Clear, compelling, and well-edited grant proposals are increasingly important today as organizations and companies compete for limited funds. Editing is critical to a grant proposal because it increases the likelihood that proposal evaluators can focus undistracted on the written words, easily digest key messages and arguments, and award those sought-after evaluation points leading to dollars!
What is a grant proposal?
A grant proposal is typically a document package that seeks funding for an organization or program to carry out activities to benefit society. Grant proposals are mostly submitted by nonprofit organizations to government agencies (federal, state, county, city) and foundations (private, family, community, corporate). Grant proposals resemble bids for contracts for materials and services in the for-profit world, so editing principles for grant proposals can translate to many types of non-grant proposals.
Grant proposals range tremendously in size and scope, from a letter of inquiry or letter of interest (1–5 pages), or a short proposal to a foundation (5–7 pages) to longer proposals (15–25 pages), major government agency proposals (50+ pages), or those detestable, nightmarish government agency proposals (100–200+ pages).
The “meat” of a proposal is usually the project narrative (sometimes a “technical proposal”) in which the key goals, plans, and results of the project are communicated. A grant proposal usually starts with an executive summary (sometimes called an abstract or project summary) and includes this project narrative, as well as a project budget (how much will this cost?) and budget narrative (how were the costs calculated and why are they needed?), and appendices and attachments (project timeline, CVs or biographical sketches of project leaders, letters from participating organizations, proof of nonprofit status or eligibility, and so forth).
The project narrative typically includes an executive summary; a need or problem statement (what challenge are you trying to solve?); the solution or approach (how are you going to address this challenge?); goals and objectives (what is your specific plan of activities and timeline?); evaluation plan (how will you measure your results and know that you have successfully addressed the challenge?); organization and personnel (who are you and how are you well prepared to address this challenge?); and budget (how much will this cost?).
How does copyediting improve proposals?
As with other types of documents, copyediting proposals improves the writing, flow, and ease of reading. Readers of grant proposals are often overworked and tired—making flow and ease of reading critical to a proposal’s success. Copyediting also helps ensure the proposal complies with any unique requirements: each grant funder typically has its own proposal instructions and evaluation criteria. Copyediting also ensures an external perspective—especially important as many grant proposals are drafted by multiple people.
Copyediting “forces” a defined step in the proposal preparation process to stop writing and ensure the proposal is improved as much as possible before submission. It can also lessen the possibility of delays or last-minute rushes to complete and submit a proposal. In a well-organized proposal process, writers are required to finish writing a week or more before a proposal due date so that editing and proofreading can take place. This defined step increases the proposal’s chances of being clean, easily readable, thorough, responsive to the funder, and on time!
Who reads these?
As copyeditors, we focus on understanding who the reader and audience are, because we are often considered that critical “first reader.” Nearly every grant proposal is reviewed by some type of evaluator or evaluation group, such as an individual program officer, a group of reviewers, a peer review panel, or a board of directors. Evaluation criteria are almost always provided in the proposal instructions and many reviewers complete a review form that reflects those evaluation criteria. Therefore, it is critically important for the copyeditor to review and understand the evaluation criteria and ensure they are addressed in the proposal.
In many government agencies and foundations, the review process is intense, with reviewers being asked to read and evaluate 10, 20, 30, or more proposals. Therefore, the proposal must be clear and easy to read—following to a T the order of the proposal instructions and the reviewers’ evaluation form. This is typically not the time to get creative or evasive, or to decide to use one’s own format or order instead of those provided by the funder. Kimberly Richardson, GPC, reminds us to remember the 12-12-12 scenario:
(Richardson, Kimberly, The Official Federal Grants Prep Guide, 2013)
Grammar and readability tools in MS Word are often helpful to measure readability before a proposal goes to these beleaguered evaluators. Reviewing the number of words per sentence, number of sentences per paragraph, percentage use of passive voice, and “grade level” can help gauge the readability of a proposal. Many evaluators are not specialists in the proposal field or knowledgeable about the organization submitting the proposal, so the writing should be as readable and understandable as possible.
What level of copyediting is expected?
Like other editing jobs, agreement on the level of copyediting requested is critical—and the timeframe before the proposal deadline and turnaround time factor heavily into what a copyeditor can and cannot realistically do. The generally understood copyediting levels apply, but with several considerations related to the copyeditor’s responsibility to edit for adherence to the funder’s instructions and evaluation criteria:
As a proposal nears submission, most likely the copyeditor will focus on medium to light copyediting or proofreading. In a world where proposals are often passed to the copyeditor late in the proposal preparation process, the copyeditor must be firm and not try to conduct heavy copyediting when there simply is not sufficient time.
What style guide should be used?
In short, the request for proposal (RFP), grant application form, or instructions provided by the funder serve as the primary style guide. The RFP typically provides specific instructions as to font size, margins, graphics, page limits, order and presentation of content, and other details. The proposal writer should not deviate from this, and the copyeditor’s role is to ensure that these basic requirements are met. After the RFP, a secondary style guide is sometimes used for larger funders—for example, the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health have agency-wide proposal instructions that must be followed after the instructions in a specific RFP. Only after these funder instructions and guides should the copyeditor utilize a house style guide or a standard style guide like APA, AP, or Chicago.
Who writes proposals? Who are the authors?
Typically, most proposals are written by a team of people in an organization, or sometimes one or two technical experts, program staff, or grant writers. Therefore, most proposals that come to copyeditors are the product of multiple writers. Often, the copyeditor must “one-voice” the proposal—ensuring consistency in sentence structure, word and sentence length, use of first vs. third person, and other issues of consistency. If there is sufficient time, consider providing writers a proposal template and a style sheet in advance, to minimize the amount of work needed to blend the products of multiple writers.
As copyeditors, we use our common sense in making queries to proposal writers, making sure that questions are neutral and focused from the reviewer’s perspective. It is much easier to say “the reviewer may more quickly realize how well we meet this evaluation criterion if we move this sentence to the top.” The writers want the proposal to receive as many evaluation points as possible, so are receptive to suggestions that will improve reviewers’ perception of the proposal.
What are some frequent copyediting issues in grant proposals?
Like other types of documents, grant proposals raise a host of issues and questions for the copyeditor:
Seasoned and new copyeditors alike will find that editing grant proposals provides an exciting perspective into many innovative solutions to improve the world around us. And there is nothing like the sigh of accomplishment (and relief!) when a well-edited proposal gets submitted … and even more so if it is funded!
Many resources are available for copyeditors to learn more about editing grant proposals. These include resources from the Grant Professionals Association (www.grantprofessionals.org), Association of Proposal Management Professionals (www.apmp.org), and Candid (www.candid.org).