To enhance your grant proposal using persuasive writing, use Aristotle’s debate techniques ethos (credibility) pathos (passion), and logos (logic). Establish credibility with a detailed biosketch, a strong publication record, and citing leaders in the field. Emphasize the importance of your research with compelling statistics and passionate language. Structure your proposal clearly and logically, using concise sentences and a logical flow to ensure readability. Focus on ethos, pathos, and logos throughout to effectively persuade reviewers of your work’s value.

Aristotle (384-322 BC) was a pioneer of scientific inquiry based on observation and reasoning in the natural world. He also pioneered persuasion in argument using ethos (credibility), pathos (passion), and logos (logic) for debate, as it was a cornerstone of social life in ancient Greece.

Deliberate and careful use of these devices in your scientific writing is an extremely effective way to persuade reviewers to fund your grant proposals. It is not the only way to receive good reviews, but once you master the method, you’ll likely get rewarded with a higher success rate for your applications.

In this article, I will map these three terms onto the typical requirements for a scientific grant proposal and show how and where they apply.

Credibility (ethos)

Establishing your ethos is how you show your readers that you are credible and can be trusted.

A thorough display of ethos also indicates to your reader that you understand their point of view even if they disagree.

You can establish your ethos in the following ways.

Your Biosketch

The biosketch is a requirement for most funding agencies and the most obvious place to establish your ethos. The personal statement portion of the biosketch is the only place in the proposal submission where you can write about yourself in the first person.

Make it compelling and show who you are, the emergence of your scientific direction, and how you and your team are uniquely positioned to execute the proposal’s aims.

Stress the complementary skills of your team and ensure you have a history of working with your co-investigators through co-authorship on publications.

It is essential that this history of working together is directly relevant to the application, not some tangential collaboration. Injecting some enthusiasm into the personal statement will be appreciated by the reviewers.

Your Publication Record

Your publication record should stand out in the biosketch, and your own citations in the proposal. Showing your work has already been published in reputable peer-reviewed journals is the surest way to establish your ethos.

Citing your own work on the Specific Aims page is always a good thing as it lays the groundwork for the central hypothesis of the proposal.

Citing the Publications of Leaders in the Field

Reviewers also assess your ethos by looking for any citations to the acknowledged leaders in the field. There is a good chance that one or more of those leaders will be on the review panel for your proposal.

Whether they are leaders or not, diligent reviewers will check to see if you’ve done your homework by referencing important works of those who have gone before. You can add these citations at almost any point in your proposal as long as those references are directly relevant and in support of your own proposed work.

Passion (pathos)

We are taught that scientific writing follows a formulaic approach where the author is emotionally detached from the subject matter. The idea behind this detachment is to convey objective truth rather than a subjective interpretation of the results.

An over-reliance on emotional statements can indeed indicate an under-reliance on analysis and research. However, the writer can convey the extent of the problem (or solution) without resorting to sweeping claims or emotional rhetoric.

When done effectively, the work becomes more persuasive and gains greater impact, ultimately furthering the goal of getting your reviewers excited about your proposal.

Use Opening Statements

It is useful to provide examples of pathos in scientific writing. Consider an opening statement like:

Annually, 240,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer.

This is a statement of fact, a truly horrible statistic, and a very dispassionate way to say it.

Let the reviewers know that you understand how horrible it is and you are passionate about fixing the problem. You could recast this statement as:

Every year in the United States, 240,000 women receive the devastating diagnosis of breast cancer. The disease claims the lives of 42,000 women annually, making it a major public health problem.

Now you’ve injected a sense of urgency into your writing, making it more likely that the reviewers will want to know more about how you plan to attack the problem.

Don’t Neglect the “Background” Section

Consider the Background section where you are referencing the works of others. You could say:

Smith et al. established the analytical protocols still in use today.

All true.

However, you can show the reviewers your excitement over this previous work (and your use of it) by saying:

The groundbreaking work of Smith et al. (2004) opened up multiple lines of investigation for checkpoint inhibitors and is a cornerstone of the approach used in this proposal.

You’ve simultaneously shown your knowledge of the literature (ethos) and recognized its importance in your own work (pathos). If you are lucky, Smith or anyone on that team will be a reviewer and favor you in their review!

Logos (logos)

Writing is learned by doing and then having your work proofread and critiqued by an accomplished writer. Textbooks are written on this subject. Universities offer seminars and workshops on writing. Here are the guidelines that helped me improve my own writing.

Tell a Coherent Story

Logic in scientific writing is all about telling a coherent story where the reader is led down a clear path to your highly justifiable conclusions.

As such, the scientific story you are telling in your proposal should be smooth and free of irrelevant and awkward information. Sentences should be short.

Words should be concise. The narrative should transition easily and orderly from one idea to the next, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph.

Use Proposal Templates

Most funding agencies offer a template for logical writing.

US federal funding agencies require applicants to submit sections in the order of a Specific Aims page (1-page summary) that asks you to demonstrate.

  • Significance 
  • Innovation 
  • Research approach

This is the most basic outline for your proposal. Use this template for an outline to further break your story down into additional subheadings.

You should approach this outline construction with an eye toward smoothly telling your scientific story. In each section, aim to remind the reader why they should care about what you are doing.

Logical Flow

Creating logical flow in the text requires concise words, clear sentences, and well-structured paragraphs. Sentences and paragraphs should be connected by appropriate transitions to maintain overall coherence.

Concise Words

Choose brief but comprehensive words that most effectively communicate your ideas. Avoid redundant words. For example:

  • In order to → to
  • Requires the use of → uses
  • Being able to show that → shows
  • Make sure → ensure
  • A smooth telling of → smoothly tells

Also, avoid overstated ideas and stale imagery (e.g., hotbed, wellspring, novel approach).

Use the words your reviewers would use since they are experts in your field.

Clear Sentences

The clarity of your sentences will determine whether the reviewers will enjoy reading your proposal or be angry because they have to chisel away at an unclear narrative.

The author Ernest Hemingway was a master at writing clear sentences, and I frequently invoke his style in my scientific writing. Check him out to see what I mean.

Well-Structured Paragraphs

I learned in grade school that writing a good paragraph entails: 

“Saying what you want to say, say it, then say what you just said.”

It is such an incredibly simple rule, yet many people find it difficult to follow. 

The first sentence should introduce the main idea of the paragraph. The middle sentences should provide evidence and support for the introductory sentence, and the last sentence should summarize the middle portion. 

Make each sentence flow from the next. Always consider how you will use the last sentence to transition to the next paragraph so that you can link your scientific ideas into a coherent narrative.

Follow the Examples of Others

Find good proposals that got funded. Take note of how the authors used these devices. Note how the different sections of the proposal contribute to the overall persuasiveness of the central hypothesis and consider:

  1. Did the Significance section clearly articulate why a better understanding of this problem is useful?
  2. Did the Innovation section justify why the proposed science is truly innovative?
  3. Did the Approach section describe exactly how the data relevant to the study’s objectives were collected, organized, and analyzed?

Use Persuasive Techniques Shrewdly

An interesting feature of these three components of persuasive argument is that they are not always neatly packaged into three distinct sections in a proposal but are interwoven throughout.

Nor are they always evenly distributed.

Knowing your audience (usually the reviewer panel) and the funding agency requirements is critical to understanding how and when to use these devices to gain an advantage in persuasive writing. 

Be aware of overusing any technique, as this could also make reviewers take a cynical view of your grant application.

When you’ve finished writing your application, take a break and read it cover to cover while taking a dispassionate view.

Keep an eye out for any techniques you’ve relied upon too heavily. If every paragraph sounds the same or you notice you’ve used the same technique every 50 words—your application will need further editing.

Persuasive Writing for Scientists Summarized

Scientific proposal writing is a very structured and formal activity. Within this framework, however, there is room to deploy Aristotle’s tactics of persuasive argument: credibility, passion, and logic.

It takes practice to become good at it, but the result will make you better at securing funding, and even a more successful scientist by bringing clarity to your ideas. Another benefit is that the reviewers of your proposals will enjoy reading about your work!

Did you find the information in this article useful? Let us know in the comments section below.

For more helpful advice from Joel on getting funded, check out his overview of the funding landscape and his core strategies for getting funded.

Astound Research’s Role

Astound Research has collected and curated over 1,000 funding opportunities in life sciences and engineering disciplines. Provide the platform with your CV or biosketch, and we go to work on your behalf. We use AI to extract the scientific keywords representing your expertise and match them to relevant funding opportunities—in seconds. Your task is to decide which opportunities are right for you. Visit to learn more.

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