First and Never
Since we've traveled relatively far from the original first-and-never focus, let's circle back to that familiar sentence type.
- My project will be the first to do something that has never before been done.
- Rewriting this sentence, the key is in the qualifiers.
- My project will be the first book-length manuscript to focus on this particular something since an attempt in the 1970s.
With specificity, we arrive at natural questions in response: why has it been so neglected since the 1970s? Could it have been ignored because it's not a particularly interesting subject?
One technique useful to any part of a grant proposal is to distill arguments to their simplest form, and then ask whether the obvious skeptical questions are answered. If we spend a little less time concerned with the precise phrasing of the first-and-never sentence, a little more time may be dedicated to thinking about what it might imply to a relatively skeptical reviewer. Perhaps a response to the above questions might come in the form of external authorities calling for such a project, as in case study 1. Or perhaps the project confronts a problem understandable to every reviewer, as in the classic issue of academic fragmentation, and the general potential of a unifying effort. Perhaps such a study hasn't been done because first we needed to find someone capable of stepping outside the nationalist paradigm, or perhaps it requires an investigator who speaks five languages and has significant archival skills.
Almost every excerpt silently answered this skeptical question. If this is truly so great, and as unique as you say, shouldn't someone have already done it? And, if it is not wholly answered here, remember that they are just excerpts. Other evidence for that idea is provided elsewhere.
Takeaway Technique 1:
Describe the external literature in such a way that the subject matter of your own proposal is obvious.
Takeaway Technique 2:
In discussions of uniqueness, do not limit yourself to literature survey. If you are uniquely qualified for your proposal, elements of your CV can be blended in. Perhaps your research methodology is different, and this should be blended in. Perhaps you have discovered archival materials that other people do not have access to. But the story has to seem complete and comprehensive. If you claim to be unique in some particular manner in some particular paragraph, and then never take it up again in any other section of the proposal, it may be worse than not mentioning it at all.
Takeaway Technique 3:
If the literature in your subject area is sparse, it can be helpful to name those major works that are most similar to yours. If the literature in your subject area is extensive, it can be helpful to tell a story about trends in that literature.
Takeaway Technique 4:
If any part of your argument can be outsourced to an external authority, it is presumed to be stronger. In some cases, you don't even have to name these external parties who are so enamored of your subject matter. Simply allude to conversations at conferences.
And sometimes there are questions of language. Consider a sentence such as the following. This is not a first-and-never sort, but uses qualifiers in a similarly careful manner.
In grant proposals, there tend to be some statements that are asserted without conclusive evidence. Saying that something has never been done is impossible to prove. Nevertheless, some evidence must be provided.
In a hastier version of the first sentence, one might forget to write conclusive. This would certainly sound stronger, but it wouldn't set up the last sentence. Perhaps, for instance, we cannot absolutely prove that a graduate student thirty years ago didn't write their dissertation on this exact subject. So what can we prove? That's the question that matters, and the question that we have begun to answer here.
Across these case studies, we have seen various means of interacting with and characterizing the external literature. In every case, the literature is argued to be flawed, blind, or incomplete—in some way. In every case, more than uniqueness is established. Uniqueness is certainly a prerequisite. Yet merit is what wins grants.
Brendan Allison, Grant Editor
College of Arts & Sciences