Can DoD Help Make You a Better Proposal Writer?

This question may seem very odd to most proposal professionals. After all, the military here and elsewhere has never been known for its narrative clarity, verbal transparency, and for its ability to communicate effectively with the public. Nonetheless, there is a writing technique used in the U.S. military that can help improve your proposal prose.

Beginning in the 1980s, the U.S. military developed an internal writing style called Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF) that contains a simple and clear assessment tool for promoting prose clarity based on sentence and word length. It has been described very clearly by Timothy P. Hooper in his article in the most recent Journal of the Grant Professionals Association (Fall 2013).

Here is how it works:
• Take a sample of at least 200 words from your proposal.
• Count the number of sentences.
• Count the number of words.
• Divide the number of words by the number of sentences to get the average sentence length. Your target is on average 15 words per sentence.
• Count the number of long words – those with three or more syllables. Exclude calendar years and other numbers.
• Divide the number of long words by the total word count to determine the percentage of long words. Your target is 15 percent.
• Add the numerical values of the average sentence length to the percentage of long words.
• This sum represents your prose clarity index. Your target is 30.

A clarity index that is very low, say 20, indicates that your writing is too choppy and abrupt. An index of 40 indicates that your writing is too hard to understand.

I took the 260 words above the previous paragraph and performed the BLUF clarity index test on them. My clarity index was 32.1, which is close to the target of 30 and substantially below the index of 40.

I encourage you to run the BLUF clarity index test on a page of your proposal prose. If you are near the target of 15 words per sentence (mine was 13.6), near the 15% target for the percentage of long words (mine was approximately 19%), and around 30 for your total clarity index score, then you are writing clear and understandable prose.

The BLUF clarity index test is short and easy to use. You may be surprised at the test results!

Leave a Reply