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Be kind to your SBIR/STTR proposal reviewer; formatting matters

January 31st, 2018 | by Andrea Johanson

While quality content and impactful science is the basis of a strong SBIR/STTR proposal, one of your primary goals in putting your proposal together is making it easy for the reviewer to read. You want the reviewers reading your proposal to be happy, yes, happy. Happy reviewers are more likely to review your proposal favorably. One way to make that happen is to ensure that your proposal is readable.

Here are some basic tips based on the formatting changes that I recommend most when I review proposals:

  • Left-align your text. Always. Left-aligned text (with a ragged right margin) is much easier to read than justified text (straight right margin). Actual science has shown this.  Check out the difference:
  • Use headings and sub-headings. Saving space by not using headings is a big mistake. Headings do several things:
    • They help you to remember to put everything into the proposal.
    • They break up the text to make it more readable.
    • They make it easier for the reviewers to find information.
    • All of the above make reviewers happy.
  • Use spacing between paragraphs and sections. Remember: “White Space is Your Friend”. Don’t try to squeeze your text into what is essentially a page-long paragraph. You should break it up. Indenting at the start of a paragraph is messy and doesn’t break up the text enough to improve readability. Instead include a space of 4 or 5 points between sections and paragraphs. It is much better to cut your text by a few lines than to squeeze it all in and make reviewers squint! If you don’t believe me, read this: White Space Explained
  • Don’t underline anything ever. Underlining was invented as a form of typography when it was the only way to emphasize text. Thankfully those days are gone and now we have many other ways to do this. Bold. Italic. Bold italic! You can bullet or indent. But do not underline. It is ugly, makes text really hard for reviewers to read!
  • Use numbering sparingly. This is, I know, contradictory to the way many people are used to writing NIH grants. There are no rules that you have to use any numbering in your proposal. It’s fine to use some if it’s helpful to lead the reviewer through the proposal, but often people get hung up on numbering and it becomes confusing and sometimes absurd. When you have to go beyond 2 levels of numbering, please stop and consider other ways to mark the hierarchy of your text. This probably means indenting and text formatting (see above). In other words, don’t do this:

In summary, after 12 years of reviewing SBIR/STTR proposals, my formatting recommendations for an NIH SBIR/STTR proposal are as follows:

  1. 0.5″ margins all sides
  2. Arial 11 point
  3. Single-spaced
  4. Left-aligned
  5. 4 (or 5) pt. spacing between paragraphs, and
  6. Never, ever underline.

Follow these guidelines for happy reviewers!


Andrea Johanson, PhD, is Senior Principal Consultant for BBCetc.

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SBIR/STTR Budgets Provide the Numbers; the Budget Justification Tells the Story

December 6th, 2017 | by Kris Bergman

As you prepare your NIH or NSF budget, you will also need to prepare a detailed budget justification.  This is an important and mostly underutilized part of the proposal. Numbers on a spreadsheet are only half of the story. The reviewers need to see WHY you are spending money on the things in your budget

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How to Connect with Prime Contractors: An Interview with Lockheed Martin

October 31st, 2017 | by Jayne Berkaw

If you are planning to or have already submitted an SBIR/STTR proposal to the Dept. of Defense you probably have a keen interest in learning how to connect with prime contractors. Primes provide small businesses with various assistance during different phases of their SBIR/STTR projects; including supporting technology requirements, evaluation, co-development, and insertion into larger

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Using the DoD Topic Description to Do Your Homework

September 11th, 2017 | by Becky Aistrup

If you are interested in winning SBIR/STTR proposals from Department of Defense, you probably know the importance of talking to the Technical Point of Contact (TPOC) or Topic Author during the “open period” before you write your proposal*. You will want to ask any questions or details about the topic itself, and use the discussion

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Writing your NIH SBIR/STTR Specific Aims: Impact is Key!

July 25th, 2017 | by Andrea Johanson

We have found that the best first step in developing an SBIR/STTR proposal is to draft the one-page Specific Aims document. This section is the most important page in your proposal. In it you should state concisely the goals of the proposed research and summarize the expected outcomes, including the impact that the results of

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Tips on Writing Your Commercialization Plan

June 22nd, 2017 | by Michael Kurek

Martin Zwilling, CEO of Startup Professionals, is one of my favorite bloggers on wide-ranging topics of interest to entrepreneurs and small business owners. One of his recent articles “13 Red Flags to Avoid in Your Investor Funding Pitch” contains solid advice for your SBIR/STTR commercialization plan, as well as your investor pitch. In addition to

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The Support Provider’s Dilemma: Is this Person Coachable?

May 24th, 2017 | by Jayne Berkaw

If you’re an entrepreneur seeking to improve your chances of winning SBIR/STTR funding for your technology, ask yourself this: Are you coachable? According to author and international consultant, Timothy R. Clark, “Coachability is the willingness to be corrected and to act on that correction. When we are coachable, we are prepared to be wrong. We

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Who Needs SBIR/STTR Training Anyway??

April 20th, 2017 | by Jayne Berkaw

One of the first things we advise our clients or prospective clients to do as they look forward to preparing a competitive SBIR/STTR proposal is to give themselves a leg up by starting off with some training. Lots of people don’t think they need training before they embark on the complex proposal preparation process. Maybe

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Top 10 Brilliant Ideas and Stupid Mistakes: Secrets of Phase II Proposal Success

March 15th, 2017 | by Lisa Kurek

Last month, we outlined our top 10 dos and don’ts for getting your Phase I NIH proposal in shape and ready to submit before the April 5 deadline. This month we continue that theme by presenting what we have determined, over years of reviewing proposals, to be our top 10 brilliant ideas or stupid mistakes

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10 Dos and Don’ts for Your Phase I NIH Proposal

February 2nd, 2017 | by Lisa Kurek

If you’re planning to submit for the April 5 NIH SBIR/STTR deadline, now is the time to start laying out the steps you’ll need to take to get your polished, compelling Phase I proposal submitted before the deadline. Over the years, BBCetc consultants have reviewed a great many NIH proposals and accumulated a long list

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