How readable is your proposal?

What does readability mean?

Readability is a measure of how easy it is to understand a piece of writing. When writing a proposal, the level of readability affects how well your offer is understood by the reader.

Best practices for readable writing include the use of a clear, easy-to-read style, active rather than passive voice, use of common words, and avoiding jargon. The Plain Language Guide recommends simple words and short sentences of no more than 15–20 words, and paragraphs that average 3–5 sentences.

Check your readability in MS Word

One tool you can use to assess the readability of your writing is the readability scoring feature of Microsoft (MS) Word. To turn it on, go to File > Options > Proofing, and select Show readability statistics under spelling and grammar (Figure 1).


After you run a spelling and grammar check, the readability statistics in Figure 2 are produced.

MS Word applies the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Index to rate your document. The readability formula counts the variables that have the biggest impact on a reader’s ability to understand a piece of writing, namely sentence length, number of syllables per words, and number of passive sentences. Let’s analyze the statistics in Figure 2.

  • Counts: These counts establish the baseline for the size/complexity of your document with respect to number of characters, words, sentences, and paragraphs. They are used to calculate the averages and readability scores that indicate where you can improve your writing.
  • Averages: Avoid long sentences and paragraphs. The suggested averages for business proposals are:
  • Words per sentence: 14–18 is the suggested average.
  • Sentences per paragraph: 3–5 is ideal.
  • Characters per word: 6 characters indicates words are not too complex.

In the example, the sentence, paragraph, and word statistics are within the target range.

  • Readability: Suggested targets for business proposals are:
  • Flesch reading ease: 60% or higher.
  • Grade level: 10th–12th grade.
  • Percentage of passive sentences: No higher than 15%. Above 15%, almost nobody is comfortable reading.

In our example, the passive voice statistic is not too bad. However, both the reading and grade levels indicate that perhaps the writing is too complex. The writer should work to bring down the grade level to no higher than 12th and raise the reading ease to a much higher number.

Improving readability

Consider your scores, and use these suggestions to rewrite parts of your proposal:

  • Look for long sentences and shorten them.
  • Substitute short, one- or two-syllable words for any long ones.
  • Use active voice, active verbs rather than adverbs.
  • Shorten long sentences by breaking them up or tightening your wording.
  • Break paragraphs into smaller chunks so that you have fewer sentences in each.
  • Look for words that are a form of the verbs have or to be (is, are, will be, and so on); these verbs are weak and often result in passive verb construction.
  • Review the rewrite to make sure that your message still means what you intended and hasn’t become even harder to understand.

Recheck the statistics to see if readability has improved. If the figures are still high, repeat the process. See if you can get the grade level down to 10, then 8. Work for at least a 50% readability score. Try for less than 10% passive.

Additional readability considerations

Readability scores are one tool to evaluate your writing. But remember these other aspects as well:

  • Spelling and grammar—readability scores do not examine these factors, but poor spelling and grammar are distracting, annoy the reader, and are not an indicator of quality.
  • Page layout, including use of white space, graphics, and headers that guide the reader and enhance understanding.
  • Effective use of bold and italic fonts to call attention to key points.
  • Consistency with respect to one voice, colors, format, and terminology.

Happy writing, and may your more readable proposal win!

by Maryann Lesnick, Managing Director at Lohfeld Consulting Group, CP APMP, PMP, CSM, MOS.

Lohfeld Consulting Group has proven results specializing in helping companies create winning captures and proposals.

As the premier capture and proposal services consulting firm focused exclusively on government markets, we provide expert assistance to government contractors in Go-to-Market Strategy, Capture Planning and Strategy, Proposal Management and Writing, Capture and Proposal Process and Infrastructure, and Training. In the last 3 years, we’ve supported over 550 proposals winning more than $135B for our clients—including the Top 10 government contractors. Lohfeld Consulting Group is your “go-to” capture and proposal source! Start winning by contacting us at and join us on LinkedInFacebook, and Twitter.