Proposal Block? Here’s a Quick Guide to Overcoming One

Tess with her writing buddy Choup
Proposal writing, or any academic writing, can be a daunting tasking if you’ve never written academically. Even undergrad doesn’t prepare you for what writing tasks you will have in graduate school, which is frustrating.

However, that’s ok because I’m here to guide you through the proposal writing process that should get you an awesome proposal draft by the end!

If you’re just diving into this article, I would recommend starting with the previous article Here’s My Exact Guide to Starting Your Proposal

Gather the Literature


If you’ve read last week’s article on starting a proposal, then you should have already started gathering your facts (i.e. gathering literature). I usually advise my students to gather about 20 articles that are new/recently published, groundbreaking articles for your topic, articles that don’t agree with your topic and proposed research method, articles with methods similar to yours but are slightly different, and general articles about your field.

Once you’ve gathered your articles, begin to sort them by themes. Some sort by themes such as the history of the field, how the topic problem began, past ways of addressing the topic problem, current ways of addressing the topic problem, gaps in the literature, and justification of the theoretical framework or method you are going to use. However, this is where your creative writing comes into play and you can organize in any way you desire – as long as it’s logical.

Essential Programs for Academic Writing


Now that you’ve gathered all of the literature you can use some of my – excuse me while I nerd out – favorite writing programs!

1.    Microsoft Word
2.    Trello
3.    Pomodoro
4.    EndNote
5.    FreeMind
6.    Grammarly
7.    Hemingway

All of the above programs offer me something in terms of organization, time management, and editing/proofreading. Pretty much these 7 beauties will get you through a whole book if you really needed.

Get Inspired, Find Examples


Sometimes proposal block can happen because you may not even know what a proposal should look like. It can be pretty hard and scary to write something that you’ve never done before and may have never even seen. This is where your community, tribe, cohort, friends, mentors, and anyone else ahead of you in academia can help. Reach out to others who have already written successful proposals or have had proposals accepted by your advisor/program/grant of interest.

With a couple of proposals in hand, find the common themes or aspects that the proposals have. Look at the style of writing and try to adopt that into your academic voice. You may also want to look at the layout and flow of the proposal and the headings that the writer used. These are all things that you may want to incorporate into your proposal or may spark inspiration.

Draft an Outline


Do you remember way back in high school when our English teachers would make us write out outlines or those spider web diagrams as an activity? How many of us have HONESTLY used those two techniques since then? We’re all friends here, so I’m going to be honest with you, I didn’t start using one until I started writing longer academic pieces in graduate school. Even writing this blog post I didn’t use an outline/planning technique, to some extent I knew what I wanted to talk about, but a 1,000-word blog post and a +10,000-word proposal are two different ball games.

In case you’re not catching my drift… I’m telling you to use an outline!

I know it might sound silly, but using an outline takes away a lot of the pain and thinking when writing a proposal. Instead of having to constantly think about the next section you’re going to write about and how you’re going to make your transitions, well you’ve already planned it out on your outline. Not to mention, you’re also going to do a lot less paragraph organizing and editing later because the flow and logic are already there.

Most proposals follow a simple outline of:
1.    Abstract
2.    Introduction/Background
3.    Research Question, Aims, and/or Hypothesis
4.    Participants (if using human subjects)
5.    Methods and Materials with Explanations
6.    Potential Risks (if using human subjects)
7.    Preliminary Research Thus Far
8.    Expected Outcomes

Some proposals may include other sections like limitations of the proposed method and back up plans in case certain experiments fail. It’s best to talk to the grant office or advisor that you’ll be submitting to for further in-depth details. If you feel like you need to add other sections in you can always try to add them but be sure that the flow is still intact.

Stay Within the Word Limit


This can be quite tricky, and my advice can go many ways on this topic. What I recommend to my writers is to say what you need to say in as many words as you need to say it but keep it concise and exact. I’m currently writing a proposal that needs to be double spaced and no more than 5 pages, that is NOT a lot of wiggle room to explain the intricacies of a thesis project with many working parts. This is where the short and concise writing really comes into play because you, the writer, need to be strategic in how you are going to convey all of this information to a reader who probably isn’t even in your field.

If you’re lucky and have a large page limit, the most common I see is about 20 pages. Then you will still want to be concise, but you can afford to add more detail and information, especially in the introduction/background and the methods portion of the paper. This is where you can foster rich connections for the reader and help them see the problem you’re trying to solve in a deeper and more complex light.

Remember, you are the expert on this research, and it is your job to also write and convey your project to others in a manner that is easy and accessible for them.

Proofread Proofraed proofread!


See if I proofread my work before finalizing it, I could easily have fixed that misspelling and title formatting issue above.

This topic reminds me of an article that I was reading the other day at the writing studio about the writing phenomena, “early closure”. Early closure is when a writer finishes a paper that may benefit from some further drafting/proofreading, but because the writer reached the required page/word count they consider it done. Winthrop University did a small study (51 participants) and asked students when they thought that the writing process was complete. A shocking 35% said it was when they reached the word/page limit and the conclusion had been written. Friend, that is a SHOCKER!!!

Proofreading and the drafting process, in general, may not seem like the most important aspect of writing; however, a paper with silly mistakes can already affect how the reader perceives you. This is because having silly spelling and formatting issues could relay the idea that you may not be detail oriented or that maybe you’re a procrastinator and wrote your proposal last minute and didn’t leave yourself enough time to proofread your work. Either way, these assumptions are not something that you want standing between you and your goals.

Proposal writing can be a daunting task, and usually the first major writing assignment for graduate students, but I hope this article guided you to some resources that were helpful and gave some valuable advice too. If you still find yourself struggling with any aspect of proposal writing, you can always send me an email or drop a comment below. If you’re already rocking the proposal game, share your advice in the comments!!

And as always, happy writing!

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