Texas Tech University

First and Never

This Project Will Be the First to ...

Every proposal must do something that has never been done. The genre of grantwriting is therefore united by this collective need to be first, to identify some promising ground where no other academic has planted their own flag. Yet novelty is not merit, and should not be confused for it. It is prerequisite. I remember reading the guidelines of at least one journal in the sciences that prohibited claims of being the first to do something. That is the assumption, but it is not the raison d'etre.

Nevertheless, novelty must in almost every case be established. This is not always easy. How does one provide evidence of absence? Perhaps someone, somewhere in the literature has stumbled on the very topic that you are working on.

This tends to lead to a variety of qualifiers. This is not just the "first" study to do something (too bold), but perhaps the first comprehensive study to address this topic in a book-length manuscript using modern methodological tools and taking into account the parallel work occurring in a related field.

A great deal of time can end up being spent on crafting such statements. This is not to say that they are not important, but it is perhaps effort that could be better spent elsewhere.

Therefore, in this module, I will spend less time discussing the perfect first-and-never claim, and more time discussing the classic literature review, and how people harness it to that fundamental academic need to claim novelty. All proposals must claim novelty: of perspective, of subject matter, of methodology. Let's talk about how they achieve it.

Consider the following examples.*

*but first, a few notes on where they come from. All examples are drawn from NEH fellowship proposals. They have been selected by the NEH as models. While sometimes proposals are successful in spite of their writing, we can assume that the selection process filtered those cases out, and these are being posted as exemplars of the genre.

In discussing them, I will use a very arbitrary color coding scheme to highlight common features as best as I can. The categorizations truly are arbitrary. Nevertheless, it can be useful to see a visual representation of a fundamental point: writing never achieves one thing alone. Rather, it flits between different elements. However subjective, I wanted to show this.

first never color guide

These colors inevitably run together for a variety of reasons, but perhaps the most enjoyable to discuss is the fact that meaning depends on context. The reader of a grant or fellowship proposal is fully aware of the fact that they are reading a grant or fellowship proposal. If you describe gaps in the literature or problems to solve, you are presumed to be discussing not just the literature but the subject matter of your proposal. If you say that the literature has yet to address so and so problem, the reader considers that synonymous with saying I will address so-and-so problem. Every description of the external literature should also serve as an implicit description of your proposed work. I would argue that there are ways to make the vice versa true as well.

I also should have included a fifth color, one for descriptions of the merit of a project. However, that is threaded so deeply into every sentence that it would have ended up being the only color.

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Nural Akchurin, Associate Dean for Research
College of Arts & Sciences

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