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Important Tip on Writing Your Application to Address a General Audience

July 28, 2009 | By Brett Bobley

The next Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant deadline is October 6, 2009. If you are considering applying, I want to pass on some important advice. Applicants often ask: "To what audience should I address my proposal?" The answer is: a general one. Your application will be read by a variety of people including peer reviewers, NEH staff, and members of the NEH’s National Council on the Humanities.

Hence, I wish to strongly emphasize the importance of writing your application in a clear fashion that can be understood by a non-technical audience. We realize that your project may be technical in nature and that part of the application will have to address complex technology issues. But particularly in your abstract and in the first portion of your narrative, it is very important that you write to a general audience that is familiar with the humanities, but may have no specific knowledge of technology or how your project fits into the humanities in a larger sense. This is your opportunity to make the “big picture” case for how your project advances the humanities.

Let me draw your attention to a few key sentences in the program guidelines that address this:

1) In section IV, in the description of the proposal abstract, it says:

Provide a one-paragraph (up to one thousand characters) abstract written for a nonspecialist audience that states clearly the importance of the proposed work and its relation to larger issues in the humanities.

2) Also in section IV, in the description of the contents of your narrative, it says:

Provide a clear and concise explanation of the start-up activities and the ultimate project results, noting their value to scholars, students, and general audiences in the humanities.

3) In section V, in the description of the evaluation criteria, the very first criterion is:

The intellectual significance of the long-term project for the humanities.

As these sentences indicate, it is really key that your proposal makes the case for the humanities significance of your project. As part of the review process, your application will be read by numerous people with different backgrounds, from different disciplines, with varying degrees of familiarity with the methodologies used in digital scholarship. So you must make your case to this wider audience. For example, if you were trying to describe your project to your provost, dean, or college president, how might you make the case? You may find it helpful to think about the classic "elevator pitch" -- that is, how might you briefly describe this project to someone outside your field who you've just met. Try to think about this as you craft your abstract and narrative.

While this tip is specifically talking about the Start-Up Grants, it really applies more broadly to all NEH grants. But with digital projects, you may have to take particular care to ensure that a non-technical reader understands why your project is important to the humanities.