The most important piece of advice regarding writing the first draft of a research proposal is this: just get something down on paper! Once you have a draft, no matter how poor it may be, you are more than halfway there because you then have something to work with and improve. So how to get that first draft down on paper? Here are some ideas to try:
The Swiss-Cheese Approach
Just as a piece of Swiss cheese holds together despite its holes, the idea behind this approach is to write a complete draft by identifying the "holes" that exist as you go along. Start by making an outline, then start writing to fill it in. When you come to something you need, but don't have, put it in brackets.
Here is an example: "Some scholars argue that Latin American national governments are moving toward the political center (Dickovick and Eaton 2013, [FIND OTHERS]), while others argue that political polarization is increasing [FIND OUT IF THIS IS TRUE; IF SO, CITE.]"
...then move on to your next point. Note in brackets everything that you will need to put in the final draft, but don't stop to find it now. Just keep identifying the information, evidence, and, citations that you know you will need to get. By the end of the process, you will have a draft--albeit with many holes--but you will also have a better idea of what you need to do in order to write a more complete draft.
The Low-Hanging Fruit Approach
Make a list of all the sections that you know your proposal will need to cover. These may include the research question, relevant background, what others have said about your topic, why it is an important question to answer, methodology, and your qualifications to undertake the research. Once you have a list of all the parts you'll need, choose the part that is easiest to write and start there. Just get words down on paper for the section you are most comfortable with. Once you have one section written, you may find that it builds momentum for writing even more.
Remember Dory from the movie "Finding Nemo?" Her advice to "just keep swimming?" (Check out a YouTube clip here.) The idea behind this approach is to give yourself a time limit--maybe 10 minutes, maybe 40--and just keep writing continuously. If you don't know what to say, write that down--just keep writing. Don't delete anything. If you change your mind about what you have just written, write that down and then write down what you mean to say instead. You may have a great deal of repetition and seemingly unconnected ideas as you write, but once the time limit has passed, you may be surprised by some aspect of what you have produced.
Ninja Focus Approach
Set a time limit for writing, turn off/disconnect all social media devices, and keep a pad of paper/pen next to your writing space. Set the timer (40 minutes is recommended), but instead of writing continuously, keep your focus on the writing task at hand. If your attention wavers, note the thought/to-do list item/information you need to get down on paper, and then go back to writing. You may be surprised how much you get done when you are focused on one task rather than many.
Grandpa Stan's Approach
Pretend that you are explaining your research question (i.e. what your research is about, and why it matters) to someone who is interested, but by no means an expert on your topic. (If possible, actually do this and record the conversation.) In doing so, you will probably end up distilling your ideas into their core components, making your assumptions explicit, and defining key terms.
...so give one or two of these strategies a try, and you'll be well on your way to getting a complete first draft!
Refining Your Research Proposal
The most important way to refine your proposal is to
1) Crank out a full draft -- even if it's rough. Yes, it will be painful to create the first draft, but there are some strategies for getting past the "sweaty palm stage" here, and you'll feel a huge sense of accomplishment once you do it.
2) Show it to as many people as you can.
3) Implement their revisions
and keep repeating steps 2 and 3! This is the way to perfect your proposal as well as to get encouragement with what can be a challenging process.
If you would like to self-critique, though, here are a few questions to guide you, based on the most common shortcomings found in early drafts of proposals:
QUESTION: Is your question a really a foredrawn conclusion that you're trying to prove? (For example, you have worked with a non-profit that seems very successful to you, and you ask the question, "Is this program effective?"). If so, try to rework it so you are asking a "how", "why", or "what does it mean" question, one that is, broadly speaking, about cause and effect. The previous example, for instance, could become "Which element of this program is most essential to its success?", or "Why is this program more successful than other similar programs?". The important thing is that you should not know the answer to your question before you start, and you should be open to having your hunch be disproven.
STATEMENT OF PURPOSE: Is your statement of purpose more than 175 words long? You may be going into too much detail. Details about the debates you are addressing can be moved into the background and justification section. Details about your plan can be moved to the plan section. Here you will want to "sound byte" these ideas to give a quick overview of your project.
SCOPE: Does your project feel too big? Listen to that gut feeling! If so, there are some hints on how to narrow it down on this document, p, 4-5. It is extremely rare for a project to be too small. Don't fear the narrowing process; it allows you to go deep.
QUALIFICATIONS: Does your qualifications section come out to more than half a page? You need that precious space for your background and justification and your plan! To trim it, remove anything that's covered elsewhere in the application. Also remove excess introductory phrases. The beauty of having headings in your proposal is it means you don't need transitions. Make the wording as brief as possible, and mention only those qualifications that are directly relevant to your project.
PLAN: The number one problem with first draft plan sections is that they are not specific enough. Read through your plan and make sure it has approximate dates for each phase of your research, amounts (number of people to be interviewed, number of samples to be gathered, number of subjects in the experiment, etc.), is precise about what will be done, and justifies these choices.
BUDGET: The main problems encountered with budgets are that they are not specific, that expensive equipment is requested but its use is not justified in the proposal, or, conversely, that the budget is unrealistically low. Aim for specific and realistic, but not inflated.
Writing A Proposal For A Creative Project
More information on creative project proposals, including advice from successful Haas Scholars applicants, will be posted soon. In the meantime, keep in mind that a good creative proposal shares most elements in common with a good research proposal: a clear statement of what you hope to accomplish, why this work is needed, and specifically how and when you expect to complete it.
However, a creative proposal should also address:
How does my project relate to or build on other relevant creative expression and/or intellectual work?
How has my project evolved out of my previous creative work?
How will this project advance my creative and intellectual development?