This article was originally published on September 06, 2016 in GPA Grant News
As grant professionals, we are all too well aware of the competitive funding landscape and the importance of a well-written, error-free grant proposal. At the same time, busy work schedules, competing deadlines, and teamwork challenges often conspire against us to rush grant proposals and to increase chances of mistakes. What can we do to avoid errors in our proposals?
Some level of editing is critically important to a grant proposal because it increases the likelihood that the reader (the reviewer) can focus, undistracted, on the grant application, easily digest the key messages and arguments, and award points! As a working copy editor, I have learned some key tools that professional copy editors use that can be applied to grant proposals—especially those in hurried circumstances:
1) Create a style sheet: A style sheet is a common copyediting tool: a short sheet listing the stylistic “rules” of a document. The goal of a style sheet is to ensure consistency. Develop such a cheat sheet early in the proposal process to list your key decisions on font, spacing, numbers, hyphens, serial commas, and other style issues. Most importantly, a style sheet also includes a “word list”—key terms in your document and conventions for how they will be spelled or formatted. For example, once “non-profit organization” (hyphenated) is listed in the style sheet as the “rule”—not a “nonprofit” or “not for profit” or “non profit” organization—then the convention is clear. Share the style sheet with other writers, add to it during the process, and reuse it for future proposals.
2) Have important reference materials at your fingertips: Copy editors are known for being fastidious about their preferred reference materials, such as dictionaries and style guides. From the beginning, decide which reference materials are important to you and your proposal: dictionary, general or organizational “house” style guides, agency-specific proposal guides (e.g., NIH or NSF), and any underlying background materials relevant to the proposal, including the proposal instructions, needs assessments, or reports. Make sure they are physically close by or in an easy-to-access electronic folder. Why? At the last minute, the extra time to find a reference is infuriating at best and at worst, can lead to simply not taking the time to look up a question. We are most apt to use these materials when they are close by and readily available which, in turn, makes for better-checked and better-edited proposals.
3) Decide on the appropriate level of editing: Not every document needs the same depth of editing. Copy editors typically confer with a client about the appropriate level of editing, ranging from proofreading (quick check for any glaring errors or embarrassing typos) at one end of the spectrum, to light, medium, and heavy copyediting in the middle, and to developmental editing (working closely with an author during the writing process) at the far end. Most likely, as a proposal nears submission, you will focus on medium to light copyediting or proofreading. Decide on one level and stick with it—do not try to conduct heavy copyediting when there simply is not sufficient time. Instead, in that short time, focus on addressing any errors, inconsistencies, or document organization issues rather than trying to achieve impeccable writing.
4) Utilize horizontal editing: Horizontal editing is a technique in which a copy editor reviews a document horizontally, instead of sequentially (vertically). For example, take the table of contents and for each listing, go horizontally to that section listing to make sure the title and page number are correct and consistent. Or, check all headings throughout a document, without reading the text under each, to ensure they are consistent in numbering, format, and font. Grant professionals typically work with multiple proposal parts that must all match; horizontal editing can help verify, for example, that any reference to the project’s total budget number is the same across the main narrative and in all attachments.
5) Use grammar and readability tools: Most of us already use the valuable spelling and grammar check features in MS Word and other word processors. For words that are commonly misused, some copy editors remove them entirely from their word processor’s dictionary so that these words are forced to be flagged for attention. Copy editors also use MS Word’s readability feature in the spelling and grammar function that analyzes various elements of a document, such as number of words per sentence, number of sentences per paragraph, and percentage of passive voice use. The readability feature also assigns a “grade level” to the document’s readability. For most documents, passive constructions should stay under 20 percent, and the grade level—believe it or not—should be at the seventh or eighth grade levels, except for highly scientific and technical documents. For grant professionals, the readability score is important because many reviewers may not be specialists in your specific field, so the writing should be as readable and understandable as possible—even to pre-teen youth!
Finally, consider additional tools and resources that have worked well for you and make a habit of using them in every grant proposal. By using some of these tools regularly, grant professionals can ensure an appropriate level of editing within an available time period—and help your reviewer enjoy as much of a distraction-free reading experience as possible.