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Tips and Tools for Improving Proposal Readability

Graphics, focus boxes, paragraph order, structure, text layout, and flawless spelling and grammar are all necessary attributes of a great proposal. After spending years in proposal management, however, I have noticed that one important attribute, readability, often is overlooked. Since editors frequently refrain from making in-depth content edits, it is the technical writers' task to make their sections more readable before their sections go to editors. The problem is that many people tasked with technical writing do not know what readability means, and how to make tangible changes to make their sections more readable. This article offers a tutorial on improving readability that proposal writers could start using immediately.

Before a proposal section ever makes it to an editor's desk, it should be understandable at a 9th-10th grade level if it is non-technical, and at an 11th - 12th grade level if it is highly technical. Why readability? Try to think like your audience, the government evaluators. Each evaluator is responsible for reading and scoring multiple sections of proposals submitted by you and your competitors. Each set of proposal sections consists of dozens or hundreds of pages of boring technical content. Usually, on the Source Selection Evaluation Board (SSEB), only a few people are truly interested in the proposed solutions. These are the people who made this program a reality and who are responsible for its execution. The rest are often the "stuckees" who are doing their "jury duty" when it is their turn to serve on the SSEB. It is possible that as many as 80% of SSEB members may be neither technically proficient in the topic nor enthusiastic about the technical gobbledegook through which they have to navigate.

Not only are many evaluators apprehensive about serving on SSEB, but they also may not have the PhDs or technical degrees necessary to fully understand the topic of your proposal. Unlike those who have spent a lot of time in academia, they may not be in the habit of reading and understanding long research papers written by experts for other experts. As a result, their eyes glaze over the long, dense, and jargon-heavy technical sentences. They skip past the paragraphs that do not make immediate sense. Your score suffers and, in a close competition, you may lose.

To avoid this kind of scenario, you need to teach your technical writers and subject matter experts to get in the habit of improving readability before the final submission of their sections to editors. It is difficult, however, for authors to simplify and substantively edit their own work. It is a good thing, then, that this is the 21st century, and that there are easy-to-use tools right at your and your technical writers' fingertips.

The first tool requires just a few settings changes in MS Word. When finished with a draft of a proposal section, you need to follow these seven simple steps:

  1. Select Tools at the top of the screen
  2. Select Options (inside Tools menu)
  3. Click on the Spelling & Grammar tab
  4. Check the two bottom boxes under the Grammar heading (Check grammar with spelling and Show readability statistics)
  5. Select Grammar & Style under Writing style
  6. Click the Settings button
  7. Set the "Require" options (I select "always," "inside," and "1"); check all Grammar rules; scroll down and check all Style rules except for the use of first person; and select Ok.

After making these settings changes, you can select Tools and then Spelling and Grammar. Perform a scan of your finished draft and make the recommended changes as you see fit. Rerun the scan again to include the changes you made, and take a close look at the Readability Statistics box that appears after the Spelling and Grammar check has finished.

First, look at the Averages section of this box. If you are averaging more than 4 or 5 sentences per paragraph, you have a higher chance of an evaluator getting lost or stuck. You will want to cut down or break up your paragraphs. If you are averaging more than 20 words per sentence, it is likely that you are attempting to address too many ideas at one time. A scorer is apt to miss important information when it is clumped together like this, so keep your sentences short.

Next, look at the Readability section of the Readability Statistics box. Passive sentences are those in which the sentence's verb is acting on its subject, rather than the subject acting on the verb. It is best to avoid passive sentences wherever possible. For example, "Section 1.3 outlines our management approach" is a much stronger sentence than "our management approach is outlined in Section 1.3." Passive sentences are sometimes unavoidable, but your writing is much more vivid and concise when you limit passive voice to well below 20%.

When it comes to the Flesch Reading Ease statistic, you want to stay in the 40-50 range or higher. This statistic rates your document on a 121-point scale depending on the average syllable count of your words and the average number of words per sentence. If your score is under 20, make a real effort to eliminate four- and five-syllable words. Very few such words are essential.

The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level statistic is the aggregate measurement of your document's readability. It translates the Flesch measurement into a U.S. grade level between 1 and 12 to give you a sense of the number of years of school experience that an average person would need to understand your writing. For instance, if your draft gets an 11.2, you can assume that an average 11th grade student could follow it, which also means that it will not put your evaluators to sleep. Remember, your goal should be for your section to measure somewhere between the 9th and the 12th grade levels. This ensures that you handle complex subject matter in a direct and evaluator-friendly way.

The MS Word Flesch-Kincaid scale has a glitch, however - it does not go higher than 12th grade. It is important to know that if your document scores a 12.0, this does not mean that it reads at a 12th grade level. Your actual score could be much higher than 12.0, so if you do get this score, there is a second tool that you should use to check your document's readability.

The second tool is a free online utility that provides a more accurate and comprehensive reading. You can find it at http://www.online-utility.org/english/readability_test_and_improve.jsp. After you copy and paste the text that you want the tool to scan, it will give you an accurate Flesch-Kincaid score even if it is above 12.0, along with four other readability indexes. For example, one index, called the Gunning Fog, uses a method similar to the Flesch scale to calculate readability, but omits proper names and suffixes like -ed and -ing that could make words count as more complex than they really are. The tool also shows you "problem" sentences that you may need to rewrite in order to improve overall readability.

Using these tools on a regular basis will help you and your technical writers to develop good writing habits that result in greater proposal readability. Caring about readability translates into caring about your evaluators. Caring about your evaluators leads to winning. Incidentally, in case you're curious, this article is at an 11th grade reading level, right where I wanted it.


This article was written by Olessia Smotrova-Taylor. She is the President of OST Global Solutions, Inc, a company providing capture and proposal management support and training to companies seeking to win government contracts.



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