Five secrets to writing an outstanding NIH R01 application

Which would you rather read?

A generic triage rejection on your R01 Summary Statement:

“At the meeting, the more meritorious applications were discussed and given final impact scores; by concurrence of the full SRG, the remaining applications, including this application, were not discussed or scored.”

…or an enthusiastic YES that makes you say, “Hooray! Holy Sh*t…” (because now you have to do the work):

“Overall, the panel agreed that this was an impressive application from an exceptional group of investigators, and enthusiasm was extraordinarily high. Findings are expected to have a high impact on the field.” **

(**actual comments from my client’s Summary Statement)

No contest, right? 

Imagine what it would be like to be able to focus on your research for a while, instead of churning out a bunch of applications at the last minute and hoping for the best (but having no idea what’ll stick).

 Imagine how great it would feel to know that you’re meeting your requirements for tenure—no problem—because you’ve won the operating funding you need.

What a relief.

But here’s the thing:

Your genius research idea is not enough.

We’re starting with the assumption that you have an exciting, impactful, innovative project for your R01 application. But in this research funding climate, good study design, strong preliminary data, and expert co-investigators are just what get you in the door. You need to do more than that—a lot more—if you’re going to get your R01 funded. You need to throw everything at it.

But...what else do you throw at your R01 to make it better? 

Well, my friend, I’ve worked with researchers on their grant proposals for nearly two decades now and I can tell you that the successful ones all do these things:


You know that your idea is fundable, you understand the scoring criteria, and you’re familiar with the details of the funding agency’s peer review process. 

In other words: you know your application has a pretty good chance of being considered for funding before you even start writing.

How do you know this? You talk to the right people, you shop your idea around, and you know the audience you’re writing to.


You have enough time to pull everything together.

Yeah, ok, this one’s obvious. But have you ever actually laid out your R01 writing plan? Most people I work with have a heart attack the first time they map it all out. But here’s the thing: they have their heart attack 12 weeks before most people do, and they can be way more realistic about what it takes to pull together a full application.

Write (Clearly & Persuasively)

You use expository writing techniques to get your point across clearly and persuasively.

Look, great writing won’t save a mediocre idea. But here’s the flipside: great writing can, and does, make a strong project idea stand out. You can have the best, strongest research plan out there, but if it’s badly laid out, hard to read, and/or buried under a bunch of garbage writing, then reviewers can’t make sense of it and won’t give you a competitive score. There are loads of tweaks you can make to your proposal that don’t involve you getting a graduate degree in English Lit—just a few smart and simple writing techniques that you apply consistently.

Get Good Feedback

You get feedback (early and often) from mentors, colleagues, and professionals.

Do. Not. Ever. Submit. Your. R01. Without. Getting. Feedback. 

Seriously. It’s inevitable that you’ll spend long days and nights with your application. And just like a human person that you spend long days and nights with, you’ll start to take it for granted. You need someone else to take a close look and give you feedback. Notice how you always like your significant other more when you hear them talk with other people? Same thing. 

Feedback can come from colleagues, mentors, your institution’s research support office, a professional editor, and/or your mom. But please—I’m begging you—make sure you get someone else’s eyes on your application. 

Revise and Refine

You take time away from your writing so that you can come back to it with beginner’s eyes, which allows you to take a critical look at your own work.

On top of the feedback you get from others, you need to become your own harshest critic. You need to be able to poke holes in your application and fix them in advance. In other words: you need to be able to anticipate and address objections. That’s the refining process. 

How do you do that? I teach my clients and students something I call the WTF Framework to address the implicit questions reviewers are asking: Is it Worth funding? Can we Trust the team to complete the project on time and on budget? Is the project Feasible?

So, let’s recap the five secrets to writing an outstanding R01 application:

  1. Strategize to make sure your project ends up in the right place

  2. Plan and schedule your writing

  3. Write clearly and persuasively

  4. Get good feedback

  5. Revise and refine by identifying and addressing objections

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