastly different. As a fellowship advisor, a normal day for me could entail going from one meeting helping an anthropology scholar on a Fulbright application to study primates in Kenya, to a student working on a Mellon fellowship application to fund archival research on early twentieth-century Russian literature. Although the disciplinary knowledge is key to writing an effective grant, the principles of proposal writing are relatively universal. Whether it is in the humanities or STEM disciplines, a grant should clearly frame the contribution of your proposed research, and clearly demonstrate how your project will advance the mission of the organization to which you are applying.

Heidi: How similar/dissimilar is grant writing to other genres?

Ben: That’s a great question. The grant writing genre is quite different from other forms of academic writing scholars engage in. When I meet with graduate students and postdocs, they typically write about their research with an expert audience (i.e., their advisor, committee, assigned editors for journals) in mind. However, the review audience for a typical grant application consists of experts and non-experts alike. My goal in working with anyone writing a grant application is to simulate the role of the non-expert reader. I work with the applicant to identify problematic jargon. Another difference in the grant writing genre is the need to adhere to the award guidelines. The funders have their own set of criteria and requirements that the applicants must address in their application to be successful.

Heidi: I adhere to writing principles that I argue apply to just about any form of writing. Can you tell me about any general principles you adhere to?

Ben: If I had to sum up the key principle, it is the idea of making any form of writing reader-friendly. Now, what that means depends on the specific document, discipline, and funder. So, I am a firm believer in writers seeking feedback from multiple sources, and I aim to customize the way I help writers make their documents accessible to broad review audiences to the individual I am working with. Some other important principles: be clear, concise, coherent, and compelling!

Heidi: What are your strategies for writing persuasively for grants as well as other genres of writing?

Ben: I often find it useful for writers I am coaching to finish this sentence: “I am trying to convince the reader that…” Once you have articulated the rest of this sentence in a concise statement, you can then flesh the key idea out with evidence and logical argumentation. Part of this process is thinking about your audience. What is it you need to convince them of, and why? When you take on the perspective of your anticipated reader, you will gain clarity on how to direct your writing to address potential concerns. In the grant writing genre, this amounts to understanding the funders’ mission and writing in such a way that persuades them that you are the best way they can invest their money to support research.

In addition, as a thought experiment and exercise, I often ask advisees, “What are your strongest selling points as an applicant to this grant?” When you answer this question, either on the spot in a meeting or later at your desk, you have often generated the nucleus around which the rest of the application proposal will be anchored.

Whether it is a grant or other genres of persuasive writing, there is a constant back-and-forth play between reminding yourself of the core ideas of your project, and developing elaborated prose that supports and solidifies those essential points you are trying to convey to the reader.

Heidi: What is a good go-to resource you recommend to people working on grants?

Ben: A classic guide to proposal writing I have always recommended is Adam Pzreworski and Frank Salomon’s On the Art of Writing Proposals.

Heidi: If you could give one piece of advice to someone working on a grant project right now, what would it be?

Ben: Start writing as soon as you can. Aim to have a preliminary meeting with whoever will be helping you through the drafting process to outline your ideas and map your strategy for applying. Make it your goal to write a suboptimal (or “crappy,” as I like to call it) draft or two of the application as quickly as you can. Having something on the canvas will give you momentum to then revise iteratively toward completion.

Heidi owns and operates Career Path Writing Solutions, a communications consulting firm dedicated to helping individuals and businesses communicate when it matters most. She delights in helping job seekers navigate career change and guiding business owners to present their value proposition persuasively. Heidi earned her PhD in history from Duke University and teaches professional development for various university programs and organizations. She holds certifications in resume writing, interview preparation, and empowerment coaching, and sits on the Certification Committee of the Professional Association of Resume Writers and Career Coaches.

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