Some LaTeX hacks for writing proposals

I just submitted my CAREER proposal on Monday, and now that the endless revision process is over, I wanted to write a post about what I learned about proposal writing. But that seems like hubris, since I have no idea if the thing will get funded, so what do I know? Besides, everything I learned was from the valuable feedback I got from those who very kindly read my previous drafts. So instead of writing about How To Sell Your Idea, I figured I would write about some cute LaTeX hacks that I came across, most of them via the very useful TeX-LaTeX Stack Exchange.

If anyone else has some useful hacks, feel free to leave them in the comments!

Saving Space

One of the big problems in NSF proposal writing is that there’s a hard limit on the number of pages (not the number of words), so if you’re at the edge, there’s a lot of “oops, two lines over” hacking to be done towards the end.

  • \usepackage{times} \usepackage{mathptmx}: The typeface for your proposal makes a big difference in space. Computer Modern is a bit easier to read since there’s more whitespace, but Times shaved a whole page off of my proposal. The NSF Grant Proposal Guidelines has the list of approved formatting. It seems standard for NIH proposals to use 11pt Arial but that makes me want to gouge my eyes out. Know thy reviewers, is what I would say: keep in mind what’s standard for the solicitation and don’t make the proposal so dense as to be unreadable. NB: Apparently the times package is deprecated (see comments).
  • \usepackage{titlesec}. This package lets you control the spacing around your titles and subtitles like this:

    \titlespacing\section{0pt}{10pt plus 2pt minus 2pt}{2pt plus 2pt minus 2pt}
    \titlespacing\subsection{0pt}{8pt plus 2pt minus 2pt}{2pt plus 2pt minus 2pt}

    See this post for more details, but basically it’s \titlespacing{command}{left spacing}{before spacing}{after spacing}. This is handy because there’s a lot of empty space around titles/subtitles and it’s an easy way to trim a few lines while making sure things don’t get too cramped/ugly.

  • \usepackage{enumitem}: This package lets you control the spacing around your enumerate lists. The package has a lot of options but one that may be handy is \setlist{nosep} which removes the space around the list items. This actually makes things a little ugly, I think, but bulleted lists are helpful to the reviewer and they also take a little more space, so this lets you control the tradeoff. Another thing that is handy to control is the left margin: \setlist[itemize,1]{leftmargin=20pt}.
  • \usepackage{savetrees}: Prasad says it’s great, but I didn’t really use it. YMMV.


  • Sometimes it’s handy to have a new theorem environment for Specific Aims or Open Problems or what-have-you. The problem is (as usual) that the theorem environment by itself puts in extra space and isn’t particularly customizable. So one option is to define a new theorem style:

    \newtheoremstyle{mystyle}% name
    {5pt}%Space above
    {5pt}%Space below
    {\itshape}% Body font
    {5pt}%Indent amount
    {\bfseries}% Theorem head font
    {:}%Punctuation after theorem head
    {4pt}%Space after theorem head 2
    {}%Theorem head spec (can be left empty, meaning ‘normal’)

    \newtheorem{specaim}{Specific Aim}

  • Another handy hack is to make a different citation command to use for your own work that will then appear in a different color than normal citations if you use \usepackage[colorlinks]{hyperref}. I learned how to do this by asking a question on the stack exchange.


  • The hyperref package also creates internal links to equations and Figures (if you label them) and so on, but the link is usually just the number of the label, so you have to click on “1” instead of “Figure 1” being the link. One way to improve this is to make a custom reference command:

    \newcommand{\fref}[2]{\hyperref[#2]{#1 \ref*{#2}}}

    So now you can write \fref{Figure}{fig:myfig} to get “Figure 1” to be clickable.

  • You can also customize the colors for hyperlinks:


  • Depending on your SRO, they may ask you to deactivate URLs in the references section. I had to ask to figure this out, but basically putting \let\url\nolinkurl before the bibliography seemed to work…

4 thoughts on “Some LaTeX hacks for writing proposals

  1. The times package has been deprecated for years. Instead, use the clearly named mathptmx package. You’ll get better math symbols.

    For links, does \autoref not make the whole thing a link? I never think to use it.

    • I feel like deprecating LaTeX packages is hopeless since basically people write the same LaTeX they always wrote in grad school. But now I’ll go to best practices and switch to mathptmx. I never tried \autoref, but I remember when I learned about \eqref for the first time. Is that also deprecated?

      • You’re absolutely right about trying to deprecate stuff. \bf, \it, and friends have been deprecated since LaTeX 2e was first released but people still use them.

        As far as I know \eqref is still the right way to reference equations.

  2. Two column formatting would allow even more text and would be more readable, to boot. Not allowed, unfortunately, at least in NIH proposals.

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