Will Readability Measures Improve Your Grant Proposal Writing?

By Corinne Marasco

Poor writing is death to any grant proposal: If a grant maker can’t grasp what you’re trying to say, the odds are good your proposal won’t succeed. There was a lot of buzz recently in one of my LinkedIn groups about using readability measures to improve the readability of grant proposals. There are two readability measurements built into Microsoft Word to help make documents more readable:

  • Flesch Reading Ease Test. This test scores texts on a 100-point scale. Pieces that score higher numbers are easier to read.
  • 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.

My primary objection to these tests is that they only indicate whether a text is suitable for a specific reading level. Readability tests can’t tell you

  • whether or not the content is in a logical order;
  • how complex the ideas are; or
  • whether the information is presented in a way that interests the reader.

I have never seen any studies that correlate readability scores or document characteristics like font type to increased giving or a higher proposal win-rate. (I don’t believe such studies exist but I’m happy to be wrong and take a look at them.)

Many grant funders already put such specific proposal requirements in their RFPs-page length, font type and size, single vs. double space, and so on-that those requirements are going to have a higher priority for me than how well my proposal writing scores on a couple of obscure tests.

If you want to improve your writing, I suggest reviewing this excellent advice from advertising executive David Ogilvy. In 1982, Ogilvy sent the following internal memo to all agency employees, titled “How to Write”:

The better you write, the higher you go in Ogilvy & Mather. People who think well, write well.

Woolly minded people write woolly memos, woolly letters and woolly speeches.

Good writing is not a natural gift. You have to learn to write well. Here are 10 hints:

1. Read the Roman-Raphaelson book on writing. Read it three times.

2. Write the way you talk. Naturally.

3. Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs.

4. Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass.

5. Never write more than two pages on any subject.

6. Check your quotations.

7. Never send a letter or a memo on the day you write it. Read it aloud the next morning-and then edit it.

8. If it is something important, get a colleague to improve it.

9. Before you send your letter or your memo, make sure it is crystal clear what you want the recipient to do.

10. If you want ACTION, don’t write. Go and tell the guy what you want.

Readability formulas are not a guide to writing well because all the variables that go into good writing are tightly related. If you change one, you have to adjust everything else.

As writers, we get to know our subjects intimately so it’s easy to conclude that of course our grant proposals are clear and well-written. However, if you want to confirm that your proposal is clear and easily understood, ask someone else to read it. Keep the formula out of the writing process and focus on the elements of good writing instead.

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