The Development Source

Write Good Proposal Prose — Clear and Direct is Better!

As proposal professional Chuck Keller has repeatedly pointed out, good proposal prose is important because proposals should be “understandable, persuasive, accurate, and concise.”  However, too many proposals seem to be haunted by what Keller calls the “Paid by the Word/Syllable Demon” who perversely believes that the “more and longer words and sentences in your proposal, the better.”

Although this demon seems to be everywhere, there are ways to combat this crafty creature and write good prose.  I will choose three of Keller’s recommendations to help you simplify and prune your writing so that reviewers can easily read and understand your prose quickly and easily.

Too much passive voice

This is one of the major problems in proposal prose.  There are three voices in English:  the active voice where a clearly identified subject performs an action (verb), an imperative voice that issues a command or instruction, and the passive voice where the subject receives the action of the verb.  These voices are all grammatically correct, but the passive voice tends to be less clear, more wordy, and more difficult to understand because the subject is often obscured or unnamed. 

Follow this simple rule:  use the active voice as much as possible.  Start your sentences with a clear subject and use an action verb.  It will make your prose more forceful and easier to read.

Too many compound and compound-complex sentences

This is another major problem in proposal prose.  Too many proposals are riddled with long, tortuous sentences that contain independent clauses linked by coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or, so) or conjunctive adverbs (however, meanwhile).  The result is a jumble of words that is difficult to understand.

Follow this simple rule:  try to make your independent clauses separate sentences.  When you have long sentences, use bulleted and numbered lists to break them up and make them more readable.  Shorter is almost always better in a proposal.

Long, unneeded words and phrases

Too many proposals are verbose.  They need to be drastically pruned.  You may think that long words and phrases make your proposal more persuasive, but the opposite is usually the case.  Delete long and complex words and replace them with shorter ones.  Delete prepositional and nominal phrases and replace them with single, simple words.  Below are some examples.

Prepositional phrases:

At this time – now

Due to the fact – because

Of great importance – important

Nominal phrases:

Made a call – called

Resulted in a decrease – decreased

Afforded an opportunity – allowed

Keller is absolutely right.  Write economically and use words carefully and prudently to convey your points.  It will improve the readability and persuasiveness of your proposal and help you conform to required page counts.


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