The (easy) test you need to pass to make sure your writing isn't ignored


Have you ever noticed that your patience plummets when you’re stressed, tired, and overworked?

“I don’t have time for this sh*t,” you say to yourself, as you do…pretty much anything.

And what happens when you start to feel impatient? You want to get right to the point. You want to be efficient AF. You want to skim everything.

Well, guess what? Everyone else feels that way, too.

Which is a problem if you need someone to read and absorb what you wrote. Unless you know how to pass the skim test.

Here’s how I learned to pass the skim test: Years ago, when I started working in research management, I started to notice what would happen when I’d get a long-winded email (which happened a lot): I’d open it up, take a look at the wall of text, and groan. I'd either close it to deal with it later, or I'd skim.

I realized that I sent the same kind of long-winded email to my colleagues. So I started writing the kinds of emails I wanted to get: short, efficient, and clear.

I started writing keeping in mind that the people reading the emails would probably skim them, just like I did. Because I knew my colleagues were just skimming my emails, I made it impossible for them to ignore what I was writing. I used all the tricks in the book to make sure that they got what they needed to know (which was basically a way to make my job easier, so…laziness for the win!).

I made my emails WAY shorter, I bolded text that I wanted to make sure that they read, and I broke things out into short sections with spaces in between so that it would be easier on the eyes. I took care of my reader.

And you know what? It worked.

[NERD ALERT: I also tried implementing an email subject line system (please reply; fyi; urgent), but it never really caught on.]

Using the skim test for emails is great practice, but it's vital in another context:

Grant proposals.

Think about it: anyone who’s reading your grant application is probably reading a dozen others, is likely stressed out and overworked, and is bored before they even start reading (no offense).

So: make it impossible for them to ignore your application. Don’t be obnoxious about it, but judiciously use those tricks to make sure you pass the skim test.

How to pass the skim test for your grant proposal:

1. Signal your intentions

Make sure your reader knows where you’re going. This means use headers, sub-headers and section titles (often specified in the guidelines)  to orient the reader to your text.

2. Highlight the important stuff

Find a way to make the important stuff stand out. This means using bold text (sparingly), bulleted or numbered lists (where appropriate), and TK. Bolded text is usually most effective at the beginning or the end of a paragraph.

3. Leave plenty of space on the page

Make your application easier to read by making sure to leave space between paragraphs. Your reader will feel more relaxed if they can see blank space on the page. This will also force you to make your writing more concise—which usually means it’s more impactful (if it’s done well).

4. Read it to yourself

Try skimming your application to see if you can get the general idea of the application. Have you highlighted the right areas?

Do you pass the skim test? Which one of these tips could you apply to make sure your grant proposal doesn't get ignored? Tell me in the comments!