Grant-Writing Diary: an old school productivity app

There are a million apps out there to help keep you motivated and on track. To-do list managers like Wunderlist, and Trello to visualize what you need to do, and note-takers like Evernote and Google Keep so you can actually do it in an easy and organized way. And I like that kind of junk, but when I’m actually struggling, organizing myself with electronics really doesn’t help. Maybe I’m the weirdo, but those tools often make me feel more isolated or like I’m wearing blinders and that just doesn’t help me of Sam Grace's Grant Writing Journal

What does help, at least 85% of the time, is keeping a grant-writing diary. I started this back in comps. Every day, I’d start by writing the date (not just the date-date, but also the grant-date*), then write a little about how I was feeling (e.g. tired, annoyed, ridiculously animated), then eventually my goals for the day. Then, as the day continued, I would check in with my journal. Tell it what time it was, how well I’d been working, how the goals were shaping up (or not), how much longer I planned on working. Basically, a bunch of crap that is wayyyy too boring for an actual diary.

And throughout the day, whenever my inspiration flagged, I’d keep looking over at my day’s entry and know that I wasn’t working alone. It’s like the main conceit in Inkheart, that written things come to life in the writing, taking on identity and backstory. That self I put into the journal was there with me, feeling my pain. Added bonus: every time I look at that blank page filled with my ideas and goals, I feel productive.

So if you find that the apps aren’t doing it for you, maybe it’s time to take it back to a bulkier technology. Any other recs for getting from “to do” to “done”?

* in my dorky head, this is like the Stardate in the Captain’s Log. I write “Grantdate: Day 8 (NSF)” and occasionally I’ll add “T-3 days” or whatever it is until my most significant deadline.

Scrivener: a grad student review

NSF Word Cloud

Look! I made this from my NSF DDIG application!

I just submitted an application to the NSF DDIG*. It’s a big grant and a big deal and getting it in makes me a very happy camper. I had already done a lot of writing for it in Word, which is where I had done all my grant writing previously. But I was feeling a definite need for a Fresh Start, and so I downloaded a trial version of Scrivener** so I could stare at a new kind of blank page.

I had heard that Scrivener is a pretty impressive writing management system from novelists and other academics. They were correct.

The first awesome thing was that I imported all the grant writing I had already done into folders in the Grant Collection I started. That meant that whenever I wanted to check or copy some previous writing I could zip quickly between a preloaded list, instead of sifting through the eight million heavy, slow Word windows I had been dealing with before. It  reminded me of the light touch and organization of Journler, except with a much more fluid import. It worked so well that I added folders for reference and dumped in a number of grant guidelines from various online sources. Not only were they super easy to navigate, they were also super easy to search from within the application I was writing. Major bonus.

Screenshot of my Grant collection in ScrivenerThe second awesome thing – which Scrivener markets first – is that they have existing templates you can use. These templates are nice in terms of organizing your thoughts and writing and breaking the work ahead of you into a bare bones outline that you can then mess around with so it best suits you. In fact, I found these sub-documents and folders a MUCH more useful way to outline and organize than the more typical outlining within a document. Unfortunately, if you DO want to outline within a doc, Scrivener’s bullet formatting is only mediocre. But if I am really itching for that kind of structure, I prefer to use Opal (which I can later import into Scrivener if I feel like it).

The third awesome thing is that I can highlight and/or compile my different sub-documents in different ways, which I found particularly useful in checking maximum lengths for different sub-sections of my application.

I am not yet writing my dissertation, of course, but I have no doubt that the recommendations I’ve gotten from peers for its utility are not overstated.

The biggest disadvantages I have run into thus far are formatting related. This is true for reference notation (though someone more dedicated than I may have found good work arounds for this), for text-based outlining within a document, and – worst of all – for making tables. The commenting and footnoting features are acceptable (to me) but nothing to write home about.

Overall, I would recommend this to every grad student ever. At a reasonable $45 (or less if you’ve got a coupon from NaNoWriMo like me), it’s a solid investment. There may be a little bit of a learning curve for people intimidated by technology, but I think those people might end up being its biggest fans in the end.

* That’s the National Science Foundation’s Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant, for those of you not in the loop.
** They give you 30 non-consecutive days of trial with the full program, which I highly recommend taking advantage of.

Grant Tip #14: Take notes on your awesomeness

Most Interesting Grant Writer in the WorldToday’s post is brought to you by my frankly tepid Intellectual Merit section in my current NSF application.

As it turns out, intellectual merit is pretty much my thing. Interest in how the theoretical implications of my work is going to Revolutionize Anthropology* is my main motivation for this project and I AM excited about it. But being excited about the project and writing like I’m excited about the project (particularly in the emotionally sterile style of grant writing) are two different things. But there’s help! In her excellent feedback on my application, my adviser left the comment,

This section should try to capture the enthusiasm expressed by your committee members at your comprehensive examination. Did you jot any notes in your defense re: our comments on the contributions made by your dissertation?

And the answer is, not really. I tried to make sure I wrote down all the areas that needed improvement, but while I certainly enjoyed the praise I received, I didn’t keep it for posterity. And now I really wish I had. Because if I had good notes about what I did right? They would be pretty much directly ripped off for these sections trying to demonstrate my worthiness for thousands of dollars worth of support.

So! If you have yet to hear from your committee on your work, be prepared!

* okay, okay, maybe just age and citizenship

Lessons at the End of #AcWriMo



Being a good early millenial with a healthy lurker status in Livejournal and fanfic communities, I have known about NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month – for a couple of years now. The basic idea is to write 50K words of a new novel in a month. This year, as I wallowed in my two-time failure to write the NSF for Cultural Anthropology in time for its submission due date, I decided to get myself writing by putting the grant aside and working on a fun project and signed up. And it pretty much worked! I mean, I didn’t come anywhere close to the 1,667 words a day I was supposed to write, and I eventually stopped, but I DID manage to get myself out of my mopey “I’m a terrible writer” funk, at which point I started working on writing my grants again.

It turns out, I’m not the only one jumping on the NaNoWriMo bandwagon for academic purposes – announced #AcWriMo to be more or less run via Twitter throughout November*. Instead of a predetermined word length, you post your goals and your progress with the hashtag on Twitter. They suggest plenty of adjustments to fit it to academic writing projects, but as I look back, I think there is really one big difference they don’t talk about. It might even be the underlying push behind the whole thing.

Keep writing. Its basically the mantra of NaNoWriMo and its probably the biggest piece of it picked up by #AcWriMo. I agree with The Thesis Whisperer’s analysis of the pros (time management!) and cons (exacerbating the academic culture of “just push harder”) of participating, but I think that still doesn’t quite touch on a bigger underlying issue: sometimes you don’t know enough to start writing.

As I mentioned above, I didn’t finish my NSF grant application on time for two deadlines running. It wasn’t because I’m terrible at time management and it wasn’t an issue of perfectionism. I just didn’t yet know enough about my fieldsite to write a decent draft. But instead of acknowledging I wasn’t ready and devoting my limited time to another project, I kept slamming my head against that poor shriveled piece of hope thinking if I just kept pushing it would resolve itself and constantly reminding myself to Just Keep Writing so I could make those deadlines.

So yes, it’s good to have structure, a community, clear goals and timelines (all elements that remain in #AcWriMo). But unlike a creative project (in which, to be sure, time away and research also have their place), to be a good academic and grant writer I also need to keep learning when something just isn’t ready to write.

* As it turns out, November is a terrible month to make Academic Writing Month if you’re an anthropologist, because this month is the AAAs, and for a significant chunk of us, that means at least a week of it is going to be devoted to schmoozing. This year, though, I’m down in Quito doing some preliminary fieldwork and didn’t make it to #AAA2014 this year, so I had plenty of time to dedicate to the cause this month.

Collection of Aphorisms for Grant Writing

Academic Coach Taylor: get your ass out of bed and write me a 350 word abstract

Academic Coach Taylor Has Some Advice for You

“Write drunk and revise sober” – Peter de Vries

“Easy reading is damn hard writing” – Maya Angelou

“It is a pity that doing one’s best does not always answer.” ― Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

“The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.” – Steve Furtick

“Basically, every piece of scholarly work is a hero’s journey. You are the hero. The topic is the field of battle. The dragon is ignorance/misinformation/poor scholarship. And your enemies? The scholars who have misled the populace with their false dogmas. You must save the day. You must uphold the standard of truth. It falls on your trembling shoulders to right the wrongs of the false scholars and rescue the populace from the dragon of ignorance.” – Karen Kelsy, The Professor is In

“Everybody wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant.” – Cary Grant

Academic Grant Writing Support

Despite my best intentions to have solid drafts of all my grants at least a month before the deadline, I find myself a week before a deadline with a stinky, gloppy mess of a grant started too late and severely lacking in lovability. A big part of that failure was simply part of learning the process that works best for me in writing academic grants*, but thank goodness there were also a couple of people (my adviser, the friends who shared their successful grants with me, my Grant Writing Buddy, and a couple of peers who selflessly pretend to actually want to read and edit my grotesque early efforts) to keep me from wholesale fail.

In addition to those indispensable and wonderful support people, I have also found a number of online resources helpful for staying on track. One I already mentioned, but bears repeating, is Dr. Karen’s Foolproof Grant Template, by Dr. Karen Kelsky of The Professor Is In ( Another, too obvious for links, are the guidelines and links provided on each granting agency’s website. The last is the treasure trove of advice on academic grant writing found in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Academic grant writing resources for all!

* A key turning point was when I realized I shouldn’t try to write lit reviews by starting with the narrative and filling in the citations, but rather making a list of all the people I want to cite, categorizing that list, and then writing a synthesis that ties them all together. My adviser tried to explain this to me previously, but I still needed to learn the hard way for some reason …

Worldbuilding Questionnaire meets Research

Grant writing about your research demands that you answer some very big questions with very high stakes. When confronted with them, especially when I’m staring at a blank page, my resolve to Get Things Done turns to jelly and suddenly I realize I’ve let hours pass by doing nothing but checking Twitter and Facebook. The third time that happened this week, I decided I needed a new approach. Something that let me start thinking about my research in productive ways but didn’t have such high stakes. I needed a screen that gave me a new way to look at my work.

This week’s exciting answer came from one of my favorite fantasy authors from my childhood.

Patricia C. Wrede* created a list of Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions over at the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America site that is truly spot on for fantasy writers and almost completely irrelevant to anthropological research. Perfect! Hard to imagine lowering the stakes more, really. So my buddy and I chose a short list of questions for each other (about 15), and set about answering them. It worked best when the questions were unanswerable in their current form, but worked metaphorically to brainstorm new questions about the research.

FOR EXAMPLE: If magic requires study, where do you go to learn about it? How do people fund their training? Is there an apprenticeship system, or are there wizard schools, or is it one-on-one tutoring/mentoring? Is an untrained wizard dangerous, or just an ordinary person?

The approach shook loose some new ways to think about my research and my fieldsite, and now thinking about those other Big Questions is a lot less intimidating. Another win for fantasy and anthropology!

* Author of the Dealing With Dragons series, which remains some of my Favorite Books Ever.