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.