The Development Source

Write to Win in your Proposals

In the proposal profession, everyone talks about various win strategies.  For me, a major win strategy is good writing.  If you can write a good proposal, reviewers are likely to read it carefully and take it seriously.

Writing, however, is an art, and many of us do not possess it.  These are the typical mistakes many writers make in proposals:

  • Too many words.
  • Too much passive voice.
  • Too many long sentences.
  • Too much difficult prose.

If you can avoid these problems – and this is a big “if” – you are likely to have a very readable proposal.

Below are my suggestions for avoiding the typical problems that seem to bedevil proposal prose.

Be succinct and get to the point quickly

How many proposals have we read that begin like this: “The Jones Company is pleased to submit this proposal to the US Army.  It would be our privilege to be selected to provide managerial and administrative services for DARPA.”

Ugh!  This does not say anything and is sure to induce narcolepsy in reviewers.  Instead, follow these simple rules:

  • Every paragraph should begin with a theme or thesis statement.  The rest of the paragraph should elaborate on the theme or thesis.
  • Be concrete and direct.  Provide proof (evidence) to back up your major points.
  • Keep your sentences and paragraphs short.  Sentences should not contain more than 25 words.
  • Use plenty of bulleted and numbered lists to make your point and provide information.

Avoid the passive voice

This is one of our national plagues.  Too much business and government prose is written in the passive voice.  Where is the subject?  What is the subject doing?  Too often, the passive voice masks a lack of content or understanding.  Reviewers understand this well.  Below is an example of how you can avoid the passive voice.

Before:  Providing outstanding managerial services is important at the Jones Company.

After:  The Jones Company will provide the following managerial services to DARPA:

Whenever possible, all your sentences should have a subject and an action verb.  Tell the reviewers what you will do, clearly, specifically, and step-by-step.

Use the Flesch Reading Ease test to determine the clarity of your prose

The Flesch test measures the readability of your prose.  It is based on the average number of syllables per word and the length of sentences.  Here are the scoring levels:  90-100 – easily understood by an average 11-year-old student; 60-70 – easily understood by 13-to-15-year-old students; 0-30 – best understood by university graduates.

In your prose, you should aim for a score of 45 or better.  Between 60-70 would be great.

You can access the Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level through Microsoft Office Outlook and Microsoft Office Word.

Edit, edit, edit, prune, prune, prune

You should ruthlessly edit your prose.  If you prose gets longer and you are not adding missing content, you are not editing properly.  Your prose should get shorter and tighter.

Poor readability will kill your proposal.  Write well – that’s a good start to a winning proposal.


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