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How to Write a Proposal: Getting Back to the Basics

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Cheryl Smith



3 min

Writing a quality proposal is a lot like writing a student essay. It may be a more complicated process requiring a dedicated team and hours of work, but there are still simple, basic concepts we learned back in school that can substantially improve your chances of winning

Here we outline a few of them. 

1. Read the Directions

Because this is the most important one, we’ll say it again: Read the Directions. Teachers told you this all through elementary, middle, high school, and college, and it still holds merit. Misread or disregarded directions can lead to a loss of efficiency, a last-minute scramble, or worse, compromised proposal quality. 

There is nothing worse than losing a bid because your team did not include something outlined in the RFP.

2. Plan Ahead

Having a good capture strategy will improve the quality of your proposal. Research every detail you can think of; background information, similar projects, news articles, and anything in the directions of the RFP that seem unclear. 

Include your proposal manager; they are familiar with your solution and your approach to winning, and can bring valuable insights to the qualification process. 

A lot of improvisation and innovation goes into developing a winning proposal, and what your proposal manager doesn’t know can hurt you, and the pursuit.

3. Back Up Substantiations

Proposals are persuasive documents, and writing persuasively requires relevant details. You don't want to fall into the trap of repeating that your company can deliver without actually explaining how. 

Focus on intent and the details that will help evaluators understand, and accept, the solution at a deeper level. Focus on the “how to do” aspect of the solution; show evaluators how their success will be achieved. Infuse each with relevant client stories to establish you as a confident, authoritative source.

4. Include What’s Relevant; No More, No Less

It’s so easy to get caught up in the “fluffy” parts of writing; little anecdotes, grandiose sounding words, a plethora of adjectives. See, we just did it right there. Adding too much irrelevant information doesn't make your proposal sound smarter, it raises red flags for the evaluator. 

Cut the fluff of filler words and phrases like basically, exactly, actually, in general, and in order to, etc. These words make the proposal sound uncertain, undermining evaluator confidence. Revise with stronger, more concise words and phrases that more clearly convey your intent. This will better hold the evaluator’s attention and keep them from skimming.

5. Keep a Thesaurus Handy

How many times have you read something and thought to yourself, “Geez, they’ve used the same word at least 15 times!” There are few things more obnoxious than reading an essay that uses words like “important” or “good” over and over. 

Keeping a thesaurus (or www.thesaurus.com) handy will only make your writing better because you have the resource to liven up every paragraph. This isn't to say repetition isn't a good thing, in fact, it can be a valuable writing strategy. Proposals can be hundreds (and sometimes hundreds and hundreds) of pages. Strategic repetition is an effective way to gradually remind evaluators of the proposition. Revise by rephrasing the same point, swapping in a client story or quote, and adding a visual to reinforce your point. 

6. Don't Skip Reviews

Proposal writing is kind of like a team sport, and reviews are your time-out. The team has written a first, or second, or third, draft – where you go from here with it will either advance or stall your proposal quality and win probability. 

Your reviewers are your gatekeepers; they provide feedback on where the team may have blinded themselves to certain compliant issues and solution or strategy weaknesses. Ask for instructions, not feedback. Make sure your reviewers understand how each review builds on the last – incrementally improving win probability – and how their reviews are the roadmap that helps the team get there.


Author picture

Cheryl Smith

Cheryl Smith is our Senior Content Writer. She has additionally been writing and managing proposals since 1998. Shipley trained, she has helped establish proposal centers and advised on capture strategy, coached orals teams and lead marketing, communications and knowledge management programs. Cheryl is a graduate of The George Washington University with degrees in Theatre, Communications and Literature. When she’s not sharing her passion for work, she loves drawing, writing, cooking and exploring the Virginia woodlands with her husband, their dog Chase and the fuzzy guests they host for Rover.

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