In a post earlier this year, literary agent Nathan Bransford recounted the experience of a friend who reviews grant proposals for a living. In summary, “Apparently everyone who applies for a grant quotes Gandhi!”

Nathan goes on to explain that in writing queries to find an agent, just as in writing grant proposals, sometimes it helps to step back and ask what everyone else is likely to do and then do something different. Certainly, if you stretch too far toward the different end of the spectrum, you risk alienating the prospective agent (or reviewers and program officers), but the point is still valid.

Good writing is rarely sufficient to get a project funded (though it doesn’t hurt!), and most funding agencies and foundations aren’t keen on funding yesterday’s projects that have just been repackaged in today’s buzzwords. Increasingly, grant makers are asking for explicit statements within proposals describing how a proposed idea or specific approach is innovative, and the profusion of programs to fund innovation further underscores this focus (e.g., herehere, herehere, here, here, and half a dozen other places).

The NIH proposal writing guide presents one approach to distinguishing your research from other work out there:

Is Your Idea Original?

  • Check the literature to verify that the exact project you are considering has not been done before. Search the literature and the NIH CRISP database to minimize overlap with similar studies.
  • Assess the competition. See which other projects in your field are being funded, and consider turning competitors into collaborators to improve the strength of your proposal.
  • Carve out a niche that will allow you to significantly advance knowledge in your respective field. 

Did you catch the “consider turning your competitors into collaborators” bit? That’s not advice you hear every day, and it may be easier said than done. But it may be the best approach if you consider what other people would do and discover someone’s already making headway in your chosen area of research. Or if that’s not appealing, follow the last bullet, and make your own place–be innovative and original, and stake your claim.

Finally, whether you choose to collaborate or innovate or both, put the book of quotations back on the shelf, or at least save the Gandhi quotes for the first draft of your response to reviewers on an unfunded submission (you know the one I’m talking about–that visceral, heated response that makes you feel better but never makes it anywhere near your resubmission).

Here are two Gandhi quotes to get you started:

When I despair, I remember that all through history the ways of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it–always.

and

It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom. It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err.

But should you despair of ever succeeding, recall this one:

Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.