Have a draft of a research statement? Sometimes get a sneaking suspicion that it’s not quite hanging together? This post suggests a strategy for revision that’s quick, straightforward, and yet often effective in shedding light on structural problems.
I can’t claim credit for the exercise. It was first suggested to me by Emily Bartels, Professor of English at Rutgers—and for all I know she may have borrowed it from someone else! But the theory behind it is simple: your reader’s attention is drawn to the first and last sentences of each paragraph.
My hunch is that this is not unlike the apocryphal “Cambridge” study that supposedly found that people can easily make sense of sentences in which words have been wildly misspelled “bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the word as a wlohe.”
For our purposes, the lesson here is that people may not read every sentence in each paragraph. Instead, they’ll likely look to structural cues such as topic and concluding sentences to help them anticipate (or remind them) what all that stuff in the middle is going on about. In my opinion, this is even more likely to be true of funding application reviewers, who may be tasked with evaluating hundreds of applications in a given cycle.
So try this. Copy and paste your personal narrative or project description into a new Word file. Then—in your new file only!— delete all but the first and last sentences of each paragraph.
What you end up with will help in two ways. First, you’ll want to go through and compare the first and last sentence within each paragraph. These should not repeat one another! But they should clearly address roughly the same idea, with the concluding sentence advancing the concept to a new stage or synthesizing the work of the paragraph.
If you have intro-conclusion pairs that, in isolation, appear to have almost nothing in common, you probably have a long paragraph on your hands that is trying to do too much or may simply need a new introduction. It may be that you’ve written yourself into your best ideas over the course of the paragraph and ended up somewhere new and exciting, but if so, you should revise your intro sentence to reflect the emerging business of the paragraph.
Next, you’ll want to compare the last sentence of each paragraph with the first sentence of the next. Without any other context, does the transition of ideas make sense? Have you provided your reader with enough context to understand the logical progression?
If you have conclusion-intro transitions that seem, without all that context, not all that closely related, you’ll want to go back to the original. Remind yourself why one idea seemed to go after the other, and try to re-introduce some of that logic into the connective tissue of your paragraphs. Here you can use simple transition phrases (“Not only . . . but also,” “nevertheless,” etc.) as well as specific vocabulary from the award program solicitation to help you clearly signpost the structural logic of your statement.
This advice piece is meant to help you write a proposal that highlights the central parts of your experience and research for reviewers. Make sure you read part 2 of this series on strategies for revision and remember that, at GradFund, we are trained to help you with structural issues in your proposal, so feel free to schedule an appointment with us.