An approach to research proposal writing

An approach to research proposal writing
Photo by Unseen Studio / Unsplash

Over the past two months, I have been preparing to write an honours research proposal. I have focused on higher-order principles while spending a similar amount of time (~60 hours) writing. My approach has consisted of a variety of higher-order techniques and time management techniques, which I will reference and explain throughout this post.

Overall, my writing process involved a preparation stage, a writing stage, and finally an editing stage. It is important that throughout the entire process, tasks are constantly used to leverage your current position into a better position in the future.


  1. I learned about the general research topic to understand it at a broad level

Fortunately, an honours project is typically more focused and predetermined when compared to larger-scale projects, such as for a PhD. Therefore, my preliminary research consisted of investigating my research topic and the associated literature using a higher-order approach. More specifically, I investigated the complement system and how the existence of an intracellular complement system is challenging the current understanding of complement targeting therapeutics.

  1. I designed a literature review structure with questions as prompts

Before commencing any writing, I first established a document with questions outlining my literature review, including the main sections, subsections, and, most importantly, the most intuitive and logical order of these topics. The sections were framed as questions for two reasons. Inquiry-based learning is the process of leveraging genuine curiosity to promote the encoding of information through relevance and integration with prior knowledge. By framing my sections with questions, I was able to see how each question flows and also leverage my genuine curiosity when it came time to write out my literature review.

Furthermore, I gave this list of questions to my supervisor for feedback on the elements I should include and any advice on the order in which I am presenting the information. Below is a sample of the questions I wrote in preparation for my literature investigation that was based on preliminary readings and understanding.

Sample questions that I used as prompts to aid in my literature review writing
  1. I frontloaded formatting and design decisions using the Microsoft Word formatting features

Many experienced word processor users will already know this, but I used all of the formatting and styling features in Word to frontload most of the formatting and design decisions before I started writing. This includes font style, spacing, table of contents, setting up third-party reference managers, etc.


  1. I answered each question, following my curiosity, and spent focused time investigating and writing

This process involved two simple stages: exploring/reading the literature and writing to address the question I was focusing on. By far, this stage was the most time-consuming. I will not detail the exact process I used to digest the literature; however, I followed the principles of encoding information efficiently when it was relevant and I leveraged syntopical reading throughout. Furthermore, if I generated a new question while investigating one of the original structural questions, I would note it down and come back to it when it was appropriate.

  1. After I had completed the first draft, I isolated each paragraph and rewrote them more concise and clear

Only after finishing a bad first draft, did I begin to isolate paragraphs and improve the grammar and also confirm any doubts I had about my understanding. This is still considered in my "writing" stage because the quality of my first bad draft was so poor it was unacceptable to hand in to my supervisor. The writing stage was complete once I did a full bad draft, then one full "rewrite". At this point, around 80% of the work should be done.


  1. At this point, it was time to seek external feedback from my peers and supervisors.

This stage of writing involves receiving feedback and applying the feedback to your writing. I sent my drafts to two supervisors and I applied feedback in between sending the drafts off. This part of the process is more focused on polishing and completing the final 20% of the report. This does not necessarily mean 20% of the word count, rather, the amount of work to reach 80% completion of the task.

  1. Closer to the date, I completed the urgent and not-important tasks

These tasks involve formatting tables, finalising figures, writing figure legends, checking that citations are accurate. Not necessarily important to the content itself but important for the overall professionalism and piece of writing as a whole.

  1. Final read-through before submission

Matt Siellet