Lessons From A Previous Life: Proposal Writing

I’m in the process of revamping my online presence, so I’m going through the bits and pieces that were hosted on my old website and determining what stays and what goes. While I was doing so, I found a piece I’d written up about proposal writing, and thought that some of the advice was still relevant no matter the circumstances.

I spent almost ten years as a technical writer, writing proposals for government contracts, before I became a Stepford Wife stay-at-home mom. A lot of what I know about writing proposals and other technical documents is pretty globally applicable, especially if you’re in the phase of a writing career (or any career) that involves writing – particularly nonfiction – to a directive. In other words, if you need to write something that is going to sell yourself or your work, or if you need to demonstrate a plan of action in some way, or if you have been given questions to answer – it’s all proposal writing, when you come down to it. And hey, if you’re writing actual proposals and find this, enjoy! Enjoy those deadlines. I’ll be over here, mall-walking.

Here’s what I wrote about proposal writing, back in the day, for preservation’s sake.

Take Charge: Make sure you’re writing in the active voice, not the passive voice. Take responsibility for the actions you’re proposing – WHO will do it? Do an ‘OULD’ check: search for ‘would,’ ‘could,’ ‘should,’ and other maybe words – make them definitely words like ‘will’ and ‘can.’

Chunkify: Create easily readable and understandable chunks of text that cover each topic you want to address clearly. Don’t let your paragraphs run on endlessly. Stay on topic. Consider pulling out an especially relevant one-liner and making it a sidebar quote – bold text, in a box on the sidebar, drawing attention. Textbooks often use this tactic for important definitions.

Answer the Questions: Make sure that your response answers every question brought up in the RFP (Request for Proposal). [Modern-day edit: RFP is a specific term, but we’re talking about whatever you’re writing for – interview questions, a marketing manager, an agent requesting a plan, anything.] You can go further, if the RFP permits it, and talk about other benefits to your product or service, but if you don’t make sure that you address every single thing your potential client has made sure to write down in RFP form, they won’t believe you can do the job. Try including a ‘compliance checklist,’ with each and every item they’ve listed in the RFP and a snazzy checkmark indicating you’ll provide it.

Keep it Professional: Never submit handwritten forms. Fill them out electronically. Get the full version of Adobe Acrobat, and learn to love the Typewriter tool. Failing that, get a typewriter. [Another modern-day edit: This is a global truth. I am still astonished at the number of agents and editors I hear stories from about people handing them handwritten manuscripts. Don’t. Handwrite. Anything.]

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