Typesetting Grant Proposals

I am in a physical science field, addressing problems by means of theory and computation. I also work a lot with experimentalists.

When I write paper or proposals with experimental colleagues, since they all use MS Word, I use it too. I also use MS Word for a lot of small documents (writing homework assignments and tests, letters of recommendation, all sorts of administrative documents).

On the other hand, I write papers with my students exclusively in LaTeX. The students’ dissertations, which are largely based on their published papers, are also in LaTeX. There is really nothing like LaTeX for producing beautiful documents with a lot of math. And, of course, the publisher that is of greatest interest to physicists (the American Physical Society) prefers it — the beautiful REVTeX two-column template (REVTeX is a collection of LaTeX macros) is the gold standard of preprints, widely recognizable as the “template of the true physicist” (see arXiv, for instance).

I also write a lot of proposals by myself. This year is worse than average in the number that I have to submit. In the past, I have written grants in MS Word and I have written grants in LaTeX. And I have a confession to make: of late, I have been writing my grants in MS Word.

Grants are complicated documents, often bridging between disparate bodies of literature; they generally have strict formatting requirements and very high standards for readability and flow. Every grant writer will recognize the need to use the available page are efficiently, without cramming too much or wasting precious space.

LaTeX, in general, will let you format the document as you see fit, but will do so grudgingly. It always knows better than you what looks good, and it generally really does; it incorporates the best typographic practices, as it was meant as a tool that lets you focus on content while not dwelling over layout. However, writing proposals is where you need to have it your way because of the spacing requirements. I have lost a lot of time in the past wrestling with LaTeX to have the wrapped figure where I want it and not where LaTeX deems it appropriate, trying to reduce the white space around the figure etc. Also, excessive math (or virtually any math) has no place in proposals, even theory ones (typesetting math is what makes Latex superior).

While it doesn’t bother me in the least that I have to compile in order to look at the text when I write a paper, it bothers me a lot when I write proposals. The proposal is a work of both form and substance, in which text flow and layout are critical. Also, proposals are usually written (by me and the likes of me, at least) on a very tight schedule, and I find that just having one document that I can easily scroll down or up alleviates some of the tension. In contrast, when I write a  proposals in LaTeX, I usually have a master file and separate files for different chapters/sections  (which makes it easier to track content and edit), but — in the mad dash to the deadline —  working with source files in Latex  makes me feel disoriented and interferes with my work flow and thought process; none are good in a time crunch. So I go with the WYSIWYG MS Word.

So, yes; I am ashamed to say, these days I use MS Word to write proposals. *hangs head in shame, turns in physical scientist card*

I am actually a little worried about being judged for writing a proposal using MS Word instead of LaTeX during proposal review (the one I am writng now, in particular). There is a lot of “one true path” among scientists, from the choice of the operating system [e.g. real computational scientists would not use anything but Linux (Mac is acceptable, but Windows is only for the dimwitted)]  to programming language or any piece of software. I review a lot of proposals, and the ones from pure physicists, especially theorists, are usually written in LaTeX (with its recognizable Computer Modern Roman, a pleasantly plump font). I am seriously worried that my use of the Text Editor of Pure Evil will immediately dismiss me as not being a real scientist in the eyes of some who may review this particular grant. My husband thinks I am nuts for worrying about such things; of course, you’d think that the content of the proposal is what matters. But we all know scientists can be territorial, petty, judgmental, and dismissive (you know, just like other humans) and it is not inconceivable that I might be looked down up because of the non-LaTeXness of my proposal (not like my femaleness, apparent from the proposal cover page, will do much to help). Then again, it may be the nerves talking. I do tend to lose my belief in humanity and become more misanthropic than usual at proposal crunch time.

What say you, esteemed blogosphere? How do you typeset your proposals? Do you care about how people have typeset their  proposals when you review them? 


  1. I know this is not the point, but you might want to try using TeXmaker for your LaTeX needs if you aren’t already. It has a WYSIWYG column alongside the text so compiling/checking is a lot less burdensome.

  2. You are nuts for worrying about such things.

    I use LaTex for papers and MS Word for proposals for exactly the same reasons (easy to squeeze figures in just the right places, reduce to exactly 15 pages with minutes to spare before the deadline, etc).

    As a reviewer, I have to say that a good layout gives me a sunnier disposition. Proposals that are difficult to read, overly crammed, and with figures far from the relevant text (so I have to keep flipping back and forth) are at a disadvantage – they make me grumpy just before I am to write the review. On the other hand, I could not care less how people have typeset their proposal. And nerdy operating system snobs generally get on my nerves.

  3. It’s very easy to create a LaTeX template with Arial or Georgia fonts (or whatever) to fit proposal formats. I always write everything in LaTeX because it is cleaner, particularly when changing formats. (Is it reading better with numbered or named citations? How did this journal want me to format citations again?)

    My problem is that outside of the math-based fields you’re talking about, MSWord is king, queen, and jack. In fact, journals in other fields now require Word, many of them even for the first submission. At this point, the production process of almost all of the journals in a variety of fields is Word-based, not LaTeX based.

    That being said, I am sometimes finding now that I like to write the first draft (what I call the vomit draft) in Word, where it can flow directly into what I’m writing and I have no distractions about formatting. I then rewrite the product into LaTeX, where I can construct it with all the pieces. For grants, the LaTeX version works well, since grants all take PDF. For journals, I try to use the LaTeX version all the way until acceptance, at which point I’ll switch it to Word for their production.

    PS. Computer Modern Roman is a terrible font. Very unreadable for real documents.

  4. Whoa. Never occurred to me to that folks in the sciences had to worry about typesetting.

    We in eng lit use word for most things, but InDesign is creeping in to my life for flyers and larger edtorial projects.

  5. Latex for papers, Word for proposals, natch. The only exception are proposals (like for the Hubble Space Telescope) for which Latex templates exist, but for NASA and NSF proposals, Word is the language of choice for virtually everyone these days.

  6. Computer Modern and Tex are abominable. They were both designed to create readable documents on shitty low-res typesetting hardware that doesn’t even exist anymore. InDesign is by far the current industry standard software for generating beautifully typeset documents.

    Word is fantastic word processing software ideal for generating and editing text that can then be plugged into automated content extraction systems, which is why almost all publishers use it. It is absolutely horrible for generating nicely typeset documents.

    The ideal grant writing workflow is to use Word to generate text and InDesign to make and place figures and flow in the text from Word.

  7. Computer Modern is a font designed to Knuth’s tastes, which favor 19th century typesetting. It works best with generous margins and lots of white space on the page, which few people are willing to do these days. It is fairly easy to use LaTeX with fonts designed for the more cramped current style of page design.

    LaTeX is still about the only tool that allows decent setting of math (I’m guessing that Comradde PhysioProffe’s papers are math-free). InDesign is intended for catalogs, newsletters, and magazines, where the placement of the pictures is more important than the text—it is a graphic designer’s tool, not an author’s tool, and certainly it is useless at handling math.

    In bioinformatics, I am often forced to use whatever tool my co-authors use. When I have a choice, I use LaTeX (also for internal documents, like departmental self-studies).

    I no longer read or write grant proposals, but when I did, I was sensitive to crappy formatting (like cheating on the line spacing and font size to squeeze in more text), but did not reward particularly good typesetting. As long as the formatting did not interfere with my reading the content, it was fine. (Bad writing, which does interfere with my reading the content, was not fine.)

  8. Computational biologist here, and yeah, I’ve also worried about not using LaTeX when writing grants. Nine point Arial and exquisite layout and writing seem to do okay.

    It’s so interesting you think you write better in Word. Same here. I use texmaker, and it’s still not enough to see the terminal pdf sitting alongside. Maybe it’s something about how my brain works, or how I’m very verbal and visual, that makes it feel like I’m building a Lego castle using tweezers when I have to use LaTeX. It’s annoying. With my collaborators, we use LaTeX + git with one sentence per line for revisions, and I have to print the damn pdf to regain a sense of flow. I don’t have to do that with Word.

  9. Better metaphor: Building a Lego castle under a frosted sheet of glass. I can kind of see what I’m doing, but I have to keep checking.

  10. \documentclass{blogcomment}

    I don’t know how to use anything other than LaTeX! I use it for letters, proposals, papers, e-mails to collaborators, inside my own brain, etc.



  11. So far I have used LaTeX with my proposals, and it works reasonably well. I’m quite comfortable with the “write-compile-check-write” cycle, and I like some whitespace around my figures. I second one of the previous comments, it is not difficult to use other fonts such as Times or Arial if agencies request it. But I agree that doing text-wrapped figures in LaTeX (for documents with more than one figure) is painful.

    However, in my experience, most experimental physics scientists use MS Word (even for their papers, in journals that accept LaTeX, yuck!). After a very annoying experience, I recently started using Google Docs for team proposals, which seems to be working quite well (the collaborative features are an added bonus!).

    Using LaTeX with git sounds quite cool, but you need collaborators that know LaTeX. 🙂

  12. Yes, I too prefer nitrile to latex gloves!

    But seriously, Word all the way.
    (Only because I never felt the need to learn LaTeX, as what I get with Word seems good enough)

  13. I did my PhD in Chemistry (all Word, though we did have some Windows vs Mac issues). I then moved to experimental Physics, and one of my fears was that everyone would be using LaTex because that’s what Physicists did, and I would be outed as not-a-true-Physicist. Fortunately, I learned that only the really hardcore theorists actually use it, so I remain safe. I like the concept of LaTex, and am not opposed to learning it (I like dabbling in coding), but since I do so much collaborative work and we basically live off of the “track changes” feature of word, I’m curious how this would be possible with a LaTex document.

  14. I write all of my proposals in MSWord with Endnote for references. This gives me a rough idea of the amount of space I’ve used. I then copy and paste all of this into InDesign where I then add the figures and legends with ease. Text wrapping and adding white space around the edges of figures are both easy. If you right-justify (which I know some people hate), you can also turn 10 pages of text in Word into about 9.5 pages in InDesign because the spacing is just smarter. The main problem I have with using InDesign is that it is now only available as a yearly subscription. This new model that most software companies are moving toward is becoming incredibly frustrating for me and my lab. NIH grants don’t allow us to buy software, so I need to somehow find unrestricted funds to pay for software each and every year.

  15. Latex all the way; for grants, papers anything else that someone else (or me) is going to read.

    Latex has a cycle and it is a pain to do the wrap figure thingy. But boy the document produced from latex is far more beautiful and elegant; I have tried word but no matter what one does the document does not look elegant (I am not entirely sure why this is though).

    I am trying my new students to dirty their hands in latex with mixed reviews. Lets see how that goes.

    But your post got me thinking and may be I will try Word for proposal to see how convenient it is. But I think I will always take elegance over convenience.

  16. I looked at the PLoS One paper that :interesting” pointed to. Unfortunately the experiment they did had nothing to do with the conclusions they made. They claimed that Word was much better for authors, but the tasks they gave were not the tasks that authors do. They were checking typing and formatting speed for duplicating a given page, not maintaining cross references, citations, and figure numbering through several rounds of rearranging a document, cutting things out and adding new things in the middle, which is what most authors have to do.

    I have no question that Word is better for duplicating an arbitrary layout and retyping text, but that tells me nothing bout how useful the tool is for an author.

    In short, the authors started with a conclusion and made up an irrelevant experiment to try to support their prejudice.

  17. Anyone here use a tool like Scrivener (http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php) for larger projects? I have a friend who writes novels who swears by it, as it has tools that help her keep track of timeline, multiple plot threads, and setting details she has used previously & needs to keep consistent. And thus, not that different from say, a dissertation, which I need to write soon.

  18. If Eli wanted to be a typesetter he would have been a typesetter. LaTeX is for physicists and the anal, but I repeat myself.

    One other thing. Two columns on a laptop screen sucks major league. NSF accepts two columns but warns against it.

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