Problem: Writing a proposal is difficult. That, unfortunately, is the long and the short of it.
So, what to do? Two solutions: go via trial-and-error, or go prepared.
This is the first post of a 4 part series on project proposals.
Will this prepare you? Yes.
This is a wrap up of tools I have conceived over years spent in writing proposals (and over winning and losing millions of €€€ in projects). In time, I identified what made the difference between a winning proposal and a losing one: if they are equal in quality, the one written better will, hands down, win.
Take this as a collection of the best techniques, tools, tricks and layouts I have encountered in the past years. (Un)surprisingly when you look at everything that’s gone on your desk, you start to notice a pattern. Your hit rate is consistently higher when you do that one thing…
What I want to achieve is this: I want to take away your pain of thinking about how to write. I want to transfer all that I have learnt in these years to you, and I want you to make it a part of your writing.
Think about it: how about being able to write better, faster and more clearly? It would save you time and effort – both of which you can use to work on the content of your project, i.e. what actually matters.
So yes, this series is for you. I hope you’ll enjoy it, and I hope to be able to transfer to you at least part of the knowledge I needed years to build. Good luck!
About this proposal writing series…
I divided the whole series in four sections:
Writing techniques for proposals;
Approaching proposal writing and structure of a proposal;
The proposal budget;
Proposal-specific writing tips.
The first section gives you the tools to generate ideas, structure your thoughts and convey your message; what makes a text good, readable and effective.
The second section builds on that and gives you with a proposal structure to fill (literally) with content. Here, we go through every step of a proposal, analysing its function and purpose.
Third, you will find an example and structure of the budget of a proposal, plus a workflow from beginning to end.
The fourth and last section is a collection of useful points to keep into account while writing to best engage your reader.
As you read, keep two concepts in mind (two disclaimers, if you wish):
There is no Golden Rule of proposal writing;
Content is still king.
Not everything in here will work for you, everyone has a different mindset and what might resonate with your writing attitude might not do so with someone else. Keep that in mind when you collaborate with other people on a document. I’m giving you a bunch of writing techniques; you are welcome to use them all or pick one and forget the rest, whatever suits you!
You might have the best technique in the world. If you have nothing to say, though, you’ll still have nothing to say.
One more point on project proposals…
Let’s just STATE THE OBVIOUS, shall we (you have no idea of how many people do NOT get these points right…)?
Do you want to get funding with a proposal? Then:
Have something to say;
Say it well;
Say it quickly;
Don’t repeat it;
Keep it short and simple;
Keep the page light.
Yes, it is blatantly obvious, yet everyone trying to get funding forgets it regularly. My points are:
Have something to say – If you have nothing worth talking about or reading, you might as well focus your efforts elsewhere. Evaluators can spot hollow proposals from miles ahead, it’s their job. Respect the reader and you will gain respect.
Say it well – If you have a valid point, make it convincing.
Say it quickly – Ever heard of an elevator pitch? You have 30 seconds to convince someone to listen to you. If it takes you more than that, you fail.
Don’t repeat it – Respect your reader, if you made a point and got it across there is no reason to repeat your whole train of thought. You can (and should) still reference your point, if need be, but don’t repeat your whole reasoning.
Keep it short and simple – Nobody likes to read hundreds of pages in deliberately difficult language. Writing long documents is easy – writing a concise one with each word carrying weight is a lot tougher.
Keep the page light – Do you enjoy cluttered pages and small fonts? Neither does your reader: a page needs to breathe and have images and diagrams to lighten it (without being distractive).
That was it for the introduction, let’s get started!
Writing Techniques for Proposals
When you finally sit down to write, my guess is you have all you need in your head and now you “just” have to write it, and that is the biggest problem: getting started… All your ideas are so cluttered that it is almost impossible to get them on paper!
The reason is that your brain is working at the same time on three processes. See, writing is not one process – writing is the ordered combination of three processes. If you want to get the best from your text, break down your writing in:
Editing and reviewing
Now, before you start thinking “hold on a second, I wanted to know about funding”, let me confirm this: this is a series about proposals and funding. The point is that writing is for the most part a science, and, like every science, writing is learnable.
There are specific techniques for each process. Apply them every time you approach a document for funding: they may not make you the next Shakespeare, but they will dramatically speed you up and increase your chances.
Techniques to create proposal content
“Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” (T. Edison)
Roughly paraphrased: you will only succeed if you manage to transfer every single concept from your head to your page. What counts to the evaluator is only what is written. What you want from the creative process is:
Laying out all your ideas on paper;
Generating new ideas while writing.
In the creative process you do not care about anything else but putting stuff down on paper. If you are familiar with John Cleese’s speech on creativity, you are in the “open” state.
You have three techniques for this: rapid writing, cooperative writing and mapping.
Start from a blank page
Set a timer for 5-10 minutes
Write about your topic until the timer goes off, as fast as you can
Correct your text
As you start writing on a proposal, your brain creates and corrects. In practice, this means you first think of a concept, then you write a sentence, review it and keep on writing.
This sounds natural, but for creating content it is only harmful: it blocks your flow of ideas and any time you correct, your brain must re-start its train of thoughts.
This has two consequences. First, your writing is slower; and second, you lose ideas while correcting. Any idea you don’t fit in now, you’ll need to include in a finished text, and that is much, much harder to do.
The solution? Block your brain from correcting and to force it to create. Put a timer on for 5-10 minutes and in that time do nothing else but writing for 5-10 minutes without a pause.
Note: when I say without a pause, I mean without a pause.
Forget typos, forget form, forget grammar, and do not allow your brain to correct what you write. Do not allow your brain to correct. Think about your idea and jot down everything you can think of connected to that idea.
What you should have at the end is 1-2 pages of text. This will be unreadable, full of typos and errors and will need reviewing, but it will be your ideas, which you can reorganize when your brain switches to correcting again.
What if I get stuck?
Keep writing. Write about your day, write about a song you are listening to, write about how you should really try to focus on rapid writing and get back on your main task, write about the dude that taught you this technique… the only important thing is that you do not allow your brain to stop creating. Let me stress this again: this technique will only work if you do not stop writing.
Try this: you need to file in a project for your region’s new airport and need to make a framework for the analysis. This will benefit the region’s tourism but will need investments in other infrastructure (e.g. highways and railways). Draft a text in 5 minutes setting up the project plan.
You need a team of five people: one lead author and four reviewers:
The lead author lists a few concepts related to an idea and passes the list to the first reviewer;
The first reviewer comments on the list asking precise questions and passes the commented list to the second reviewer;
The second reviewer inserts his comments / questions, answers to the first reviewer’s questions and passes the document to the third reviewer;
The team repeats the process until the lead author receives back the list.
This technique is based on group thinking – i.e. more brains is better than less brains.
To use this technique you will need at least 3 people (though I recommend about 5).
The process is straightforward: the lead author jots down a few concepts (it can be something as short as 10 bullet points) stating the main idea, some background, some consequences or outcomes and something about the methodology you have in mind.
Once the lead author is done, he will pass the list to the first reviewer, who will comment on it. Comments should be brief and precise, possibly posed as questions.
Once the first reviewer is finished, he will pass the document on to a second reviewer. This person will once again comment on the lead author’s input and, in case, elaborate on previous comments.
At the end of the process, the lead author will receive the original document back with comments, questions and ideas from the reviewers. Answering all remaining questions and incorporating the rest of the comments will result in an extended outline that he or she can then expand to a text.
Practical note: the comments function of MS Word is brilliant for this technique.
Mind maps, concept maps, webbing
Map your thoughts and concepts;
Use them as a guideline for your document’s structure and concepts.
Maps are a graphic tool to visualize on a single surface all topics connected to the main idea and to highlight the relationship between different elements.
Roughly put, there are two types of map: mind maps and concept maps. In my opinion, the distinction is irrelevant, however you might find it useful.
Mind maps are radial diagrams you can use to generate ideas with respect to your main topic and connected sub-topics. Start by placing the main topic in the centre of a blank sheet of paper and proceed with writing connected topics in adjacent spaces. At the end, you will be able to visualize the whole web generated by your idea and to use it as a guideline for writing.
Concept maps are top-down diagrams that start from the main idea and decline it in sub-concepts and examples. Start by stating your main message and connect it with sub concepts hierarchically. These maps are used to identify and highlight connections between far away concepts.
In my experience, I have never implemented a pure mind map or a pure concept map, as somehow you always end up with a mix of the two… I actually think this is not bad at all, so my take is don’t be too strict on this distinction and play along with these ideas.
Maps can be (of course) be drawn on paper or you could relate to software. The web is full of free and paid options, my picks are:
Once you have your basic ideas, you need to turn them into nice, readable content. I am not just talking about form and grammar; I am talking about proper techniques to clarify your points and ideas and to sell them it to the reader. The tools below will help you highlight your points and make sure that they go through effectively. In addition, you can use them to make sure that some concepts you don’t like do not go through… use these points well and you will steer the evaluator to your conclusion, not to his. Still quoting John Cleese, this is where you move from the “open” state to the “closed” state of mind.
Finding the common thread
Note down the main messages of a paragraph or text in a list
Identify the main messages or the different versions of the main message
Look for statements supporting the main messages or the different versions of the main message
Your chosen main message is the one with the highest number of supporting statements
Restructure the text accordingly.
This technique is useful to spot and clarify the main message if a text is not clear enough.
Sometimes after reading a document, you have a general idea of what it’s about, but nothing else. For a draft, this is normal, but for a final proposal, this is deadly. Remember: if you have doubts while reading, the evaluator will also have doubts while reading!
To start, re-read the text you want to clarify and note down every statement, idea and message you can find, basically turn your text into bullet points. Once you have the list, re-read it, identify the main ideas or the different versions of the main idea and highlight them.
Now read the remaining statements, messages, and note which ones support which idea. Also, identify and group repetitions of the same concept. Redundancy is never a good idea. Your main message in the paragraph now becomes the one with the largest number of supporting arguments. Remove all the statements that are not linked to the main message and restructure your original text according to what you have identified.
Confusing? Here is an example, consider this paragraph:
The development of industrial fisheries has impoverished several villages in eastern Somalia. As a consequence, the crime rate has gone up by 14.5% with respect to the previous year and additional funds are needed. Fishing stocks are also decreasing as they are harvested too fast and, lacking the application of maritime international law, the reproduction patterns of fish are disturbed. New commercial naval routes passing through Somalia foster criminality and contribute to disturbing the fish stock’s reproductive patterns.
Not too clear, is it? Understandable, definitely, but not defined. Now, identify the statements:
Criminality in villages in Easter Somalia is on the rise;
Local villagers cannot make profits from fishing anymore;
New commercial routes foster crime;
New commercial routes disturb fish stock’ reproductive patterns;
Fish stocks are decreasing;
Industrial line fishing is damaging fish stocks;
International Maritime Law is not applied;
Funds are needed to counteract criminality.
Once you have it broken down like this, it becomes easier to write a clear, concise paragraph:
Crime in fishermen’s villages in Easter Somalia is on the rise. This is mainly due to the decrease in fish stock caused by unregulated industrial line fishing and new commercial routes that disrupt the fish stock’s reproductive patterns. Specific funds targeting the conservation of the local fisheries, together with a proper implementation of international maritime law, are necessary. Control should also intensify on commercial routes, as they are believed to be an additional factor in the crime rise.
Guiding the reader
State the main message
State an opposing valid argument
List statements supporting the main message
List statements supporting the opposing argument
Confute the opposing argument
Provide a conclusion
This technique anticipates the train of thoughts of the reader and conducts him or her to your conclusion. It is brilliant to convince that your project deserves the funds you are looking for.
To achieve this, structure your paragraph in six parts:
Contrasting / opposite idea
Arguments supporting your main idea
Arguments supporting the contrasting idea
Confutation of arguments supporting the contrasting idea
By providing such a connected flow of steps, you can make sure that your reader sticks to the text. Let’s take a look at what would happen if, for example, you provide no arguments to support your idea.
An intelligent reader would start thinking about arguments himself and depart from the text – which you don’t want. Use this structure, instead, and you can make sure your reader’s attention follows your points. What’s more, you can also focus him on what you want (and off what you don’t want).
It is always useful to use this technique after you have already generated ideas and spotted the main message you want to convey (see above): first, you have a deeper knowledge of the topics, and second, if you are not solid on your text’s concepts, you risk messing up.
For this reason, this can be a good follow-up to finding the main message. A good use of connectives (we’ll get into that…) comes very handy here.
Re-read your text;
Note the points where you could elaborate more and act upon them;
Write knowing that you are always in time to take stuff out.
Warning: this can be dangerous ground. Apply this in case a part of text is completed but you feel like it could use some more “beefing up”.
In other words, your text is clear and complete, but it is not as complete or as comprehensive as it could be.
In this case, re-read your text, identify the weaker points and note down questions such as:
How did this turn out this way?
Could you tell me more about this?
What would be an example of this?
In other words?
Is there a parallel to this?
Don’t limit yourself to this list, I actually encourage you to be creative and ask yourself difficult questions. The general sense is to force your mind to elaborate more on what you have written and add consistent content.
Why is it dangerous ground then? Because the line between completeness and redundancy is thin. It is easy to cross the line without realising it and to pack a paragraph with superfluous information. My take on this is to write everything in from the beginning, even concepts you have doubts on: taking superfluous stuff out of a text is infinitely easier than fitting in an extra concept.
In other words: always write everything, and know you are always in time to take stuff out.
Editing and reviewing a proposal
This is the last section of the writing process. Editing and reviewing is nothing else but polishing up what you have. It is mandatory that you do it at the end, once you are sure that all you want is in your proposal.
Print out your text;
Give it to another team member;
Ask him to revise style and writing technique;
Accept or reject changes.
Editing is nothing more than revising a finished text. The main message I want to get through to you here is this:
You don’t get to review your text.
After writing something that cost you time and effort in research, you know the text and the topic inside out. This also means you can’t have an objective perspective on it: passages that are clear to you may be completely obscure to other readers.
This is the reason you should ask someone else to review your text. In case nobody is available, you can still review the text yourself, but spend at least one day of work on other topics to “forget” the document and read it with fresh eyes later.
In editing, the reviewer can provide comments and change the text. It will be up to the lead author to accept / reject changes and comments in the final text.
Apart from this, there is no specific technique to be used. As a mental framework, however, you might want to distinguish between a technical and a stylistic revision.
Is the grammar correct?
Was the document interesting?
Does this sentence make sense?
Is the author’s purpose clear?
Does it identify and express the main message correctly?
Who is the author talking to?
Are there enough supporting arguments?
Was it light to read?
Are there appropriate examples? Do they make sense?
Are the six proposal writing rules respected?
Do I need this paragraph to convey my message?
Do I remember the main points of this paragraph after reading it?
Are all paragraphs and chapter connected?
What is the conclusion? Is it clear?
Also, keep in mind that the evaluator will either receive a printed proposal from you or he will print it out himself. Therefore, before sending your proposal, print out a hard copy and base your review on that.
The difference in how you perceive a printed text instead of one shown on screen is stunning, and I can assure you your corrections will be different on a hard copy.
In general, try to keep grammar revision and formatting last. They are time-taking tasks and if you modify your document again after, you’d probably have to do them again.