Small-business grant writing can be big business

So, you want to try your hand at grant writing but you don't know how to get started or whether or not you qualify? Grant writing can boost your freelance income or provide fulltime staff or consulting employment. Many small biotech companies depend on grants to supplement investor income and often these companies do not have the staff, expertise, or time to submit proposals without help. Even academic scientists seek help with grant preparation. Getting started takes less work than you might think.

What types of grants do businesses submit?

Although businesses can compete for any grant at funding agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or Department of Defense (DoD), most small businesses apply for grants called SBIRs (Small Business and Innovation Research). These grants are offered by many agencies including the NIH, NSF, and DoD. They are divided into two categories: Phase I, a six-month award with a budget cap in the $50,000 range and Phase II grants, which carry the work forward from the Phase I award. Phase II SBIRs cover two years and the budget can run upwards of $750,000. Needless to say, Phase II awards take more time to write. As with any proposal, the idea and the science have to be outstanding, but government-funded business grants also need to include an R&D plan, with market research and Gantt charts (a project-planning spreadsheet) justifying the work. While an academic scientist needs to justify the science, an SBIR needs to justify the science and include a good marketing plan with economic justification.

Can I get hired as a grant writer with little or no grant experience?

Absolutely. You need some expertise in a particular scientific area, and beyond that if you have any experience in manuscript preparation you can learn what you need on your own. Your strongest assets are the skills you have as a freelancer: Meeting deadlines, often under pressure; turning in clean copy that meets house style; and the ability to organize and present complex material into a readable story. Study sections — the panel of scientists that reviews grants — are made of perhaps only one specialist, so the ability to write for an educated but not specialized audience will get you through any proposal.

How do I get started?

The website for the National Institutes of Health ( has proposal writing tips as well as forms and instructions. Check over the PHS-398 instructions and see if you can live with the amount of work they entail. Probably the best way to get started is to attend an SBIR workshop. Many cities now host this type of workshop to help biotech companies with all aspects of proposal preparation. You'll meet prospective clients and the staff of funding agencies such as the NIH or Department of Defense, and you'll pick up tips on proposal preparation. Costs run about $150, which you'll more than recoup with your first client.

What do I need to know when considering an assignment?

First, you need to find out how much work you are expected to do. Will you be expected to write and assemble the entire proposal, or will you provide editorial guidance for content, or will you provided copyediting only? Will you also provide a literature search and then read and provide discussion of relevant papers? If you will write most of the proposal your client should provide a polished, focused Specific Aims page and a list of relevant papers for the Background and Significance section. If they haven't provided an outline for the Research Plan, sit down with the scientists and write one. Of course you will charge them for that, but do not even begin to write without an outline that everyone approves. Also, you'll need to find out whether you will have secretarial help in the final preparation. If not, who will be sending requests for letters of support and who will be assembling the biographical sketch pages, the table of contents, and so on? If it's you, you'll need to plan, and bill, your time accordingly.

What are the advantages of grant writing?

Proposal writing is a challenge and can be a lot of fun. You'll learn a topic better than you could have ever imagined and, should your proposal be funded, your reputation will grow quickly and you'll get frequent offers for work. A successfully funded proposal may also bring you additional work from the company in the way of internal writing, such as shareholder reports or quarterly reports if the grant requires them. But here's an advantage that might be less than obvious: When you learn to write a good grant proposal you can take those skills and apply them to writing a book proposal. It's the same principle really. You are writing a document asking someone to fund your very focused concept and the entire proposal is written in the context of your idea. And, if you've worked on an SBIR, you'll understand market research and economic justification. Lastly, this income will give you the freedom to pursue less lucrative work, such as newspapers or wire stories...when you're not on a grant deadline, that is.

What are the disadvantages?

Proposals are time-consuming energy busters. If you're doing the bulk of the work without secretarial support you will likely shelve other freelance projects until the grant is submitted. If you continue as a consultant even after you've helped a company fund a proposal you'll likely find yourself with a conflict of interest that hampers your ability to freelance on the same topic. Also, scientists can be pretty disorganized and they might not provide you with necessary information in a timely manner. As you get close to deadline, you might put in some long days and nights. Let me assure you: That's the understatement of the year.

How long do grants take to write?

The NIH recommends that work begin on a grant four months before submission. In addition to writing, many details, such as budget and description of facilities and equipment need to be assembled. That said, scientists rarely allow this much time. Remember that a proposal will be judged not only on the strength of the idea but also on how well that idea is expressed. As with any submissions, mistakes need to be eliminated. This takes time.

Will I need special software?

You might, if you are doing all the work without a secretary. You'll need Acrobat because nearly all grants are submitted electronically and you'll need the capability to fill out online forms. You'll also need software that allows you to create a database of publications and choose the format in which you print them. In any case, this software should be purchased at the company's expense and provided to you should you work offsite.

How much should I charge?

By now you've probably gotten the idea that grant writing is a lot of work, so even if you don't have a proven track record you need to charge enough to make it worth your while. You can charge by the hour but I wouldn't charge less than $50/hour even if you've never worked on a grant. That is rock bottom and if you've got a track record as a freelancer that's not much money. Some grant writers charge by the project, say 10% of the value of the grant. A grant that will bring in $1 million per year calls for correspondingly more work. If you're trying to establish yourself, you can work in a bonus if the proposal is funded, but either way, you get paid. If a client wants you to do most of the work in a short period of time (say, one month) charge them accordingly, or I promise you, it won't be worth your while.

Jeanne Erdmann is a self-described "former lab rat turned writer," who has writen several successful grants. "I am happy to respond to any questions NASW members might have about grant writing and manuscript editing," she says.