Some applications have so many different parts, each with its own guidelines, that the process can feel overwhelming. But remember: you only have to work on one piece at a time! Research statements and personal statements are required components in most grant applications, and picking one of those can be a good place to start. Here are different strategies to help you with each.
Describe your research out loud. Tell a friend about it, or imagine you’re speaking to a college-educated person who is curious about your research. You may even want to record yourself on your phone as you talk. Very often, the way you describe your research out loud is clear and compelling enough to kick off your first draft. It’s also a great exercise to help you reduce jargon in your essays.
Make an outline. Use the funder’s guidelines to structure your outline. In each essay, it’s important to make sure you’re emphasizing the features of your career, your plans, and your project that are most relevant to them. If they’re interested in community engagement, for instance, you’ll want to list more than one example of what you’ve done or plan to do in your outline, and make sure these examples appear in a prominent place.
Start with the part you know best. There’s no reason you have to start writing at the beginning and work through to the end. In fact, many people choose to write the introduction last, so they can have the full sense of the essay in mind as they write it. If there’s one part that you know will flow more easily for you, start there!
Break your application up into smaller goals, and quantify your progress. Some of us feel like we do our best work at breakneck speed hours before the deadline, but we always pay a price for this in one way or another, in the end. A less stressful way is to break up the work and to think of it in measurable terms (instead of qualitatively, as the magnum opus you might be idealizing in your mind). For instance, try setting a daily word count as your goal, and asking a friend to check in with you daily to help keep you accountable. Or try the 5 basic steps of the Pomodoro method for dividing your work into manageable chunks of time.
Slow and steady wins the race. “Slow and steady” doesn’t actually mean nonstop! There are diminishing returns when you’re sitting in front of your screen feeling anxious, exhausted, or dehydrated. Schedule breaks into your working time. Just remember to do something that will help restore your energy and focus: eat, drink, take a timed nap, go outside for a quick walk, talk to someone. And be wise to your own tricks; we all have some activity we lose ourselves in, and while it’s easy to tell ourselves that we can scroll through social media for just a few minutes or play just a level or two of a game, you know which activities are better to save until your productivity goal for the day has been met.
Allow yourself to write a terrible first draft. Your work doesn’t have to be perfect—or even good—right from the start! Just get something on the page, and then see which parts are worth developing further.
Finally, if you feel discouraged about having waited too long to start, remember this aphorism: “The best time to start may have been yesterday, but the second-best time is right now.”