How to Use Emphasis in a Grant Abstract…and Beyond

Recently, the question arose as to whether it is appropriate to use emphasis (bold, italic, underline) in an NIH grant project summary/abstract. After all, the person pointed out, this section is posted in NIH RePORTER in plain text, without any emphasis. Here is my reply to that query:

Emphasis is a strategy targeting the reviewer audience. More specifically, it assists the reviewers who were not assigned the proposal for primary or secondary review and may be looking at the package for the first time in real time in the review session.

With that audience in mind, my strategy is to emphasize key terms to visually ‘index’ the paragraph to provide multiple easy access points to the material, since usually it’s solid text. You can emphasize the key structural elements of the proposal, like ‘long-term goal,’ ‘rationale,’ ‘specific aims,’ etc. But you can also sparingly emphasize other key words, ‘innovative’ or ‘novel,’ for example, to draw the reader’s eye to that key information.

Just like elsewhere in the application, emphasis should be used sparingly in this section. If everything’s important, nothing’s important. In such a constricted space, restricting emphasis to the key words or phrases creates that ‘indexing’—emphasizing whole sentences as one might in a longer section muddies the waters and undermines the value of the emphasis. (Also, I am more familiar with using underlined italics [rather than, say bold], for this purpose. I tend to reserve bold for section headings and the specific aims.)

So yes, when writing or editing the project summary/abstract section (hereafter let’s use simply “abstract” to keep things succinct) of an NIH grant, it is not only appropriate but strategic to use emphasis to assist reviewers in understanding your proposed project. A fellow editor who agreed with this approach also suggested that sometimes you can take strategic use of emphasis to focus a reader’s attention a step further. If your project is wildly transformative and the other elements of your proposal are not unusual, she advocates limiting the application of emphasis to only the description of the transformative element(s) of the proposal.

Emphasis plays an important role in strategic grantsmanship, not only in the abstract but throughout the proposal. When used consistently and conservatively, emphasis helps the reader distinguish the main points of the proposal. As I alluded to in my initial response, there is an expectation that certain elements of proposals will be emphasized. To elaborate, not meeting those formatting expectations can distract experienced reviewers. Why make it hard for people to give you funding? Meet expectations and let your innovative ideas be what captures their attention.

While most grant writers would prefer to think readers and reviewers are soaking up every word of their proposal, it is important to acknowledge that each proposal has multiple audiences to which the writer must appeal. Strategic use of emphasis provides one of the most useful tools for mastering that complicated task.