The most important piece of advice regarding writing the first draft of a research proposal is this:  just get something down on paper!  Once you have a draft, no matter how poor it may be, you are more than halfway there because you then have something to work with and improve.  So how to get that first draft down on paper?  Here are some ideas to try:


The Swiss-Cheese Approach

Just as a piece of Swiss cheese holds together despite its holes, the idea behind this approach is to write a complete draft by identifying the "holes" that exist as you go along.  Start by making an outline, then start writing to fill it in.  When you come to something you need, but don't have, put it in brackets.

Here is an example: "Some scholars argue that Latin American national governments are moving toward the political center (Dickovick and Eaton 2013, [FIND OTHERS]), while others argue that political polarization is increasing [FIND OUT IF THIS IS TRUE; IF SO, CITE.]"

...then move on to your next point.  Note in brackets everything that you will need to put in the final draft, but don't stop to find it now.  Just keep identifying the information, evidence, and, citations that you know you will need to get.  By the end of the process, you will have a draft--albeit with many holes--but you will also have a better idea of what you need to do in order to write a more complete draft.


The Low-Hanging Fruit Approach

Make a list of all the sections that you know your proposal will need to cover.  These may include the research question, relevant background, what others have said about your topic, why it is an important question to answer, methodology, and your qualifications to undertake the research.  Once you have a list of all the parts you'll need, choose the part that is easiest to write and start there.  Just get words down on paper for the section you are most comfortable with.  Once you have one section written, you may find that it builds momentum for writing even more.


Dory's Approach

Remember Dory from the movie "Finding Nemo?"  Her advice to "just keep swimming?"  (Check out a YouTube clip here.)  The idea behind this approach is to give yourself a time limit--maybe 10 minutes, maybe 40--and just keep writing continuously.  If you don't know what to say, write that down--just keep writing.  Don't delete anything.  If you change your mind about what you have just written, write that down and then write down what you mean to say instead.  You may have a great deal of repetition and seemingly unconnected ideas as you write, but once the time limit has passed, you may be surprised by some aspect of what you have produced.


Ninja Focus Approach

Set a time limit for writing, turn off/disconnect all social media devices, and keep a pad of paper/pen next to your writing space.  Set the timer (40 minutes is recommended), but instead of writing continuously, keep your focus on the writing task at hand.  If your attention wavers, note the thought/to-do list item/information you need to get down on paper, and then go back to writing.  You may be surprised how much you get done when you are focused on one task rather than many.


Grandpa Stan's Approach

Pretend that you are explaining your research question (i.e. what your research is about, and why it matters) to someone who is interested, but by no means an expert on your topic.  (If possible, actually do this and record the conversation.)  In doing so, you will probably end up distilling your ideas into their core components, making your assumptions explicit, and defining key terms. give one or two of these strategies a try, and you'll be well on your way to getting a complete first draft!