I was helping someone write a grant when I got that request that I always dread, “Can you write this section of the grant.” I hate those requests for a personal reason–I’d much rather tell someone else what to do than to actually do it myself. One of the great joys of consulting is being able to boss other people around. But there’s a serious reason why I dislike this. I believe that a grant should be written by one person, with guidance of course by other experts. But one person needs to have at least a passing level of familiarity with each and every aspect of the grant; enough familiarity that they can write the entire grant. It also assures consistency of tone and language. But there are often reasons why this can’t be done, and if you’re stuck writing major sections of someone else’s grant, you need to write your section of the grant so that it fits in well with the rest of the grant. There’s a famous saying that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. You want to make sure that the completed protocol does not come out looking like a camel. If certain sections have abrupt transitions, use different terms for the same thing, and have radical changes in writing style, you’ve got problems. You won’t get things perfect, and I certainly didn’t with this project. But the closer you get, the better the grant will be.
You could be bull-headed about this and write your section in the language and style you think works best, and it will be so well written and such an exemplar that the authors of the other sections will immediately adapt to your way of writing. That’s actually not a bad option if you have the luxury of time. Your writing style may or may not be the best, but if you deliberately write in a different style, then the others on your team can look at the effect of this writing style versus their writing style. Most of the time, of course, you wouldn’t be asked to write major sections of someone else’s grant unless the time frame was already very tight. If time is tight, you can’t afford to go off marching to the beat of a different drummer.
To insure consistency, ask for everything that’s already been written, even sections like the literature review, which is something that you may not think that you need to write your section. Nag the other authors about this, even if they only have an early draft. When you get this material read it through twice. Here are some of areas where inconsistency can creep in:
- Are the other authors using passive voice or active voice? An example of passive voice is “patients will be sedated before the procedure.” The active voice might read as “The supervising physical will sedate patients before the procedure.” I much prefer active voice, and so do many experts in writing that know much more than I do. There are, however, some people who feel that the passive voice comes across as more objective and more scientific.
- What type of pronouns, if any, are the other author(s) using? My favorite pronoun for this website is “you” because it sounds like you are talking directly to your reader. Notice that I didn’t say “because it sounds like I am directly talking to my reader.” That doesn’t mean that I never use other pronouns. But any chance I get, I try to switch from first person pronouns (I/we) to second person pronouns (you). You should try it; it really livens up your writing. In a grant though, it is bad to switch from writing that has mostly first person pronouns (or almost no pronouns) to second person pronouns.
- Are the individuals being studied “patients” or “subjects” or “volunteers” or something else? I don’t want to debate the merits of patient versus volunteer. Just be sure that you don’t switch the terminology in your part of the grant. Are you recruiting women only for this study? Then you should use “women” and pronouns like “she” and “her” throughout the grant. It is a jarring transition to go from “women” to “people” halfway through the grant. In some cases, you might be studying an entire family. In this case, be sure that you describe, for example, the random selection of families instead of the random selection of individuals.
- Is it a “treatment” or an “exposure” or an “intervention” or something else? I tend to gravitate towards generic words like treatment but that leads to weak and aimless writing. If your intervention is known as “the TIES Program” then you need to talk about the TIES Program in your section of the grant.
- Do you have a “control group” or an “unexposed group” or “control subjects” or a “comparison group” or something else. Is there an adjective attached like “healthy control group” or “unexposed comparison group” or “carefully matched control subjects”?
- Do you have “outcomes” or “endpoints” or something else? Again, I tend to use generic terms but terms specific to this grant are better. You should really strive to talk about “mortality” if that is the outcome being studied or “quality of life” if that is the outcome.
- Are the different parts of the proposed research known as “phases” or “stages” or something else? Do you refer to different specific aims or different hypothesis to distinguish between parts of the research? This is especially critical. You don’t want a reviewer to get even momentarily lost and not recognize what phase of the grant you are currently describing.
You might also find this checklist helpful if you are consolidating the writing of several other people into a single cohesive grant. Make sure to look at voice, pronouns, descriptions of patients, and so forth, and rewrite anything of anyone else that has a major deviation. You may be uncomfortable rewording someone else’s words, but you absolutely, positively, 100% must do this. You can check to make sure that you haven’t mangled someone else’s ideas, but do that the time to rewrite. If you drop in major sections unedited, you will end up with a camel.
You can find an earlier version of this page on my original website.