I’ve been busy reading student papers, and often my most common comment to them is, “work on flow of ideas”. To improve flow I remind people that you are trying to create a complete picture of your research with your words, and how you create that picture will determine if a reviewer sees it the same way you do.
In general, writing a grant should be like doing a connect-the-dots. You should start with the main idea, the central point, the big reveal! I know this sounds weird, but getting the main point out gives your document a FOCAL POINT! It gives your reader a key stone on which to build their understanding of your research.
This is idea is actually applicable to all areas where you are conveying information.
Example: Think of your best friend calling you when you are half asleep. They start rambling on about how they “had the most amazing night”, you half tune out while ah-ing and hm-ing in the right places. Then at the very end they “spring” on you the big reveal, “We got married!!!!”. Suddenly you are wide awake, wondering how this happened, despite the fact they just told you HOW. Now you are asking questions that will get them to rehash the same story they just told you.
Writing a grant this way is like doing a paint-by-number. You end up jumping around, filling in bits and pieces as you attempt to get the reviewer to see the picture the way you see it. The problem is YOU KNOW what the final picture looks like, but the REVIEWER DOES NOT. So in your mind you might think you created the Mona Lisa, but the reviewer sees something like Picasso’s Femme en pleurs (if you are lucky).
If you connect-the-dots, you start out with the big point, and then build your case one step at a time. You can think of starting with the big point as either point 1 on the connect-the-dots, or starting with some central part of the picture already provided. Either way it gives you a center to build out from and around. In working through your presentation of ideas you are allowed to come back to an earlier point from time to time, but mainly you are building a very clear outline of your research. In the end, you will come back around to your first central point/idea. If you do this correctly, you and the reviewer will end up with the same clear image of what your research is, why you are doing it, and how you are doing it.
Flow is important not just through the document, but also through a section and even paragraph. A reader shouldn’t have to flip back and forth between pages or scan back and forth through a paragraph to follow jumpy ideas. The more work you make reading your grant, the less the reviewer will want to read it.
Creating flow is a problem for most people, because for most people our brains hardly work in a linear fashion. We tend to jump from idea to idea when working through things in our head. I know I already made the suggestion to free write to get ideas out of your head onto paper, and this tends to lead to topic jumpy stream of consciousness writing. I still suggest free writing, but remember to go back and organize what came out of your head! Start with the big idea, and then build you picture!