The science and art of winning a grant


I write grant applications that often win gemaker’s clients (research organisations and innovative companies) significant funding to develop and commercialise their innovative ideas and technologies. Recent successes include:

  • $630K ARC grant for ANU’s InSpace
  • $597K Accelerating Commercialisation grant for Farmbot
  • $500K Accelerating Commercialisation grant for Chatty Kids
  • $100K Manufacturing Modernisation Fund grant for Byron Aviation

Writing winning grant applications is both a science (requiring analytical thinking and a methodical approach) and an art (requiring skill and therefore practice, and some creativity). I have a science degree plus post-grad qualifications in communication, writing and journalism, and have been writing professionally for decades.

Over time, I’ve developed the following essential guidelines for successful grant applications:

1. Define your project; be SMART

Don’t use the application process as a brainstorming exercise or expect your grant writer to figure out your project’s purpose, scope, end users, benefits, budget, team and milestones. You’re unlikely to win a grant unless your project is:

Specific (preferably Simple yet Significant)
Measurable (and Meaningful and Motivating for the funder)
Achievable (and Agreed by all proposing parties)
Relevant (and Resourced by you to some degree) and
Time-limited (and Timely and Time-sensitive)

gemaker’s commercialisation experts can help you with (a) market research, (b) project scoping and (c) funding strategy, using our database of grants for STEM researchers and innovators. Grant application writers like me come in at (d).

2. Tick the boxes

The simplest way to increase your hit rate with grant applications is to only apply for grants that you have a good chance of winning.

  1. Does your project meet all the funding criteria?
  2. Does it address a hot issue (i.e. high on the relevant government’s agenda or in the headlines)?
  3. Is it of similar scale and significance to previously funded projects?
  4. Is it significantly different from (though possibly complementary to) previously funded projects?
  5. Does your project team have credentials of similar weight to previous grant winners?

Unless you can tick off most of these, including the first, it’s probably not worth spending the many hours/days required to complete an application. If you’re not sure whether you fit the criteria, contact the funding body to clarify any ambiguity before you waste any time on an application.

3. Answer the questions

It seems like stating the bleeding obvious, but many grant applicants fail to meet this basic requirement. Read each question carefully and address every part of it.

To make it easy for the assessors to appreciate your grant-worthiness, use the question’s key words (or synonyms) in your response, e.g:

Q. How is your project innovative?
A. Our unique product design combines proprietary software developed by our innovative engineers with a novel combination of off-the-shelf hardware…

4. Provide evidence

If you make any claim in your grant application (e.g. ‘There is strong demand for our innovation’) then you should support it with facts and figures. There’s a potent difference between ‘Australians love apples’ and ‘Each Australian eats an average of eight apples per week’. I made that number up BTW; don’t do that in your application, because assessors will do their due diligence. However, providing evidence doesn’t mean you should write your grant application like a dry scientific paper, which leads to my next point.

5. Tell a charming story

Story-telling casts a charm – if you want a child’s attention, say the magic words ‘Once upon a time…’ Story-telling works on grown-ups too, even hardened grant assessors. You need to grab and hold their attention, irresistibly leading them to your pre-determined conclusion: that your project warrants funding.

Here are some key tips for engaging and persuasive writing:

  • Start with a hook, e.g. a shocking statistic, surprising misconception, or compelling quote from an authority.
  • Provide a little backstory that explains the personal motivation for your research or innovation.
  • Build your readers’ understanding in simple steps towards complex concepts, rather than starting with complexity and trying to break it down.
  • Make smooth connections and logical transitions so your paragraphs flow.
  • Anticipate the assessors’ doubts or concerns and rebut them proactively.
  • Use the active voice, e.g. ‘Our team developed a better mousetrap’ not ‘A better mousetrap was developed by our team’ = passive voice.
  • Employ emotive words, but sparingly and strategically.

6. If you can’t be charming, at least be succinct

Most grant applications have tight word or even character limits, but succinctness should be your goal regardless. Keep to the point and tell the assessors what they want to know, not everything you know. Avoid redundancies (e.g. absolutely essential, forward planning, completely eliminated) and empty phrases (e.g. in due course, for all intents and purposes, one could argue that).

7. If you can’t be charming or even succinct, seek professional help early

Some clients come to gemaker after several failed applications, which is not a cost-effective approach. Too often, clients come to us only days before their submission deadline, which limits the help we can provide and increases our grey hairs. If you’re on a tight deadline, gemaker has a stable of writers who can work together to finish your application in a hurry, but we produce better results without time stress.

Knowing that many research organisations and start-ups have very limited budgets, gemaker offers flexible support.

From least to most expensive service, we can:

  • read your draft application (or parts of it) and provide advice on improvements, and/or
  • write or edit a section/s of your application that you’re struggling with, or
  • develop your entire application, provided you’ve followed guidelines 1 and 2, above.

If you’re thinking about seeking gemaker’s assistance with a grant application, take time to consider the level of service that suits you best, but please don’t procrastinate. The sooner you get in touch, the stronger we can make your application, increasing your chance of winning the funds you need.

Rebecca Colless

About the Author

Rebecca Colless is an expert at translating ideas into powerful words to promote behaviour change. She enjoys research and adapts to any medium or audience with exceptional creativity.