Can a Fifth-Grader Understand Your Proposal?

April 23, 2012 | 0 Comments

Remember how we learned to write in college? All of those long sentences? With strings of clauses separated by commas?

That’s my default style. Complex sentences. Parenthetical expressions. Grammatically correct—I paid good money for those two English degrees!

Have you noticed anything different about this article? How about short sentences. Short paragraphs. Ohhh, how about sentence fragments for all of you out there with red pens in hand?

If you are in a hurry or if you are tired, which is easier to read? Quick sentences that each contain one idea, or complex paragraphs that force you to dig for the point? Ok, I guess I gave away my bias in that sentence.

Some experts say our writing should be at a fifth-grade reading level to be effective. “But,” you say, “my readers are better educated. They are sophisticated. I don’t want to look too informal or talk down to them.”

Yes they are. But they are also busy people with many decisions to make. You want the decision to fund your grant to be an easy one. You want your proposal to be the one that doesn’t make their head hurt. Maybe fifth grade shouldn’t be your target. Maybe it’s ninth grade. But have a target.

I took my examples to the extreme in the first few paragraphs of this article to make a point. The best writers mix up sentence lengths for variety. For some reason, our brains find this an easier reading experience.

But most of us fall into the trap of endless sentences that drag on for five or six lines of text. When I am editing—whether my own proposals or my writers’ — I spend most of my time making the text less complex. I chop sentences, use bullets, and break up paragraphs.

Keeping it simple won’t get you a grant if you don’t have meaty content in the first place. Of course, you need inspiring stories and a great plan to change the world. But you need your readers to be able to grasp that vision quickly and fully.

Keeping it Simple


  1. Limit yourself to only one idea per sentence
  2. Break down complex concepts into bite-sized pieces
  3. Illustrate, don’t just pontificate (charts or pictures)
  4. Be ruthless — cut extra words that don’t really add value

At what grade level do you think your proposals should be?

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