Proposal Writing

Proposal writing is hard, often tedious work because of the intense concentration required to write well. Due to its difficulty, your writing team should be given as much help as possible.

Proposal writing is hard, often tedious work because of the intense concentration required to write well. Due to its difficulty, your writing team should be given as much help as possible.

Help could include:

  • A proposal outline written in as much detail as possible. The detailed outline will give the writers a structure to help make their written material look as consistent as possible.
  • An automated library of proposal writing tools and standard material.
  • Section templates and writing examples.
  • Writing guidelines.

The Proposal Outline

Most successful proposal leaders and writers follow a set of guidelines for writing an outline and conceiving proposal content. Here are some examples:. Write a proposal to solve the customer's problems as THEY perceive them, not how YOU perceive them.

  • Don't try to think for the customer. Give the customer everything asked for in the RFP, down to the minutest of detail. Write to each and every solicitation requirement, even if it appears to be meaningless on the surface. Remember, evaluators love to eliminate proposals to save time and effort or, sometimes, to help their favorite company.
  • Write the outline using topic and subtopic sentences whenever possible.
  • Explain how you will meet each and every requirement in a clear, concise manner.
  • Explain why you are unique but only when you can be convincing and the uniqueness stands up to scrutiny.
  • Give evaluators the material they need to support a decision in your favor.
  • Use simple, easy to understand language; avoid long-winded sentences and paragraphs.
  • Develop a concise staffing and project management plan without any ambiguities in staffing and personnel qualifications. Rewrite resumes of staff members to specifically address the RFP requirements. Interview proposed staff members to determine the specifics of their experience and its relevance to the requirements.
  • Do not present extraneous or marginal material.
  • Tailor your corporate qualifications (and general information) to match the specific requirements of the RFP.
  • Differentiate yourself from your competitors. Know your strengths and weaknesses and your competitors' strength and weaknesses, and write to all four of these points.
  • Find ways to present your solutions as unique while still meeting the requirements of the RFP.
  • Write to the specific benefits of your company, your project team, and your solutions and substantiate each of these.
  • Don't get caught in the inherent trap that your company is the customer "end all, beat all." Everyone thinks this way but your confidence means nothing to the customer unless it's backed up with references, performance data, and facts.
  • Acknowledge your weaknesses in relation to the requirements and negate them as much as possible.

Proposal Writing Library

Proposal material can be used over and over again, saving time, but you must methodically tailor it to the particular proposal you are writing. Don't be in a last minute hurry and get caught in the trap of using standard material without tailoring it. The evaluators will through this.

Your library should include:

  • Proposal writing books and training materials.
  • Corporate qualifications.
  • Staff resumes. (Remember again: the standard resumes need to be tailored too.)
  • Past performance material and statistics.
  • Success stories.
  • References. (Cleared of course.)
  • Model proposal material including project management approaches, technical descriptions, and chapter introductions.
  • Competitors' proposals obtained from public information requests.

Automate the library as much as possible so the writers can move the material electronically.

Consider buying proposal-writing software (but know of course that it's no substitute for the hard work that has to be done).

Developing Templates and Writing Examples

Large proposals require many writers. These writers will inevitably produce material with different styles, levels of clarity, and consistency. By sending templates and writing samples to the writers, you help even things out, put everyone on the same page so to speak. The following is an example of a writing template:

Section Title
Write a summary of the section here.

Subsection Title
Write a simple declarative sentence stating the theme of the subtopic.

Write a background paragraph(s) describing your understanding of the customer's requirements, problems, etc. Be insightful.

Write a paragraph(s) describing your solution to the customer's requirements, problems, etc. Be creative.

Describe the features/elements/aspects/characteristics of your solution. Be clear and concise.

Describe the specific benefits of your proposed solution to the customer. This is the critical section. Be thorough and provide as much evidence as you can that the benefits will accrue to the customer.

Summarize the subtopic themes again except in a paragraph.

Writing Guidelines

The following writing guidelines (and others you have developed) should be given to the proposal writing team.

  • Writing style is important. Write from a logical outline and use topic and subtopic headings.
  • Structure the first paragraph in a topic and subtopic so that it presents the primary point first. Summarize every chapter and topic with a brief paragraph.
  • Use trigger words, known facts, statistics and specific reasons to convince the reader of the primary point, e.g., a unique feature, capability, or benefit.
  • Illustrate as much as possible.
  • Use appendices for detailed material.
  • Do not use big words in an attempt to impress your customer. Avoid unnecessary words.
  • Avoid subjective adjectives that sound boastful. Be specific. Use such phrases as "10-year track record," rather than "excellent track record."
  • Avoid long sentences, long winded discussions in general, and keep your paragraphs concise and short.

Help your solution writers write in as clear and concise a style as they are capable of. Clear, concise writing has the following characteristics:

  • Logically and consistently organized. E.g., if one writer is presenting understanding of the requirements, solutions, solution features, solution benefits, and benefit substantiation, in that order, then have all writers present their material in the same order. Give the section writers templates and an example of a well written section to follow.
  • Easy to read and understand. Again, topic sentences, short paragraphs, and no extra words. Use simple declarative sentences. Think Hemingway, not Faulkner.

In summary, you should develop a technical proposal that is clear and concise in describing exactly how you will meet the requirements stated in the RFP. Make it as easy as possible on the evaluators who have a big pile of proposals to read.

The Review Process

You need to conduct reviews because they are critical to the quality of the proposal. You should have at least two reviews, one at the second draft (called a Red Team review) and one at the final draft stage. Above all, don't just review the draft in the final hours before the proposal goes out the door because it's usually too late by then.

The review team should evaluate the proposal from the customer's perspective. Be brutal and act like an evaluator. Compare everything in the proposal to the requirements in the RFP. Have the solutions and benefits come out? Is the writing clear concise, easy to read and understand? Point out where it isn't. Fixing such problems could be the difference between winning and losing.

You can be more informal for small proposals but the fundamentals are the same. Don't shorten the review process due to a lack of time. If you are short of time and the proposal shows it, consider canning the proposal.

In reviewing and preparing to reach the final draft stage, the proposal leader writing team should ask the following questions:

  • Did our understanding of the customer's needs and our proposed solutions and benefits come out clearly?
  • Are the writers on track and writing consistently among their respective sections?
  • Does the proposal read like a unified whole?
  • Have they hit on new themes and pertinent solutions?

After this review, the team prepares a second draft of the proposal. This draft is subject to the most important review of all, the Red Team Review. This activity is so important, it requires a full article all its own. Look for it in the next issue of Proposal Writing Tips & Techniques.

Things to Avoid

The State of California published the following list of proposal statements that caused the proposals to be rejected. Do your best to avoid such statements.

  • A bid stated, "The prices stated within are for your information only and are subject to change."
  • A bid stated, "This proposal shall expire thirty (30) days from this date unless extended in writing by the xyz Company." (In this instance, award was scheduled to be approximately 45 days after bid submittal date.)
  • A bid for lease of EDP equipment contained lease plans of a duration shorter than that which had been requested.
  • A personal services contract stated, "xyz, in its judgment, believes that the schedules set by the State are extremely optimistic and probably unobtainable. Nevertheless, xyz will exercise its best efforts..."
  • A bid stated, "This proposal is not intended to be of a contractual nature."
  • A bid contained the notation "prices are subject to change without notice."
  • A bid was received for the purchase of EDP equipment with unacceptable modifications to the Purchase Contract.
  • A bid for lease of EDP equipment contained lease plans of a duration longer than that which had been requested in the IFB with not provision for earlier termination of the contract.
  • A bid for lease of EDP equipment stated, "...this proposal is preliminary only and the order, when issued, shall constitute the only legally binding commitment of the parties."
  • A bid was delivered to the wrong office.
  • A bid was delivered after the date and time specified in the IFB.
  • An IFB required the delivery of a performance bond covering 25 percent of the proposed contract amount. The bid offered a performance bond to cover "x" dollars which was less than the required 25 percent of the proposed contract amount.
  • A bid did not meet contract goal for MWDVBE participation and did not follow the steps required by the bid to achieve a "good faith effort."

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