How readable is your grant proposal?

Posted on July 27, 2011


Put your next request to the readability test, and help your readers understand a whole lot more.

I just read about 20 funding requests and have to admit a weakness. I’m a sucker for good writing.

Because my reading pile is high and time is short, I am more likely to skim daunting requests. You know the ones with 10 pt. font and skimpy ¼-inch margins? When sentences last entire paragraphs, and go something like this:

“We invite you to fund this unique initiative and join our leading organization as we develop, implement, utilize and demonstrate innovative education programs to provide solutions that overcome chronic issues of stakeholders and will enhance and improve the community’s opportunities for well-being, including health, wellness, technology and the environment, clearly advancing the foundation’s mission.”

Ugh. I can’t help it; my eyes glaze over. Worse yet, poor writing can bury brilliant ideas and lead to missed opportunities for both sides.

Readability is just as important as spell check

At Tellabs, our corporate communications editing process includes checking readability statistics. Each piece we write must meet certain requirements. Why? To help readers better understand the message.

Microsoft built two readability measurements into Word that helped me improve my writing:

  • Flesch Reading Ease Test. This test scores texts on a 100-point scale. Pieces that score higher numbers are easier to read. I aim for a score of 50 or higher. (This post – even with the terrible example sentence above – scored a 65.4.)
  • Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Test. This test scores texts based on U.S. school grade levels. If you score a 9, it means a ninth-grader would understand it. Pieces that score lower numbers are easier to read. I shoot for 9 or less. (This post scored a 6.6.)

Both tests’ formulas use average sentence length and average number of syllables per word. Microsoft Office offers helpful instructions on how to test your document’s readability.

A few tips from one writer to another:

  • Use simpler words. For example, replace “utilize” with “use.”
  • Write shorter sentences. Look for conjunctions in longer sentences, and use a period instead.
  • Use fewer words. (Enough said.)
  • Break up the text. Subheads, bullets and hitting the return key more often can help uncover white space in your document. It’s much more inviting to read than a solid block of text.
  • Avoid passive voice. Look for sentences that use a form of the verb “to be.” For example, change “Students are taught by good instructors” to “Good instructors teach students.”
  • Cut lengthy detail. Stick to your main points, and keep it simple.

So, before you send off that next proposal, test its readability. It will help your reader understand, and it may help your request stand out from the rest.

Disclaimer: It’s scary to write to writers about writing. Go ahead — put your editorial hat on, and share your corrections and writing tips in the comments.

If you liked this post, check out other topics on the Grantwriting Tips page.