Readability in Grant Writing

April 10, 2017 / By: Dr. Mary Reichardt, Associate Director of Internal Grants and Writing

Dr. Mary ReichardtOne of the most important aspects of good writing is readability. In grant writing in particular, readability can be key as to whether or not your grant is funded. On average grant reviewers spend just a few minutes reading a grant proposal before relegating it to the “yes,” “maybe,” or “no” pile. You need to ensure that your proposal lands well.

In medicine the foundational principle is first do no harm. In grant writing it is first do not irritate the reviewer. How can you design a proposal that attracts rather than irritates?

Keep in mind that in the first cut grant reviewers typically skim. That’s a hard truth to accept when you’ve put in many hours on the application. But it tells you that you must do all you can to anticipate what the reviewer wants to see and make this information stand out. If you make reviewers work to find important information, it will work against you.

How can you make a skimmable document? Here are some pointers:

  • Answer the questions directly in the appropriate place using the key words given. If the question asks, “What is the significance of this project?” begin your answer with “The significance of this project is…” If the question asks, “What is your timetable for the project?” start with “The timetable for the project is…” No brainer, right? Yet you’d be surprised at how often grant reviewers get frustrated trying to find the most basic information stated in a clear, succinct way in the place they expect to find it.
  • Be consistent and logical. Your grant proposal must tell one story, each part connecting to the other parts. Use transitions liberally to show those connections. Again, you might be surprised how often grant reviewers suffer through “wandering” proposals that do not adhere to the point from beginning to end.  
  • Eliminate jargon. Jargon is the bane of grant writing. Grant writing is not academic writing: the two modes are quite different. So steeped are we in our disciplines that we often can’t “see” jargon. You must write for an educated lay audience, never assuming they know the buzz words and phrases you use everyday. Here’s a secret: jargon doesn’t make writers sound smarter; in fact, to a lay audience just the opposite! Jargon can create suspicion that the writer is merely dropping big, empty words because he doesn’t really know what he’s talking about.
  • Write simply, in a conversational style.  “Simple” doesn’t mean dummying down your content. In fact, the more complex the topic, the simpler your language should be.  Use active voice rather than passive: passive voice may still be the norm for academic writing in some disciplines but not in grant writing. Active voice stimulates action; it is far more energy-oriented, lively, and readable. Keep paragraphs and sentences short. A good rule of thumb is at least three  paragraphs per page and no more than about 15-17 words per sentence.  
  • Use formatting and white space to your advantage. White space is not empty space; rather, it’s doing something essential in the reading process. Research on writing shows that readers need liberal amounts of white space to grasp ideas quickly: it aids in skimming. Densely written documents with little to no white space are not inviting: they shout, “I am difficult to read!” So pay attention to how each page of your proposal looks. Indent paragraphs and/or leave an extra space between them. Don’t justify the right margin—research shows that readers read more quickly with a “ragged” margin. Use a consistent, clear system of headings, subheadings, bullet points, numbered items, graphics, etc. to allow the eye to absorb main points at a glance.

These are simple but effective techniques to achieve readability. They can make a huge impact on whether your grant proposal is a winning one or not.

Dr. Mary Reichardt, Faculty Development Associate Director of Internal Grants and Writing, provides writing consultations for all faculty, full time and adjunct, on any type of professional writing project. To make an appointment, call or email: 2-6040;