Article review: Systems of Classification and the Cognitive Properties of Grant Proposal Formal Documents

The following is my descriptive title based on my review/analysis and application to proposal writing for technical communicators:

“Understanding hidden meaning in grant and proposal application forms.”

Wolff, William I. 2009. “Systems of Classification and the Cognitive Properties of Grant Proposal Formal Documents.” Technical Communication Quarterly 18 (4) (October): 303-326.

This article’s abstract sounded like a scholarly work with a pragmatic application to proposal writing but turned out to be a quite esoteric research study. Wolff researched those who created grant/proposal forms—their meetings, interviews with the committees (departments, members etc.)—and ultimately the forms themselves. However, I did find interesting information and ideas that pertain to grant/proposal writing.

Overall, Wolff’s argument—extrapolated using a pragmatic approach—is that there is a systematic yet oftentimes hidden structure to grant/proposal forms and that if understood by the writer, can inform the writer about the grant/proposal reviewer’s expectations. The forms extend to other documents as well, including “RFPs, application forms, and instructions…” and understanding the inconspicuous rhetorical implications of the classification system will give you a better idea of who/what the reviewer is looking for (305).

The classification system can be the prompts on the form (such as radio buttons for choosing Male/Female) or fill-in boxes etc. These rhetorical choices are “embedded with social, ethical, and moral choices that represent specific designer assumptions and institutional realities and have the potential to influence the way users present information”. This is important for a proposal writer to recognize when filling out a form because being cognizant of the reviewer’s assumptions can help a writer construct a proposal that expresses the information that the reviewers expect (306).

Another practical application of the systematic analysis that Wolff suggests is to look to previous grant/proposal forms from the same organization and to compare the revisions and redesigns to the forms over time. This can indicate a shift in project expectations as well as grant/proposal submission-information expectations.

Another practical application is to recognize the type of fields in the form (e.g., drop-down menus or fill-ins for expected budgets) and understand what the proposal reviewers are looking for (i.e., specific items or general). This indicates which information is of value to the reviewers.

For instance, if a project defense and description field asks applicants to address prior experience with, and the outcomes of, similar projects and to explain how they will determine if the proposed project has been a success”, the grant/proposal writer can ascertain that the reviewers  “favor applicants who have applied for funding in the past.” For example, NIH and NSF grants are awarded to the best, most experienced applicant” (316).

Understanding that grant/proposal forms have an underlying classification system will benefit the writer when submitting a grant/proposal that requires such forms. The ideas that Wolff presents suggest that it is important to think about what the prompts denote so you do not focus on information that is not pertinent to the reviewer’s expectations.

If any grant/proposal writers read this, let us know if this is true for you. Do you think about what information is on an application form and does this influence how you construct your document?

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Filed under Article Reviews, Rhetoric, Technical Writing

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