The most important way to refine your proposal is to

1) Crank out a full draft -- even if it's rough.  Yes, it will be painful to create the first draft, but there are some strategies for getting past the "sweaty palm stage" here, and you'll feel a huge sense of accomplishment once you do it. 

2) Show it to as many people as you can.

3) Implement their revisions

and keep repeating steps 2 and 3!  This is the way to perfect your proposal as well as to get encouragement with what can be a challenging process. 

 

If you would like to self-critique, though, here are a few questions to guide you, based on the most common shortcomings found in early drafts of proposals:

 

QUESTION:  Is your question a really a foredrawn conclusion that you're trying to prove?  (For example, you have worked with a non-profit that seems very successful to you, and you ask the question, "Is this program effective?").    If so, try to rework it so you are asking a "how", "why", or "what does it mean" question, one that is, broadly speaking, about cause and effect.  The previous example, for instance, could become "Which element of this program is most essential to its success?", or "Why is this program more successful than other similar programs?".  The important thing is that you should not know the answer to your question before you start, and you should be open to having your hunch be disproven. 

STATEMENT OF PURPOSE:  Is your statement of purpose more than 175 words long? You may be going into too much detail.  Details about the debates you are addressing can be moved into the background and justification section.  Details about your plan can be moved to the plan section.  Here you will want to "sound byte" these ideas to give a quick overview of your project.

SCOPE:  Does your project feel too big?  Listen to that gut feeling!  If so, there are some hints on how to narrow it down on this document, p, 4-5. It is extremely rare for a project to be too small.  Don't fear the narrowing process; it allows you to go deep.

QUALIFICATIONS:  Does your qualifications section come out to more than half a page?  You need that precious space for your background and justification and your plan!  To trim it, remove anything that's covered elsewhere in the application.  Also remove excess introductory phrases. The beauty of having headings in your proposal is it means you don't need transitions.  Make the wording as brief as possible, and mention only those qualifications that are directly relevant to your project. 

PLAN:  The number one problem with first draft plan sections is that they are not specific enough. Read through your plan and make sure it has approximate dates for each phase of your research, amounts (number of people to be interviewed, number of samples to be gathered, number of subjects in the experiment, etc.), is precise about what will be done, and justifies these choices. 

BUDGET:  The main problems encountered with budgets are that they are not specific, that expensive equipment is requested but its use is not justified in the proposal, or, conversely, that the budget is unrealistically low.  Aim for specific and realistic, but not inflated.