The page limits are not targets

I have had more than one conversation with ERC officers where to topic of page length has been brought up. The message coming across is that evaluators are under pressure and reading maximum page length proposals wears out their patience and powers of concentration and that if they could see shorter and sharper texts they’d find this a blessed relief. This is the last issue on the first of the mindmaps copied in the posts above – that shorter than maximum is better. The B1 is five pages for a complete project sketch from objectives to resources and it would have to be very elegantly done to get in under the five page limit – I still reckon it could be done if the objectives were really very precisely described and focused, crystal clear so that all the other layers would then drop out of them but there doesn’t seem to be very much that can be done in this short text or very much value added from trying to do so – even the most hard pressed evaluator will scan five pages as the agony is always going to be fairly short lived.

However, the B2 section gives a maximum length of 15 pages and this is a lot more space and probably space enough to describe far more work than can be done in the time and for the budget allowed by the ERC. However, in the hundreds of proposals I have read and made comments on I don’t think I have seen one B2 that is less than 15 pages when complete. Many are very tough reads and this needs to be avoided at all costs – long, unbroken paragraphs are common and simply build a barrier between the ideas and the reader. I have mentioned above that to some extent writing a strong proposal here requires a change of ‘mind set’ and that normal, everyday academic assumptions are put slightly to one side. Writing a good proposal is not the same a writing a good academic paper – a paper sets out to report and inform while a proposal (as with most things when money is involved) is about seduction, or at the very least about persuasion. And with this in mind I would base the writing of B2 on the principle that there is no need to bombard the reader with information but rather create an argument that is based around clear objectives and contains only the details necessary and, of course, all of the details necessary to reach these clear end points. It is likely that this can be done in less than 15 pages and I supsect that this would be an advantage in the evaluation – at least it would make the work stand out from the crowd and give a very confident air to it.

Practically, I’d base the B1 on the B2 headings and the short sentences of guidance that you find under each in the template. These can be extended in the B2 to provide some more insight into the sections that are less well unpacked in the shorter version – but core sections of it are likely to be fundamentally the same, in particular the objectives statements which are the project drivers and need to be definitively set out in B1 as key selling points and should be stable between the versions. I would then focus only on material that proves the value and impact of the objectives. And design the methods simply to reach these high impact end points in the most efficient way – the law of succinctness should be applied to planning the methods i.e., the simplest (and also most innovative) way to get all the results that are necessary to reach the objectives in full are the best ones. Retain only the essential and discard anything that is merely interesting or worth exploring for any other reason that getting to where the project is headed. In 9 or 10 pages I am sure a very readable and high impact proposal can be put together that is fresh and buyable – too many proposals simply don’t give the funders a chance in this critical respect and leave them with very little idea of what they can buy through this project despite the argument being dragged out until the very last lines of the page maximum.

This might appear to be a small matter but it is important for a number of reasons: it sets the text apart from the vast majority (of those I have read at least); it imposes useful discipline on thinking – being a firm believer that if the researcher is master of the ideas then even very complex things can be adequately and persuasively described very quickly; and it simply makes it less daunting to read and this all adds up when a few percentage points can make the difference between success and failure and so much is at stake. Of course, 9 or 10 pages of stodgy material with no way markers and guiderails for the reader and incompletely elaborated is likely to be worse than 15 pages of the same from which something might emerge by chance accumulation and so the work is harder in that it demands much more thinking, but also quicker to do when the ideas are mastered and stabilised and the work driven from the top down and from the idea of how the world we be better by the end, which is a big advantage to the researcher. What would you write if the the page limit was 10 pages?– I’d consider using this as a target when drafting to really test out the logic of the planned work.