Friday, December 14, 2007

Formatting Matters

I have been reading a lot of proposals and research statements lately. It is very important that documents such as these grab the reader/reviewer at the beginning and then follow through with compelling supporting information in subsequent parts. Unlike manuscripts, these types of documents are more free style in how they are formatted, with only a few limits about fonts, font size, and margins.

Especially in long documents, the use of various formatting styles helps highlight when a sentence, phrase, or word is really important. Bulleted lists, the creative and appropriate use of subheadings and paragraphs, and (at least in science) the insertion of useful or cool images can also be effective formatting tools.

But then there are those persons who go berserk with the formatting and treat the reader like we are all too dense (or lazy) to pick out an important word or concept. Writing that your research is innovative doesn’t necessarily make it so.. but a well-written sentence or succinct paragraph about your research or ideas might get this same point across in a less obnoxious way.

I know that in some cases this excessive formatting likely is a response to a previous proposal review that indicates a reviewer couldn’t possibly have read the text, but there are effective ways to emphasize important text and there are annoying ways to emphasize arguably important text.

I use bold type in grant proposals, but sparingly, and I try to put one illustration on each page. I summarize main points with
  • bulleted
  • lists
and I am a big fan of breaking up giant chunks of text with subheadings (but not too many).

Sentences don’t have to be terse. Long sentences should, however, be avoided if they contain a lot of really very many unnecessary, non essential, redundant and extra words, unless they are all very beautiful words, which is unlikely but not impossible*.

In the stack of proposals that I just read, I was intrigued that some people used bold type, some used italics, and some underlined. Fortunately I did not encounter anyone who used all three styles in one document; there seem to be distinctive personal styles when it comes to emphasis. I did notice in these few dozen proposals that I just read (about half of which were science/engineering and the rest humanities) that, in this group, scientists and engineers tend to favor bold type and humanities faculty tend to favor italics or underlining, with the exception of political scientists (bold type).

In proposals, I am much more likely to use bold type than other formats, but in this blog, I veer between bold and italics depending on my mood. I am not typically an underliner. I find underlined words aesthetically unpleasing. I will not hold this against a proposal-writer who writes that their work is innovative (underlined), but I might hold it against them for not backing that statement up.

And then there are the people who put lots of words in
‘quotation marks’.
I wrote about this topic last year at about this same time because ‘tis the season for me to read lots of proposals from faculty whose 'primary' expertise is in the humanities, and many of these faculty favor long, complex sentences that contain ‘words’ that I don’t understand although the proposal-writers are specifically told to eschew ’jargon’ (see also December 6, 2006: This Post Contains ‘Words’).

This issue of formatting is important because if a reviewer of a proposal (or a reader of a research statement) is reading more than a few proposals/statements (e.g., dozens to > 100), they may well not read every word. You need to write your document so that a reader either wants to read every word (because what you write is so fascinating) or you need to structure the text so that essential points will be noticed. It is very important that these essential points have content and not just be empty statements to the effect that you think you are awesome.

* Clearly, Proust did not change my life, although I am always in search of lost time.

19 comments:

New Female Engineering Professor said...

Dear FSP

I am very happy to have stumbled across your blog today. I just started as a Assistant Prof. in a engineering department at a research university a few months ago. Things are going well, except for the unresolved two body problem. My dear husband doesn't have a Ph.D and is looking for an industry job. It's been frustrating. I'm wondering if anyone else reading this blog has had a similar experience. If so, I'd love to read it. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I've said this before, but THANK YOU! - this post couldn't have come at a better time, and is now bookmarked.

Anonymous said...

You're awesome. (OK, now everyone can try to guess my age).

You didn't mention my particular weakness, which is parentheticals. So far, they're not going over big with reviewers. So my guess is that they're bad. I talk that way, too.

Female Science Professor said...

Good point! I did not mention parenthetical statements (because I forgot about them), but there are clearly dangers lurking in them (if they are used too much (or gratuitously)).

Anonymous said...

What about those of us who try to limit our parentheses - but end up just abusing hyphens?

I'm probably near the same age as the 'awesome' poster above, and suffer from the same nested style of speech. It makes for a great storytelling reputation, but forces editing and rewrites more often than I'd like.

Drugmonkey said...

"But then there are those persons who go berserk with the formatting and treat the reader like we are all too dense (or lazy) to pick out an important word or concept."

Speaking to the NIH applying crowd, ignore this statement! We reviewers may not be dense or lazy but we are busy, chronic procrastinating people, just like you. The NIH review has 5 specific criteria which need to be addressed of which it greatly behooves the applicant to point out "significance" and "innovation" as often as possible. Yes, with judicious use of bold font.

Another reason to do this is because beyond the 3 people reading the proposal at leisure, there are another couple dozen around the table who have not read your proposal. when there is disagreement amongst the primary reviewers, these others will frantically scan your app over the course of 5-10 minutes trying to figure something out for themselves. you are writing for that audience too...

Female Science Professor said...

It's fine if you say your research is innovative, as long as you explain why it is innovative, or even innovative. I like it when the main points are easy to see, but if there are 20 main points in each paragraph, it all becomes a blur. That is what I meant by berserk formatting.

Helen H. said...

Thanks, advice much appreciated!

So I suppose I should save the "I am awesome I am awesome I am awesome" for a watermark on the paper instead of putting it in the page header? :D

Female Science Professor said...

That's a great idea: subliminal "I am awesome" symbols.. You can watermark a pdf as well.

mentaer said...

I get used to bold fonts as in-text subtitles. So that interesting parts are more easily identified. Furthermore I like 3-cols time tables (1. ToDo, 2. time-span, 3: output). This, i think (being on the non-reviewer side), is easy to grasp and demonstrates already done efforts for planing the proposal/project. But one still needs to write a nice introduction and so on.

EcoGeoFemme said...

Ugh, I know I over use parenthetical statments and dashes, especially on blogs. sorry. But like anon 12:10, I talk that way too. And I use the word "awesome". Also "dude". Now I feel bad. sigh.

Female Science Professor said...

Maybe you are awesome, in which case it is OK to say that you are. I'm not sure I'd use 'dude' in a grant proposal though (just kidding) -- and dashes (and parentheses) are of course fine in a blog.

Anonymous said...

Ahh, if that subliminal business would only work, the mind scientists would rule the world. Well, maybe someday.

Dr. Bad Ass said...

So true. And I too have a problem with parenthetical statements (as you can see in my blog entry). (And in which you are tagged for a meme, if you're interested.)

Anonymous said...

Dear Dudes: I'd luv sum money, pleeze. I is most sinserly awsum. Thanx!

Marilyn said...

Great information. Keep up the good work.

Fitz said...

I enjoyed your post. I have a clinical colleague who does not often write proposals, but on a collaborative proposal he really overused bold, italics, and underline - all at the same time!! They were everywhere! I intervened well before the deadline and explained that the major points were a little lost in all of this formatting...

I am currently experiencing the opposite with my students who are preparing proposals. We have new rules (which I would have thought would be obvious, but oh well): no single paragraph longer than 1/2 a page; no figures without legends; etc. Hopefully these rules will stick with them. The shortening long documents and paragraphs suggestions are also valuable.

Thanks!

EliRabett said...

ONE COLUMN PLEASE. Proposals with two columns may look more like journal articles, but they are tough to read on a monitor.

Ms.PhD said...

Great post, and great examples of parentheticals.

I personally despise that anyone funds proposals that use up every inch of space, as if the authors put in more effort and their ideas are better just because they crammed in lots of text, bold font or otherwise.

(btw, what happened to the html for underlining? I thought it was just a u but the comment thing won't accept it?)

I like bullet points, but most of the people I've written grants with seemed to think they waste too much precious space!