the research proposal as writing ‘work’

A while ago I was asked to write something about research proposals. I hesitated because there is already a lot written about the topic. I didn’t want to try to condense all of that writing in an abbreviated post. So I parked the request and the idea. However, right now I think that maybe there is something to say about the research proposal. It’s about the work that it has to do.

I was reminded about the request when I received a cold-calling PhD research proposal. The proposal began by assuming that the research I do on writing is TESOL, Teaching English as a Second Language. The writer didn’t actually say TESOL in the text, it’s just that all of the proposal was written using in TESOL terminology, referred to TESOL literatures and the research proposed was something that TESOL scholars would be interested in. I wasn’t. Not my field. It didn’t resonate with me at all. It jarred. Of course I politely passed the proposal on to my colleagues who do work in this space. But the incident brought the research proposal request back into my mind…

I like the notion of writing doing work. Writing doesn’t just sit on the page. It is written for a purpose. It aims to make something happen. Texts do things – they can be said to act perhaps – in the world. And if and when they can’t make anything happen, texts literally get shelved. Anthony Pare explains this much better than I can:

… language is a technology: it can be used to do things; but it is no simple or single-purpose tool. It is the ultimate Swiss Army knife, with a different implement for every use or purpose we can dream up. In our daily lives we use language to ask, amuse, inform, tell, demand, propose, and on and on through an endless list of routine rhetorical goals. At a more sophisticated level, and in complex collaboration with others, we use this basic quality of language to shape specific results: we design and regulate language practices in law to produce justice, in governance to produce policy, in education to produce learning, in business to produce profits, and in science to produce new knowledge. Within the university, we shape modes and methods of disciplinary inquiry, at the heart of which are the language forms and practices that help us produce the specialized knowledge we need and value. Different rhetorics create different knowledges.

So what then might be the work that a research proposal has to do? What is its rhetorical intent?

A research proposal – regardless of whether it is written for a PhD or for a funder – is a bid to be taken in and taken up. The work of the research proposal is to demonstrate that the researcher has the capacity to produce disciplinary knowledge. In order to do so, the proposal writer must show familiarity with the ‘right’ language, knowledge production practices, existing debates and taken for granted ‘truths’ of the relevant scholarly community. The proposal writing must signal that the writer is either a potential, or already a contributing member, of a particular discipline/interdisciplinary field.

The cold-calling PhD proposal didn’t do this work for me. It literally didn’t work. It didn’t do the work. It might however do enough for my TESOL colleagues to take it up, and take on the proposal writer.

It’s the notion of writing as work that sits behind conventional research proposal advice; this usually suggests that proposal writers read the relevant literatures in order to talk the talk – to write in ways that are expected and recognized by the reviewer-reader(s). It’s also why the advice to proposal writers continues by saying that the proposal writer should get to know who the reviewers of research proposals are – that they will know what to read and write if they have an idea of the research and writing of potential reviewers. This kind of getting to know-the-community homework is not tokenistic, not about simply nodding in the direction of citations or egos. Getting familiar with the literatures and reviewers is so that the research proposal writing can do its work properly. It is so that the proposal rhetoric signals ‘belonging’ and ‘contributing’.

As Pare puts it:

Writing is social action. We don’t write writing, we write something – a proposal, an argument, a description, a judgement, a directive – something that we hope will have an effect, will have results, change minds, spur to action, create solidarity, seed doubt. … writing works in and on collectives to produce desired or required outcomes.

All of the technical advice out there about proposals aims to help writers to make the writing do this work. Writing a research proposal is not just about getting ideas down in an expected form, getting it ‘right’ is only a small piece of what counts. The expected form/structure is there as the accepted scholarly way to persuade, convince, engage, stimulate interest and encourage entrée and/or approval. It’s doing this rhetorical work that matters.

It is this thought about the work that writing does, this thought above all else, that I have in mind when writing a research proposal for funding. I know that I have to write to do the work that will mean I and my project will be selected, be legitimated, be acknowledged.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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8 Responses to the research proposal as writing ‘work’

  1. Haitham Al-Sheeshany says:

    I sometimes look back at my research proposal and think to myself: (how would anyone be interested in this!). It is easy to lose “purpose” of the proposal and one ought to really remember that a proposal has an element of “work” in it. Thanks for reminding us about that.

    I liked the bit regarding how writing is a social action by Pare. Neatly put.


  2. Pingback: The research proposal as writing 'work' | Writi...

  3. Many thanks for returning to writing on this request. Yes, I agree the proposal has a ‘work’ to do, as demonstrated by your listing. Demonstrating the researcher’s capacity to produce knowledge ‘ resonates much, as i understand ‘capacity’ in a wider sense involving the complete journey of ‘ research gap finding’ and personal resilience in order to achieve the contribution of something worthy of scholarship.



  4. Barbara Hunting says:

    Thank you for coming back to this
    Timely topic. I had the good fortune to have Dr. Pare for a writing instructor, and he was adamant that we do in our writing is our work therefore do it wisely with thought and focus. Writing takes time and a great deal of research into what is going on in the current writing to learn where to investigate and look for the gaps. All this to say that it is partly detective work as well.


  5. I start my PhD process in Sept. Reading this has helped me a lot. I know to pick a topic this is interesting and have lots of information.


  6. CrisisMaven says:

    A research proposal is essentially a sales letter. And inasmuch every sales letter has to be fine-tuned to its respective audience (a funeral parlor has to use different language than someone peddling the latest ring tones), research proposals and similar academic solicitations like proposals asking for grants have to be worded academically, yet have to convey a certain sense of urgency and how the end result could really “be brilliant” in the way people look at ground-breaking research. However, like many teachers learn their subject matter well, but are not immediately good pedagogues as well, so so researchers are not necessarily good at soliciting, which really means to put oneself into the other party’s shoes. Maybe this should be taught in universities. Good salespeople, when asked how they eventually became great, invariably say something like “well, one day I asked our company’s number one salesman what he did better than I did – and then I took it from there”. So maybe those who are already successful at writing research proposals should simply teach what they know to others. It makes little sense and deducts from time that could be put to research, if someone labors with writing sub-optimal research proposals. It steals the sender’s time as much as the receivers’.


  7. caveman1801 says:

    Hi Pat,

    Thanks for drawing our attention to, or reminding us about some of the purposes of writing. As someone who is in the middle of completing their research proposal, your blog has helped me to re-focus and view my work from a different position. Thank you to my supervisor for sharing the blog with me!


  8. Pingback: On ‘good’ and ‘bad’ writing | Academic Emergence

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