We consider propagating, spatially localized waves in a class of equations that contain variational and nonvariational terms. The dynamics of the waves is analyzed through a collective coordinate approach. Motivated by the variational approximation, we show that there is a natural choice of projection onto collective variables for reducing the governing (nonlinear) partial differential equation (PDE) to coupled ordinary differential equations (ODEs). This projection produces ODEs whose solutions are exactly the stationary states of the effective Lagrangian that would be considered in applying the variational approximation method. We illustrate our approach by applying it to a modified Fisher equation for a traveling front, containing a non-constant-coefficient nonlinear term. We present numerical results that show that our proposed projection captures both the equilibria and the dynamics of the PDE much more closely than previously proposed projections.