Revision - The Key to the Universe (of Funding)

Aug. 6, 2015

Last spring a student came into my office to discuss a specific funding opportunity. I found her research compelling and I looked forward to learning more about it when she sent me her essays. But when I began to read the draft of her fellowship proposal, I soon found my mind drifting to topics like snacks. I gave her comments and we are still waiting to hear the results of the competition.

The same student recently sent me a draft of another fellowship application. This proposal was different. By the end of the first page, I was riveted: this was important research; this student was just the person to do the research; this project needed to be funded!

How did she do it?

The key was not that her research had changed or even that she had become a better writer. She had become better at revising. 

Fellowship applications are always (or should always be) works of revision. Below you will find some tips on the revising process to help you along the way in crafting a fellowship application.

The Creative Process

When revising, it helps to begin with an appreciation for the creative process. Whether you are crafting a musical score, a new pasta dish, or a fellowship application, the creative process often follows a predictable pattern. It goes something like this:

  1. This (whatever you are creating) is great!
  2. This is tricky.
  3. This is a disaster.
  4. I am an utter failure. Maybe I’ll give up.
  5. Wait, maybe this will work. I can do this.
  6. This is great!
  7. Repeat.

Expect that the process of revision will include periods of thinking that your application is a disaster and maybe even periods of thinking that you are headed for failure as a scholar. Accept these thoughts as part of the process, go mop your apartment floor, note your success in that small task, and return to your proposal.

Take a Break

The first step in the revision process is to do nothing with your document. Once you have hammered out a first draft, put it away for at least a full day, a week is better. Of course, you will have to schedule this break into your application timeline. Here are some helpful things to do while you are taking a break:

  • Read and comment on the drafts of other applicants.

  • Be a reviewer for the UA GPSC Travel Grants: . (This is one of my top recommendations for people who want to write successful fellowship applications.)

  • Read the applications of both successful and unsuccessful previous applicants.

  • Ask some colleagues if they are willing to provide feedback on your draft.

Global Revision

After a few days away from your draft, create a new document (save the old one!) and begin by asking yourself questions on a global scale. In other words, you want to begin by asking questions that may affect more than one part of the draft. Consider questions such as these:

  • How could I more fully answer the questions? How could I better respond to the questions behind the questions?

  • In what ways could I address the review criteria more convincingly or clearly?

  • How could I better speak to my audience?

  • What is my main point? Could I make it more specific or narrow?

  • Do I support my main point?

  • Is the essay cohesive? Does it flow logically?

  • Have the ideas progressed by the end of the essay?

Asking these questions may lead to the implosion of the essay that causes you to think the whole thing is a disaster. Remember that this is step number three in the creative process and, once you address the issues, will lead to a better product in the end.

Local Revision

Once you have completed a global revision, go through the draft again asking questions on a local scale. Consider questions such as these:

  • Do I lead my paragraphs with a main idea?

  • Are my sentences varied and fairly simple grammatically?

  • Have I defined my key terms and minimized jargon?

  • Where could I be more specific?

  • Are any parts confusing?

  • Where could I use more active verbs?


Revision can be fun. You will likely find new ways to articulate your ideas and maybe even discover promising new directions for your research. But the deadline will get closer and at a certain point, you will have to accept that your proposal is complete. It will not be perfect, but it also should not embarrass you or your advisor. Submit the application and then put it away until you find another funding opportunity for which you can apply. Then you can begin the revision process all over again.


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