New NIH grant applications

How to cut sentences, not substance

As of January 25 of this year, the National Institutes of Health has shortened the page limits for most sections of its grant applications, brining the total page limit for R01 grants down from 25 to 12. While many scientific editors advocate a shorter-is-better philosophy all the time, with the new application format, "you need to jam things into a shorter space," says Timothy Taylor of BiomEditor.

For the most part, editors agree, the change is a good one. "The old paradigm of mapping out in grueling detail what you're going to do four years down the road is pretty difficult," Taylor explains, where as the new guidelines "demand that you're not going to explain every bit of the process that you plan to go through."

But it's a change that will take some getting used to, says Kathleen Hayes-Ozello,...

Below are a few ways to adjust to the new applications, including when to cut and how.

Write first, cut later
Don't worry about the page limit at first, Taylor says. "It's just too much pressure to try to write like Mozart," who could get it right with no revisions, he says. "Most of us are Beethovens who end up with a really good product but we slaved over it and rewrote it five times." 

Don't reuse
Most people will be modifying a longer grant application to the 12 page length of the new applications. Don't pull sections from previous grants or manuscripts without editing them to fit the tone of the new proposal. "A major mistake from our perspective is not [having] a well developed story that flows through the entire grant," says Michael Mesches of SciTechEdit International. This can be as simplistic as making sure the verb tense is consistent throughout.

Rely on citations
When you go back through your proposal, one way to cut some length without losing content is to rely more heavily on citations, Taylor says. With the old applications where space was less limited, scientists had more freedom to explain in their own words what had been found previously and how it related to the work they were proposing, but with the shortened structure of the new NIH applications, using citations is a necessary trick for cutting down on length.

Both in the methodology and the background material, if it's been done before, cite the source, and remove the bulk of your explanation. "If you can eliminate [a few sentences] and put a number, that's going to help you out a lot," Taylor says.

Find and eliminate common knowledge
Another way to cut down on length is to eliminate anything considered common knowledge in the field, says Leigh Brooks of Bioscience Editing Solutions. To determine what that would be, look to the literature. "If [the topic or methodology has been] covered in reviews then it's probably pretty well accepted in the field as well known," Brooks says. "Whereas if it's a point you're making that's only been published in two primary literature articles," the reviewers may not be familiar with it, and "you need to put some explanation into it," he says.

Use your outline
Finally, it is important to "make sure the most important ideas occupy the most space," says Nigel Spence of OnLine English. Use the main points of your outline to stay "on track when organizing complicated ideas in a large document" and ensure that those main points are still coming through in the shortened proposal.

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