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A red thread and a writer

What is the red thread and why does my fellowship / grant / article need one?

A red thread essentially is a theme or a key phrase that links or weaves all the way through whatever we’re writing, especially if we’re thinking fellowships and grants.

Where does red thread come from?

The phrase comes from Theseus.  Remember the story? All he had was a ball of string to ensure once he had navigated the labyrinth and killed the Minotaur , he could then find his way out again. This is where this red thread comes in for us.

Whoever is reading our work – paper, funding application or abstract – needs the thread to guide them through our complicated research.

We need to highlight the key theme that is important to them. Every point of our writing must point back to that theme.

Two helpful books that I’d like to highlight are from the world of marketing but they are fantastic when it comes to thinking of what is the key theme. Marketing lessons from business can really apply to our scientific research. The first one is Find Your Red Thread by Tamsin Webster and the second one is Building a Story Brand by Donald MillerThis is really where this idea of red thread comes in.

Another more writing based book Nobody Wants to Read your Sh*t by Steven Pressfield. His book keeps coming back to this idea of what is your theme? The theme must be the red thread. Every film that we watch, every story that we read has a theme. Something that it always comes back to. You can even hear it in the music of a well written movie theme track. It revisits the same things over and over.

What’s our theme?

Are we doing that in our writing? Can we hear that music playing as we go along? If we’re looking at grants or fellowships, then we have our 3Ps (person, project and place) to fold into the mix. We really do need to have that excellence of all three threads throughout. Every sentence is gold dust on that application. Does every sentence communicate the theme? Does it tell us about the excellence of the project, the place or the person?

If we’re talking about our methodology it’s only possible because we are in the right place at the right time to capitalise on our previous excellence. For example, we might have written some software which we can now deploy in a new and novel way. That’s the project. But it wouldn’t happen without us. We’ve got those threads going through.

Quite often people dive into the science straight off. Your audience is usually a broad mix of specialisms. They might be quite niche within your discipline but they won’t have your experience. So, being able to articulate what this paper is about simply is key.

What is this grant doing in one clear sentence? Then revisiting that and making sure that every single section returns to the ‘why’.

Don’t confuse the reader

Be careful not to bring in things or experiences that aren’t relevant as it can confuse the issue. For example, if we have a big description of the state of the art, but some of these things aren’t strictly relevant to the project at hand, it can confuse and derail our readers thoughts. They are reading these really quickly and you just wasted some of their time.

There is nothing worse than watching a movie and getting to the end and thinking what, I’ve still no idea what was going on there, what happened?  What was the point? Unanswered questions leave us unsettled.  Which is fine, if there is a sequel. With your research writing, we don’t get that second opportunity. We’re applying for funding now so be sure that you’ve answered any questions, especially risk mitigation.

Write for your audience

Think very carefully about who your audience is and write the story for them. Think again about the storyline. It’s almost like a safety rail that your audience is holding on to. So that even if it does get a bit complicated, you can come back to the central idea. Always make sure that you regroup in your applications.

Tamsin Webster, in her excellent book speaks about a three act story. I’m a big fantasy fan. Imagine a boy working in the blacksmiths, getting on with his life. And then something happens! A wizard comes into town and offers him a quest. They then go on a long journey full of many tribulations. But there is a resolution. There is a happy ever after.

How does this manifest itself in grant applications? You’ve got the state of the art. What is going on at the minute – don’t forget your own contribution – picture the normal for your panel. We then come on to beyond state of the art. This is where the project is where the opportunity is . What changed that means you are in the right place with the right idea in the right environment for something to happen?

Tell us why we can go beyond the state of the art, and then take us on a description of what that might look like. The resolution really comes in this impact statement. That resolution is important, especially for a fellowship. The resolution hopefully is that I’ve trained you up as a potential research leader and you’re now going on to a great research career.  Don’t forget the personal impact of this, not just the papers that come out of it or perhaps talking at a conference.

The personal impact again, fits that story, that constant thread of you throughout.

Have you made sure that you’ve got strong threads throughout? You need the theme of what it is about but also the triple thread of person, project, place. So have you emphasised why you are great in the methodology section? Have you emphasised why the project fits into the host institution section? Everything weaves together, it’s not just in little silos.

Revisit those stories you knew and loved as a kid. Tell us about the excellent researcher that boldly goes on a quest to push back the frontiers of knowledge.

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