Why Are There No Elephants? A Common Grant-Writing Error

In recent work on grant applications this year, I’ve finally identified a problem that has bothered me for a long time.

People who use the Foolproof Grant Template construct an argument for the urgency of their research by deploying what I call the Hero Narrative of grant-writing.  It goes like this:

1) statement of a topic that grabs and intrigues the reader [ie, not a dry statement of scholarly minutiae]

2) brief references to 1 body of lit on the topic; another body of lit on the topic (2 sentences in total)

3) gap in lit:  “however, no one to date has discussed xxxx”

4) urgency of gap:  “failure to adequately account for xxx will lead to yyyy”–dire scholarly consequences

5) Hero narrative:  I am applying to the xxx fellowship to complete a book  project/ dissertation on  xxxxx.

6)  This project will address xxx from the perspective of zzz and qqqq, in order to demonstrate aaaaaa.

7)  This project will intervene in the fields of rrr and bbb by bringing to light [a new perspective on xxxxx].

This is a powerful (or shall we say, robust) template that can be effectively adapted to virtually any project.  It grabs readers’ interest from the first sentence, and quickly provides evidence that the project is legitimate, original, and significant.

However, it is apparently not easy to apply without assistance.  Clients earnestly study the template, and send me their best efforts, but they rarely hit the mark without undergoing many, many painful drafts of revisions.

One of the main errors occurs in element #3: the gap in literature.

The majority of clients happily introduce a cool topic, refer to their bodies of lit, and then, with no further ado, lay down the claim, “however, no one to date has discussed [the exact micro-topic of my dissertation.]”

This is an error.  Just because people have not yet discussed topic X does not in and of itself persuade us, the readers, that topic X is in fact worthy of being discussed.

As one of my colleagues used to say, mocking those annoying academics who always want to bring every discussion back to their own work, “Why did the job talk [on, for example, postwar American ethnic literature] not discuss elephants?”  In other words, why aren’t you discussing the thing *I’m* interested in?

This is the problem of element #3, except that here it is the grant-writer who has taken on the role of the annoying academic.  “Why has the field failed to address elephants/my particular micro-scholarly preoccupation???  It is an outrage!”

On the contrary, readers are under no obligation to consider your micro-topic of any inherent relevance or interest to the general subject you have raised in sentence one, until you actually use your words to instruct us that it is.  That does not mean adding 5 new sentences into the template of that critical first para to construct an exhaustive rationale.  It means using one sentence effectively to shake the reader into awareness that the literature, while excellent, has overlooked a point that upon further reflection is of great significance.

Let’s take a dissertation on emergent racial minority activism in Japan.  Here is a bad example: “Scholars to date have not adequately addressed the imagery of historical and geographical identity used in websites created by groups such as the Buraku Liberation League.”

Here is a good example:  “Scholars to date have not attended to the increasing mobilization of social media and internet technology in minority activism in Japan; these new technologies, however, have transformed activism by providing new anonymous sites for members to safely debate racial identity and plan real-world mobilizations.”

The first example feels like a passive-aggressive accusation of other scholars for their failure to study one very narrow micro-topic.  The second example educates the reader in an emergent phenomenon, and catalyzes curiosity about what the phenomenon really means.

That curiosity is what keeps committees reading, and grant money flowing.

It is a perennial danger for dissertation writers to be myopically focused on–indeed obsessed by— their narrow dissertation topic.  When you write a grant, however, you need to step back, and be able to tell a wider story of why your topic is necessary and timely for an understanding of your subject writ large.

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Why Are There No Elephants? A Common Grant-Writing Error — 11 Comments

  1. YES! YES! This problem is so wide spread; it is in conference abstracts and papers, journal articles, dissertation and book introductions.

    • That is so true. Also, what I didn’t mention but should have (or will in another post), passive-aggressive verbiage in the form of “I am the first to examine this badly understudied topic.”

      • yes. I learned this lesson when, a day before submitting an article that included such a line, I found another published article that made my claim untrue. that would have been very embarrassing.

  2. It seems to me that not just grant writing, but almost any academic endeavor should require folks to “step back, and be able to tell a wider story of why your topic is necessary and timely for an understanding of your subject writ large.” Is this not the purpose of education?

    • Ok, now think back to your experience of coursework (“education”). How many of your profs did this in their lectures or seminars, and how many focused on very specific, narrow issues that were easy to prep – a particular reading, a specific term, an artwork or artist? The fact is, it is very hard to generalize in a meaningful way, more so as global perspectives are showing us that the world is much more complicated than we previously said. It takes a lot of experience of teaching and writing or a lot of class prep, which junior faculty may or may not have time for. So yes, “telling a wider story” should be a part of graduate education, but let’s not heap this all on students, as if they are not doing education right. Everyone and everything is getting more specialized because the pressures of the academic market demand it. Stepping away from this process demands more than just being “educated” – it’s a commitment to knowledge that often goes counter to everything we are told, overtly and subtly, in education.

  3. I’m beginning to think that the most common problem among we grad/early career scholars is that during grad school we come to believe that everything is self-evident: the importance of our research, our potential as scholars and colleagues, the effectiveness of our teaching (because we want to BE effective even if we have no evidence that we ARE effective)… I am a former client. What I learned from you is that nothing is self-evident, and it is both naive and arrogant to assume so. Thanks for the reminder.

    • Christine … Good point! I have to admit that I, too, was naive and arrogant in my assumptions that “lack of” was a good argument.

      Karen … After teaching over 3,000 grant writers over the last 21 years, I have found that “unsupported assumptions” are hard to identify and overcome for most beginning grant writers. I like your bad example/good example. I look forward to sharing your format with my colleagues and students!

      I agree with Jordan that the “larger social problems and puzzles” tend to grab readers’ attention when supported with statistics, authority references and impact data.

      Phil Johncock

  4. I just wrote a version of that very sentence in my dissertation proposal (for which I need funding). Oops! Editing it now….
    Thanks, Dr. Karen!

  5. In other words, what is the general issue/gap that your specific study of whatever-you-love-dearly-right-this-second will address? The arcane is rarely *that* fascinating to anyone but the scholar pursuing it, but the larger problems and puzzles probably interest at least a handful more people. Or so one hopes…

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