Writing Proposals

As I’ve spoken about in previous emails, I am applying for the Institute for Research Design in Librarianship, which is an IMLS-funded project based at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, CA. One part of the application process is a description of a proposed project that we will undertake when we return to our own universities after the two-week intensive course. My project description is written like a proposal. I wrote an initial draft, then let my wife and mother read it just for clarity. After revising based on their comments, I sent it to others within the library here and elsewhere. I got alot of good comments from them, some where very useful, others I ignored. But I think the most substantive comments I received were from three people: Lizzy, Ashley, and Jake.

Lizzy is a research data librarian at a preeminent research university in the south that is well-known across the country for its engineering programs. Lizzy had some very good comments, some of which I didn’t fully understand until I received similar comments from Jake. She gave me some good ideas that made the proposal much stronger.

Ashley is a digital humanities librarian at my current university. She has more experience in academia, and apparently with writing grants, than I do . The reason I asked her to review it was because she was not familiar with the subject matter so she was able to read for clarity. She gave me some very good advice, too. She actually suggested that I rearrange the proposal. I really liked her advice and too many of her suggestions. That made a much stronger proposal.

The last person I heard from was Jake, who I consider a “heavy hitter” in this area of research data curation and management. He is at a university that happens to be one of the peer aspiration targets for my university (my university is in a plan to get into the top 25 public research universities). He made some very good suggested, as well. There were two main points he made that I heeded. The first was to put the problem statement and research questions first so that it’s obvious to the reviewers that I have a viable project. He said you want them to know right off the bat what your problem is and how your project will solve it. He said that proposal writing is different than writing a paper and you don’t want to lead with a long background — just hit them immediately with what it’s all about. The other main thing he said was that I didn’t really address well enough how my project will contribute to knowledge or to my libraries operations or to the larger community. I agreed with that. I struggled with that part of the proposal. Because while I had a vague idea of how it would benefit the communities in question, I had a hard time expressing it in words. His suggestion made me think of it much more deeply and force myself to come up with an explanation. Based on this change, I am certain that I have a very strong proposal now.

It’s interesting to see how much this proposal has changed over the course of a few weeks. My initial draft was sent to people to review in late December. It’s now mid-January, and it’s a completely different, and MUCH better, proposal than it was back then. I am so glad I asked all these people to review it. They had so many great comments.

When I first asked my wife and mother to review the proposal, it had 1,559 words, including citation.

When I sent it to other librarians here at my university, it had 1,404 words, including citations.

When I revised it based on Ashley’s comments, it had 1,443 words, including citations.

Final version, after revised based on Jake’s comments, it has 1,211 words, including citations.

Do you can see that the document began much longer, and got smaller as time when on. That’s actually OK and preferable. As someone said, “Don’t use two paragraphs when one will do. Don’t use two sentences when one will do. Don’t use two words when one will do. Don’t use a long word when I short one will do.” And as Mark Twain is attributed to saying, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” What he means is that it takes time to edit and when you edit, the text gets shorter. It’s gets better as a result of getting shorter because it’s getting simpler and easier to read.

So the process of writing is like this: you begin writing and put all kinds of words down on the page to express what you’re thinking about. Then you go back and you reread it and cut and move things around and reword. Then you go back again and reread it and cut and move things around and reword. You keep doing that until you have cut as much as possible while still keeping the clarity and meaning. Hence why my proposal was reduced by almost 25% from its original length. I am much happier with my proposal now. I am very happy that it passed so many reviewers with all of them saying how it is a great proposal — even Jake! He liked my idea. That made me feel very good.

Now, I just sit and wait for the review committee to make their decision. It won’t come until March 1. It’s going to be hard to wait that long because I want this so bad. If I don’t get it, I need to just resubmit another proposal next year (they’re doing it three years in a row). What a great opportunity though! Jake even said he wished the Institute was there when he was getting started in this area. It is a great thing. Because I’ve thought how odd it was for librarians to get such little training in research and then be thrown into the deep end and expected to research and publish to get tenure. Thankfully, I happen to enjoy the writing part, and I probably will enjoy the research part, but I just don’t know the steps involved now how to design a project with all its many parts. That’s why the Institute is such a great resource. I hope they can keep it up for years beyond the initial three-year funded period. Maybe, if I get chosen for it and successfully complete a project, I can be involved in planning and making it continue into the future.

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