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Cathy McPhalen

Editing Niches: Grant Applications in Scientific Research

 Copyright: studiom1 / 123RF Stock Photo

Copyright: studiom1 / 123RF Stock Photo

Cynics call it science fiction — the planned research that is described in applications for scientific grants. But I love good science fiction, and I love reading the amazing research stories of these scientists. Luckily, more researchers are appreciating good editing in the increasingly fierce competition for research funding.

What kinds of editing do researchers need?

The same kinds as other authors.

You can follow the same strategies as with any author: review the entire application package if possible, discuss problems with the researcher, get their signoff for the level(s) of editing. Almost certainly, documents will need more than “proofreading.” Editors Canada’s definitions of editorial skills can frame the discussion, and some grant applications will need almost all those skills.

Scientific grant applications usually have specific challenges and needs beyond editing for clarity and consistency:

  • Rigid limits on page or word or character counts (Check whether character limits include spaces!) and regulations to prevent cheating (no condensed fonts, no reduced line spacing)
  • Many acronyms and abbreviations to track (or to eliminate for clarity)
  • Unmoveable submission deadlines

Working with researchers can be satisfying, though. Often they will give an editor a free hand to “just do your magic.” Often they respect the editor (=better pay) as a word expert who complements their own scientific expertise. Projects are wonderfully diverse.

Do I need an advanced degree in the field?


Having some background in the broad area can help you spot errors and edit for clarity more easily. Knowing enough to avoid looking up every technical term is a clear advantage. However, you can do a perfectly good proofread or basic copy edit without training in the researcher’s field.

Your generally-knowledgeable-but-not-an-expert status is an advantage, too. You are a good proxy for grant application reviewers, who are often not experts in that precise field. You are also an excellent proxy for the lay audiences or government decision-makers who are the intended readers for some parts of grant applications. Applying your perspective makes the grant application easier to read for all its intended audiences.

Can I make a decent rate of pay?


Researchers frequently appreciate the value that an editor brings to their crucial grant applications:

  • An eye for detail in following specific application requirements
  • A non-expert eye to bring clarity to text that may be jargon-filled, buzzword-laden, heavy in passive voice and full of mile-long, complex sentences
  • A non-expert eye to query or revise problems with logical flow (Does the research story make sense?)
  • An eye for how well the research story matches the competition’s evaluation criteria

Offering this value positions you as a skilled professional who can charge premium rates.

How can I connect with scientific researchers?

  • Through grant support programs at universities
  • Through university departments in your broad field (think health sciences, not just nursing, for example)
  • Through seminars and workshops targeting success in grant applications

Do you edit grant applications? Are problems and considerations similar outside science and health?


Previous post from Cathy McPhalen: Editing Niches: Back to School With Thesis Editing.

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About the author

Cathy McPhalen

Cathy McPhalen edits for researchers in health sciences, medicine, science and engineering. She translates academic writing into understandable English. She wishes she’d had an editor for her own academic papers.

4 Comments on “Editing Niches: Grant Applications in Scientific Research”

  • I appreciate many of the points you made about what the editor does that can decide the fate of a grant request.
    I only worked on one big proposal for a prestigious 3-year grant request from the European Commission’s funding program, the one that preceded Horizon 2020, for an early-career researcher in international relations theory. It was so much work to de-tangle dense material, compounded by the fact that it was written by a non-native speaker. But it was the most exciting thing I’ve done as an editor. It took a couple of months of rewriting and we got down to 30 minutes of the final deadline. I can still remember how hard my heart was pounding.
    I wish I could say that “we” got it, but we did come within a few points of passing the threshold, and all but one, pretty procedural section, got good marks.

    • Cathy McPhalen


      Hi Ariela,

      Your experience matches mine in so many ways, including the occasional heart-pounding edits 30 minutes before the submission deadline! Luckily most researchers are more organized than that, although submission on the deadline date does seem to be the norm. Your experience of de-tangling dense material from a non-native speaker is typical for this type of work, though. For grant applications that do get funded, an additional thrill (and revenue stream) can be editing the publications that report the research results, then seeing those results appreciated and taken up by other researchers and news media!

      • The thrills of extreme editing:)

        To be fair to my author, it wasn’t so much that he was disorganized. But a couple of weeks before deadline we received a late response from the rockstar academic who was to be the US sponsor that he would recommend revising. So we had to scratch much of what we had and start over again. Undaunted, we did.)

        I joined the Horizon 2020 group on LinkedIn, but I haven’t seen discussions about editing there. Maybe you know of other places of contact for grant-writers and editors?

        • Cathy McPhalen


          The Academic Editors group on Facebook discusses grant writing and editing from time to time, but I think you already know about that one. I did connect with other health sciences grant writers and editors at the American Medical Writers Association conference this past fall, and they have a members-only discussion forum if you do any medical or health work. Sometimes I’ve found useful webinars through associations for academic research administrators, too.

          If anyone knows of other places that grant writers and editors gather, please let us know!

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