Less is more: Cherishing White Space


This is a simple entry, one that tries to emulate its topic in form as well as content.

Too often, people present CVs or funding applications to me that make me break out in hives.

Why?

Because they’ve crammed as much information onto the A4 sheets as possible, and the result is intimidatingly solid slabs of text, page after page.

When compiling these academic documents, you must learn to cherish white space.

You’re expecting people to assess or review the document, and take away the gist of it after a quick skim, so let them absorb it as easily as possible. For example, after glancing through your impeccably prepared CV, readers should have a snapshot of who you are: what you do, where you come from (institutionally and intellectually), how much you’ve achieved, and who else thinks you’re great (i.e. your referees).

For major competitive grants the members of the expert panels who usher your applications through have to deal with a HEAP of paperwork; the assessors will also have a big pile of applications, possibly one scheme after another, for which they have to provide in-depth feedback and rankings. Chances are that these tasks are done on the fly, slotted around all the other work that dutiful academics do.

Anything you can do to help them judge well and accurately is a Good Thing.

Here are my top five tips for uncluttering your CV or funding application:

1. Make judicious use of dot-points and bolding

I’ve seen fantastic grant applications where you understand the substance of a project and its team just by skimming the dot-points and bolded sentences. You can’t depend on dot-points to make an argument, but you can use them to showcase aims, outcomes, methodological steps, and team roles.

2. Tabulate!

I love a table. Most funding applications benefit from a table that succinctly indicates project timelines, budget items and sources of quotes, and sometimes even publication track-records. Readers get a fast, clear idea of content when it’s presented in a well formatted table.

3. Clarify prose, clarify prose, clarify prose.

When you can’t convey your project aims and significance in plain English, it’s not because your work is really, really important or just too smart for the masses. It’s because you haven’t mastered the art of communicating your work to a broad, non-expert audience. Every proposal can be presented in a concise, convincing way. It’s not ‘dumbing down'; no-one’s asking you to do a 15-second soundbite for A Current Affair.

Many advise this, and I’m a great believer in it: Write your application so that a non-academic friend or family member can understand (and get excited by) it.

Then edit the heck out of it to leave you with tight, direct writing that has momentum.

4. Lead by subtitles.

Particularly in your project description, make good use of sub-titles to lead the reader firmly and discreetly through your innovative argument or context. Chances are, the key points of your project will earn themselves a sub-title. Sub-titles can also match your aims very effectively.

5. Never use the maximum allocation of page space.

Just don’t.

When you do, start looking for ways to loosen up the blocks of text.

In an Australian Research Council Discovery application, for example, you have 10 pages for your project description and a minimum of 0.5cm around as your page-margin. Can you imagine an assessor pulling your application out to read after reviewing too many already, and finding 10 pages of jammed, beetly 12-point print? That’s a bad, bad thing.

Now, I know that some grant applications are incredibly dictatorial about formatting and section titles, etc. Even if you can’t apply every one of these tips in your endeavours, see if you can wheel out a few and embrace that white space!

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About Tseen Khoo
Dr Tseen Khoo is a lecturer in research education and development in Melbourne. In previous incarnations, Tseen has been a research grant developer, and research fellow. She founded a national research network (AASRN), edited an academic journal for 5 years, and has been part of successful major competitive grants. Other than that, she can be quite normal.

3 Responses to Less is more: Cherishing White Space

  1. Much of this can be applied to thesis writing as well. I know with mine I made sure there was space between headings, paragraphs and even block quotes. I got it back from the printers yesterday to take to the binders, and it looked god. Easy to skim, and find the salient bits.

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      Very impressive. I don’t think I ever got my PhD together enough to consider that aspect. I was still v. busy stuffing more references in to prove I was worthy!

      I’ve examined a shocking thesis that had little or no attention paid to formatting/white space. It was a very tough slog, and doesn’t necessarily endear the content to you from the get-go…!

      • tassie_gal says:

        I cheated and used an MS Word set up set that automatically added white space etc after headings/paragraphs. I think also having a mother who used to work at a University in the 70’s part of whos job was to type PhD theses also had an influence. Having a cousin who is a printer tech also makes a difference!
        I have fairly bad eyesight, so I worked on the premise if I could read it fairly easily when tired most other people could as well.
        I am the reference queen. 408 references in my thesis and its only about 170 pages long.

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