TSB Smart Grants: how long to write an application?

Innovative

I often talk to people who have just written their first TSB grant application, and typically the method they’ve followed falls in two camps.

The first is what I would call the cautious and measured approach. This side will block out a week, thinking this is probably overkill, and set out to write the application in that time. The second is the last-minute camp, that tends to leave it to the last weekend.

Both are flawed, and in this article I’ll suggest a better method if you’re planning to write a TSB Smart Grant application for the Development of Prototype or Proof of Concept grants.

A deceptive length

On the face of it, the DoP/PoC application doesn’t seem that bad. It’s biggish, sure, but it’s not ridiculously long. 3,000 characters times ten, give or take, adds up to about 30,000 characters. At an average of about 5 letters per word, that’s only 6’000 words (equivalent to 24 sides of A4). I’m a fast writer and, when inspired, I can write about 1’000 words an hour. So, in theory, even for someone much slower (say ¼ as inspired!), writing a grant application should only take about 24 hours – or two very solid days of work for a determined founder. No surprise, then, that so many people think they can write a grant application over the weekend just before the deadline.

However, that length is misleading, because we’re not talking about 6,000 words of loose, meandering prose. We’re talking 6,000 words of crisp, tight, persuasive writing that doesn’t waste a single word, or even a single character. I like to think that grant writing is on a similar level of difficulty to poetry (though maybe not quite), with every subtle hint and expression counting. So what you’re writing is like a 24-page poem. Still fancy doing that over the weekend?

Why doesn’t the “set aside a week” method work either, though?

Creative work

One of the inescapable characteristics of creative work is that it requires time: time for the brain to rest, to absorb ideas from your environment, recombine them, and form new ideas; time for inspiration to enable us to have that stroke of insight that lets us do work that is significantly better, beyond what we could have planned; time for our subconscious to work on the problems in the background.

The problem with trying to write the whole application in a week is that it doesn’t respect this need for time. Instead, what typically happens is that the determined, driven writer keeps working until their brain is fried, and then continues to work, even though they should really be doing something else.

Another frequent problem with creative work is that it’s hard to judge your own work – especially when your brain is fried. Grant applications need to be convincing to a range of people that will be looking for flaws, and over-excited gibberish with more holes than swiss cheese just won’t do the job, no matter how good it looks at 3 o’clock in the morning. A week sitting at home away from the office won’t provide the feedback loop you need to write a great application.

A better approach

So, with that in mind, how much time should you set aside to write a DoP/PoC grant, and, equally important, how many people should be working on it?

The best practice that we’ve evolved at GrantTree is that it takes two people to write a grant application: one writer, and one reviewer.

The writer does the bulk of the work, and is the one who needs to invest serious chunks time into the job, but the reviewer needs to be available for anything from bouncing ideas to reviewing freshly written answers. The reviewer is there as a sounding board to keep the writer sane, and also to detect when the writer is starting to be less than sane and suggest a break. The reviewer can do other stuff in that time, but needs to be able and willing to instantly drop that stuff to provide much-needed feedback.

With such a pair in mind, how long will a grant take? Well, it depends on how good they are at writing, and how well they understand their own business and market, and how well they understand what needs to go into a grant application. However, our experience is that it will take at least a day to produce a first draft of questions 1-4, and another day to draft the other questions. Typically there needs to be a gap between those. And the first draft is only a beginning. Some sections can just be written out, but others require multiple rounds of reviewing and rewriting, with gaps in between those rounds so the creative juices can flow.

One must also leave some room for the possibility of a sudden insight that causes us to reposition the project completely. This can cause a complete rewrite of questions 1-4, along with the subsequent revisions.

My suggestion is to assign about 2 weeks of actual time, in chunks of 1-2 days, for the writer/reviewer pair. This sounds like a lot of time, but there will be breaks in that period. Much of the time is necessary to enable your subconscious to do the work and come up with the great ideas.

Whatever you do, don’t leave it to the last minute. That’s a recipe for failure, when it comes to grant writing.

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