Grant-Writing Gurus

By Jef Akst Grant-Writing Gurus Would you be a good grant writer? Plus, tips from the experts on improving your grant. © EDEL RODRIGUEZ When Amy Fluet’s future husband accepted a postdoctoral position at the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1997, she gave up her own postdoc studying the retinoic acid signaling pathway in zebrafish at Johns Hopkins University to follow him. The rewards of a scientific career just didn̵

Jef Akst
Jef Akst

Jef Akst is managing editor of The Scientist, where she started as an intern in 2009 after receiving a master’s degree from Indiana University in April 2009 studying the mating behavior of seahorses.

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Apr 1, 2010

Grant-Writing Gurus

Would you be a good grant writer? Plus, tips from the experts on improving your grant.

© EDEL RODRIGUEZ

When Amy Fluet’s future husband accepted a postdoctoral position at the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1997, she gave up her own postdoc studying the retinoic acid signaling pathway in zebrafish at Johns Hopkins University to follow him. The rewards of a scientific career just didn’t seem to outweigh the “struggles that were coming,” she says—like the administrative responsibilities of becoming faculty and trying to balance science and family. It was the excuse she needed to try her hand at a new career, says Fluet.

While she found some work in a Boulder laboratory studying Alzheimer’s disease, Fluet also started doing some freelance science writing and editing. “I was enjoying the writing process and editing process much more than trying to do the science,” Fluet recalls. Within 2...

Here are some tips on how to start a career in grant writing, as well as some grant-writing tips from the folks who have made a career out of helping scientists get funded.

SO YOU WANT TO BECOME A GRANT WRITER/EDITOR

Explore new fields
“Having a broad scientific background is helpful,” says Kathleen Hayes-Ozello, an editor at BioScience Writers, which does scientific editing and proofreading. This could include sitting in on classes, journal clubs, or seminar series outside of your area of expertise, or even reading journals such as Science and Nature, she says. Reviewing papers and “articles that are not necessarily in your immediate area [can help you get] familiar with the vernacular [and] some of the state of the art technologies.”

Just do it
“Any experience you can get writing and editing is good,” says Susan Marriott, President of BioScience Writers. In addition to writing your own grants and manuscripts, offer to edit those of your colleagues, suggests Michael Mesches of SciTechEdit International, another editing company. “When there’s junior faculty coming in or there’s faculty who have foreign postdocs, there’s an opportunity to just be available to help.”

Don’t give up your day job
Shifting from one career path to another is inherently difficult, Mesches says. One way to ease the transition is to start freelancing before you leave research altogether, he suggests. “I overlapped research with developing our company for several years” before going full time, Mesches says. While salary will obviously depend on how much work you take on, a full-time PhD scientific writer or editor could bring in between $40,000 and $75,000, says Leigh Brooks of Bioscience Editing Solutions.

Change your mindset
“If you’re leaving full-time research to do freelance editing or writing, you have to be prepared to change your title and view,” Mesches says. “You’re not in the front lines of science; now you’re in the rear, supporting.” In your new supportive role, you must suggest solutions for fixing a problem area, rather than just noting parts that don’t work, which is how scientists are trained to read scientific documents, he says.

Train with experienced editors
Freelancing is always an option, but when you’re first starting out, an established science writing or editing company can help get your name out there, says Brooks. “The nice thing about working for a freelance contractor is they can usually generate more clients [than you could on your own], at least initially.” But watch out: Some scientific editing companies have non-compete clauses. If you are interested in freelancing on the side, make sure to find a company that allows you to develop your own clientele.

“In this business, word of mouth from scientists that can vouch for the quality of work is imperative for continued freelance work.”
— Leigh Brooks

Mine the help pages of professional societies
Professional organizations—such as National Association of Science Writers (NASW), American Grant Writers Association (AGWA), and the American Medical Writers Association—offer a valuable resource for getting into the field, says Marriott. Many of these organizations have local chapters around the United States, which often have monthly programs to discuss different career options. NASW also provides a Web site where you can list yourself as a freelancer, Brooks adds, and has some helpful articles under the Resources tab for someone making the transition.

Strut your stuff at poster sessions
Scientific conferences are also a great way to find potential clients, says Brooks, who recommends mingling with the presenters at poster sessions, discussing the freelance services you offer, and giving them several cards to pass around to any of their colleagues who might be interested. “In this business, word of mouth from scientists that can vouch for the quality of work is imperative for continued freelance work,” Brooks says.

Get certified
AGWA and the Board of Editors in the Life Sciences each offer certification programs, with exams that test your skills and knowledge in proposal writing, researching, ethics, and budgeting. While this certification is not required of most scientific editing companies, it’s “very helpful if you want to get your foot in the door,” Marriott says. For those who have not yet built up a substantial portfolio, Brooks agrees, these credentials “may be very good proof of competence for gaining clients or getting a position with a company as a freelancer.”

GRANT WRITING TIPS FROM THE PROS

Check with the agency
“To be sure that your idea is something that that agency wants to fund,” Hayes-Ozello says, “you should always contact the agency.” Tell them about your work and ask if it fits the scope of what they are looking to fund in that particular round. Also, be sure to read the application guidelines and the NIH Peer Review Criteria, says Nigel Spence of Online English, and “answer the questions that are asked, not the ones you wish had been asked.”

A grant proposal “should be a narrative in some way. It needs to progress logically.”
—Daryl Henderson

Tell a story
One of the biggest factors that can affect funding is not being able to communicate your ideas, says Hayes-Ozello. You have to “see the story” of the project, she says. A grant proposal “should be a narrative in some way,” agrees Daryl Henderson of Squirrel Scribe. “It needs to progress logically.” Make sure “the order of the specific aims” are arranged sensibly in the context of the bigger story.

Sell it like a business
“Grant [writing] really is about selling something,” says Mesches. When pitching a business idea to investors, “you have to show them a) that your business is doing something that needs to be done, b) that you have the knowledge and skills to do it, and c) that you have the track record and work ethic to accomplish it,” he says. “That is really no different than writing a grant.”

Flesh out a skeleton draft
“One of the bigger problems I see is [that] people give away too much information and bombard the reviewers with stuff that really isn’t necessary,” says Brooks. This applies to both background and methodology, Hayes-Ozello adds. “Giv[ing] a laundry list of techniques doesn’t make you competent.” Instead, limit yourself to relevant information by making a “skeleton outline” of your proposal—just the big points, Brooks says. Then, add in subpoints for each section detailing what you want to say about that topic, and “build [the story] from inside out.”

Skip the suspense
“Hit the reviewer with the significance [right away],” says Hayes-Ozello. Even though the section of the application might be called “Background and Significance,” there’s no rule that says you have to save it until the end. “Put it first,” she says, to tell the reviewers “why they should continue reading on.”

Don’t bite off more than you can chew
“Sometimes people propose too much; their application is too ambitious,” says Henderson. “They’ll have four or five specific aims—[more work than] they would be able to accomplish within the 4 or 5 years of the grant.” Limit yourself to three aims, he says, using “sub-aims” if needed.

Justify the details
“Really think about what experiments it would take to pinpoint the answer” to the questions posed by your specific aims, and “what controls will eliminate other possibilities,” Brooks says. Cut the ones “that overlap [with] a particular scientific point.”

Also make sure to justify any specific experimental details you include, says Henderson. For animal studies, for example, do the power calculations and “explain the number of animals you need to achieve a certain statistical significance,” he says.

Collaborate across disciplines
If your proposal involves branching out into new scientific areas, you will need to justify your ability to conduct the proposed experiments, Mesches says. To strengthen your proposal, find collaborators who specialize in those other fields. “[Collaborating] is always a strength,” Mesches says. “Especially if you’re starting something new, you have someone you can go to [who can] help you get [it] done.”

Be consistent
Make sure you are consistent in your use of terms, says Timothy Taylor of BiomEditor. The punctuation and font of genes should be consistent throughout. Abbreviations should only be defined once upon first reference, and then used.

“If you can say it shorter, it’s almost always better.”
—Timothy Taylor

Choose your font wisely
“Good font choice can help readability,” Spence says. While many writers today tend to prefer sans serif fonts, like Arial, research has shown that “fonts like Times make for better readability and aid retention where large slabs of text are presented.”

Reduce
“If you can say it shorter, it’s almost always better,” Taylor says. “Grant reviewers love concision.” After you write a proposal, go back through and try to cut any unnecessary words. “Almost always you can eliminate 10 [or] 20 percent of what you’ve written.”

Reread
After you write your first draft, “leave it for a while and then come back to it and have a fresh look at it,” says Henderson. “Let go of your knowledge of the document and the complexities and the meaning, and just read it plain so that you can really see where the bumps are,” adds Mesches. Then ask your colleagues to take a look, or hire a professional editing service to review your proposal.

GRANT WRITING AND EDITING COULD BE RIGHT FOR YOU IF YOU...

Have broad interests in science
Scientific writing and editing allows you to see a much wider “breadth of disciplines,” says Timothy Taylor, the Chief Scientific Officer of BiomEditor. “In one week, I see things all over the map. I find that very thrilling.”

Like to correct grammar in signs
To be a successful scientific writer or editor, you must have an “eye for mistakes,” says Nigel Spence of OnLine English in an email. “If you have walked around wanting to put in or remove apostrophes from shop signs, then perhaps you have a career as a good grant writer and editor.”

Are good with deadlines
“You have to be very self-motivated,” says Susan Marriott of BioScience Writers, and because of the strict timing of the rounds of funding, deadlines are firm. “For us, late is totally unacceptable, period,” Michael Mesches of SciTechEdit International agrees. “You do what it takes to get things done and see them through.”

Want more time for your family
Because most scientific writing and editing companies work on a contract basis with their editors, the work is done from home. This gives editors a lot of flexibility in where they live and how much they work—an ideal situation for raising a family, says Heather Yarnall Schultz of Bioscience Writers.

Click here for extra tips on new NIH grant applications

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