The Gentle Art of Talking Back

In the researcher’s understanding of the classics, it is evident that Dante must have written ‘The Divine Comedy’ as an allegory for grantfest. Including the bit with the guy eating another guy’s head. It is a long and arduous road with its own stories of fear, famine and pestilence. I am told that occasionally one glimpses the promised land of Monopoly money funding. Unfortunately for many this sighting is too late in the piece.

The value of a grant is made even higher by the drawn out courtship. After that initial application comes the opportunity to respond to the reviewers you are hoping understand all your brilliance in a way you yourself would question. Each grant obviously has a particular method of incorporating feedback and rebuttals which you need to understand carefully but some of the elements are pretty common. Rebuttals also require a particular approach to the writing, in much the same way as you adjust your writing for any other particular niche.

I’ve had the chance to do this a few times now, including twice in the last month. While internet tradition would suggest that puts me in a position to claim expertise, I actually think it’s more honest to share thoughts from clever people that I went to in an attempt to get trained in how to do this. The first port of call was the senior researchers I’m working with who  have done this lots of times. The other was the writing guide provided by the university, written by a guy who gets paid to help people with grant applications (and I guess he would be out of a job if no one was having success).

So here are the amalgamated thoughts of clever people. Plus random animals (all via the free options at National Geographic).

The First Thoughts

1. Don’t Jump In

Depending on exactly what is said there is a pretty good chance that at least one reviewer will make you mad. Writing the rebuttal will only take longer if you have to clean up the bloodied spleen you vent on a first draft. Take a while, and come back to reading it objectively when some time has passed. The key thing while doing that reading is to take note of every individual query raised by the reviewers. Take particular note of anything raised by more than one reviewer as those ones will need extra space.

Don’t run at it like this otter.

2. Don’t Embrace Change

Unless explicitly stated, rebuttal is not the best time to choose to make big changes to the protocol or study plan. Change in this context isn’t a transformative moment in self-enlightenment. It’s taken as a sign of a research team not ready to research. Keep the response entirely to the questions asked.

Leave change to caterpillars.

Leave change to caterpillars in Borneo.

3. Make it Count

Most rebuttals allow very little space. The NHMRC Project Grant rebuttal process, as an example, allows 2 pages maximum. So every word has to count. No waffle and don’t try to divert or evade (they can see you). Get straight to the point. Definitely don’t waste space on giving any sort of overview of your research (they have the application for that). The advice is not to waste words saying “thanks, I’m your greatest fan”.

It is also important to make sure you devote as much space responding to a comment as it warrants, but no more. Where a point has been raised by more than one reviewer you will want to address it comprehensively. The same is true if a particular query entirely threatens your chances.  Of course, too much on a point and it may look like you’re overly defensive. Figuring out the balance point might require input from your colleagues (or, even better, some people with an opinion you value who aren’t doing the project but are happy to read). This also means there will be lots of editing so allow plenty of time to write those couple of pages.

You only get one chance to provide your best display, so make it count like this Royal Amazonian Flycatcher.

You only get one chance to provide your best display, so make it count like this Royal Amazonian Flycatcher.

4. Make it Easy

People reviewing grants put a lot of work in. Everything you can do to make it easier to navigate between your rebuttal, the grant application and the reviewer’s comments. So for each answer, make it very clear which particular comment from which particular reviewer you are responding to. If you refer back to your application make sure you include directions to get there (at the minimum a page reference). Quickly paraphrasing the reviewer’s comment may help anyone reading the rebuttal understand the heart of the issue too. The idea seems to be that less work figuring out what you’re actually talking about means more time spent thinking about your witty (yet respectful) riposte .

Aim to be the one doing the pulling, not them.

Aim for you to be the one doing the pulling, not the reviewers.

5. Don’t Bite

You may think one or all of the reviewers display all the intelligence of a lobotomised dung beetle. You may wonder how they safely navigate the challenge of breathing, chewing and standing up all at once. Giving any sense of this would be … a brave tactic. More likely the reviewer is an intelligent life form who happens to have a different perspective on your proposal. So the advice given to me was to genuinely engage with their different view as objectively as possible. This doesn’t mean you can’t challenge an assertion from a reviewer. Just do so without baring teeth.

Lining up for a bite may not be your best angle. Not sure it is for this Cape Fur Seal either.

Lining up for a bite may not show off  your best side. Not sure it does for this Cape Fur Seal either.

6. Don’t Encourage Fights

You may have reviewers with differing opinions. All you can do is address the queries you need to. If you seek to rebut assessor 1 by pointing out words from assessor 2, there are only messy moments ahead.

All you can do is step back and get on with it.

All you can do is step back in the presence of differing opinions and get on with it.

7. The ‘Who Knows’ Basket

There are things no one seems to agree on.  My uni advice was not to quote or paraphrase positive comments at the start. My colleagues (some of whom have had lots of success with grants) thought a couple at the start if you have the space highlights the strong stuff. I went with their advice. Stay tuned for feedback on whether this was brilliant advice or not at a later date.

8. Structure

Coherent structure helps with making the rebuttal easy to read (we’re coming around on point 4 a little here). The two suggestions I was given were:

1. Respond to each matter in turn raised by each assessor (for example, first heading is “Assessor 1” with subheadings of “Scientific Quality”, “Significance and Innovation” etc).

2. Respond to issues raised and include an answer for any or all examiners who commented on that issue.

The former is certainly straight forward. The latter deals a little better with questions raised by more than one reviewer. It also probably provides more space to deal with any questions needing a more expansive response. In the end, I combined elements of both. It seems like the most useful thing is to make sure the structure of the response is clear, rather than a muddy bog anyone else reading it has to schlurp their boots through.

If flamingos can make themselves look organised, I figure I can pull it off.

If flamingos can make themselves look organised, I figure I can pull it off.

So there it is. Understand the questions, demur politely and keep it brief.

Is it the perfect recipe? I don’t really know, but I’d be keen to hear clever suggestions from other people. Ultimately money talks so I’ll get back to you on whether the mix was just right. You’ll know if I’m smiling like this guy.


I assume this parrotfish was happy with his grant success.

I assume this parrotfish was happy with his grant success.



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