25 Actionable Proposal Writing Tips (the complete list)

Proposal-specific writing tips

If you are reading this post, I assume that you can work well, that you can write in professional English and that your grammar and style are solid. Nevertheless, have a look at the points below. This is not part of a specific strategy, nor does it focus on a precise part of a proposal. It is rather a collection of useful tips and suggestions to improve your proposal writing skills.

Will these tips win you a project? No, but they will make your proposal stand out compared to the one of a competitor. You will never notice the presence of these tips in a document, but be sure you would notice their absence.

Some concepts in this section have been taken from the Federal Plain Language Guidelines, March 2011, Revision 1, May 2011 (www.plainlanguage.gov) – just clarifying 😉

 

Acronyms

The first time you use an acronym in a text, write it in the following form:

United States of America (USA, hereafter)

This justifies the use of the acronym everywhere in the text. In case you are dealing with many (more than 20), include a table after the table of contents outlining them all. It is a useful reference for the reader.

 

Active vs. passive form

Tend, if you can, to use active verbs. Sentences with active verbs are simpler and shorter, and require less effort from the reader. Furthermore, an active sentence requires the use of a pronoun, which clearly identifies responsibility within a sentence, thereby eliminating ambiguity.

 

Bibliography

Bibliography can be extremely important for some projects, and can also be so for the context section of a proposal. Whenever you include a bibliography, it must be precise in format and in content. It is more of a formality than anything else if you ask me, but a necessary one. Setting up a bibliography correctly often becomes time-taking and cumbersome: not something you would particularly wish for. Luckily, there are some tools that can save you time. My favourite is a free tool called Zotero that you can add onto your browser and your text editor. This tool, among several other things, can set up a bibliography in one click.

The software’s website is www.zotero.org – I strongly encourage you to take a look at this and to implement it in your everyday job. There is also a built-in function in MS Word and plenty of other paid options, but I consider this one to be best.

 

Breaks

Take breaks in writing a proposal. Let your brain rest, recover and start again. Leaving early and showing up at 5:00 AM after a night of sleep is more efficient than pulling through the night.

 

Callouts and side notes

Callouts make an important point stand out. Side notes lighten the page and guide the reader. Their use should be moderate, otherwise they risk cluttering the page and confusing the reader. Keep it to one callout every 2-3 pages and to 2-3 side notes per page maximum. Important: either use them throughout the document consistently or do not use them at all. See “consistency of formats”.

 

Connectives

Connectives are specific words used to link a sentence to the next one or to the previous one. For example:

The temperature has risen. Because of this, we are experiencing extreme climate events.

I’m not interested in giving you a massive list of connectives, as there are plenty of resources and web pages do this much better. What I’m interested in is passing you the idea that the use of these words can help you to guide the reader to your logical conclusion and to give a much better flow to your text. Consider using a connective in these cases:

  • To add ideas to a concept previously expressed (e.g. furthermore)
  • To introduce an example (e.g. for example, such as)
  • To introduce a conclusion (e.g. briefly, to sum up)
  • To state purpose (e.g. for this reason, to this end)
  • To state consequence (e.g. because of this, thus)
  • To express contrast (e.g. conversely, on the other hand)

 

Consistency of formats

Make sure that all the formats are the same, for example when it comes to numbers, dates and quantities.

Wrong Right
The total budget required for the project is 2,500,000.00 €. The required pre-financing is of EUR 250000 and the first € 1 million will be paid by March 23rd, 2015. The finalised product will be delivered on 1/1/2016. The total budget required for the project is 2,500,000.00 €. The required pre-financing is of 250,000.00 € and the first 1.000.000 € will be paid by March 23rd, 2015. The finalised product will be delivered on January 1st, 2016.

This also applies to text editing: if you make a stylistic choice, stick to it throughout the document – e.g. bullet point style, use of callouts and side notes, font types and size…

 

Cross-references and notes

Cross-references are a brilliant tool, use them anytime you need to recall some content elsewhere in the document. As much as possible, try to reference points that you have already mentioned, because this way the reader will be able to follow better what you mean. If you reference to something ahead in the text, the reader will have to skip ahead to read that section. That will interrupt the flow of information he is receiving, whereas if you reference to something earlier in the text, the reader might well remember it and go on with the text. Whenever you reference something, mention the page number (you can cross-reference that, too), it makes the relevant paragraph a lot easier to find.

 

Evaluation criteria

Evaluation criteria are key to your final score. Of course, you should do try to do your best in all situations but where should you go the extra mile? Usually calls for tender list out their scoring criteria. Pay attention to the following:

Evaluation Criteria Call 1 Call 2
Contextual Understanding 30% 10%
Technical Proposal 50% 30%
Budget 20% 60%

Clearly, the people behind Call 1 want to have someone that will do the job right, and that knows what he or she is doing – the ones behind Call 2 just need to get the project done and they don’t have many funds for the project itself.

Extreme cases, of course, but keep this in mind when shaping your proposal – and keep in mind that if you know, your competitors will also know. Be strategic with this.

 

Fonts and font size

Consider changing your font type and size for paragraphs with different functions. Take, for example, the boxed paragraphs in this series: they serve a different function, and being in a separate font and font size helps the reader separate them from the main text.

Also, wrap your head around this: Serif fonts (e.g. Times New Roman) look more professional, but sans serif fonts (e.g. Arial) are easier to read. You have several options at your disposal when it comes to fonts, choose what suits your brand, the project and the client best

 

Gender

Your proposals should be gender-neutral, as far as possible. For example refer to person-days, instead of man-days.

 

Grammar notes

Write in correct English and make no mistakes. In some cases, however, you can bend this rule: your main goal in writing a proposal is clarity, not grammar. Therefore, you could break a (light) grammar rule if this means you can shorten your sentence and make it flow better.

Take prepositions. In English, it is grammatically incorrect to end a sentence with one, but it is an acceptable and light mistake that can dramatically reduce a sentence’s length and complexity.

The expert with whom we will be working.Vs.The expert we will be working with.

 

Hierarchy

MS Word has wonderful functions when it comes to titles, subtitles and so on, use them. They are not really wonderful, however, in terms of design. Basic titles and subtitles in MS Word tend to be cluttered, plain in design and simply do not look good, therefore consider hiring a designer to properly set up a document template for you.

That said, make sure that hierarchy among titles and subtitles is respected. You can check this by simply looking at the table of contents once you are done with your first draft. If you notice that two paragraph titles are given the same level but you know the importance of their content is different, consider changing it around.

Do not use numbers before titles. Using numbers to identify paragraphs was useful 20 years ago with typing machines, as it made adding a paragraph in an existing document possible and easy. Now, with text editors, we don’t need that anymore. If we need to refer to a paragraph, all we need to do is include a cross-reference and we are done.

Wrong Right

4.1 Work Package 2

4.1.1 Task 1

4.1.2 Task 2

4.1.2.1 Subtask 2.1

Work Package 2

Task 1

Task 2

Subtask 2.1

Whenever possible, try to stick to maximum three levels.

 

Images and diagrams

Images and diagrams have two functions, clarifying your point without using words and making the page lighter. Make sure they fulfil those functions and that they are not superfluous.

At the other end of the spectrum, if a diagram is incredibly complex and requires an explanation of its own, perhaps consider changing your approach.

 

Language level

You need to use a professional register of English, and use appropriate words. Remember, however, that you are not writing a novel. A paragraph should sound good, use proper wording and show that the writer possesses good language skills. If you catch yourself focusing too much on the aesthetics of the language, however, stop. The more you use difficult and uncommon words, the more you risk not being understood by your readers.

 

Letters of support

If the Terms of Reference (ToR) do not explicitly rule this out, and if your project allows it, include letters of support from third-party organisations to show your project idea is already well-seen.

Take two notes about this last sentence:

  1. If the ToR do not explicitly rule this out” and
  2. if your project allows it”.

The reasoning is simple: letters of support enjoy alternate views. They are either loved for showing support or hated for being a dodgy way of obtaining financing. Sometimes, the ToR explicitly state that no letters shall be included. In case they don’t however, assume that everything not explicitly forbidden is allowed.

Secondly, though, consider how including them will play with respect to your project. Do the letters come from important, impartial organisations, or do they come from potential partners of competitors? The last thing you want is the evaluator thinking “well, why the hell is X supporting this project and not joining it / competing against it?”.

In case everything is clear, however, go for it. Best option: write a template letter, send it over to your partner and ask for a signed version on official letterhead. Easier than having them write about a project they know nothing about.

 

Lists and bullet points

Bullet points and lists should be coherent in form, meaning that you should not change, as far as possible, the form of the listed elements. Keep the list as coherent as possible and in case there are any outliers (points that don’t fit in the form you choose) include them after the list. Specifically, keep the grammar coherent in all points.

Wrong Right
  • Go to the beach
  • Bring cream and water
  • Don’t forget the towel
  • Getting there by train is easier
  • Reminder: call a restaurant and book for lunch
  • Go to the beach;
  • Bring cream and water;
  • Get there by train as it’s easier;
  • Book a restaurant for lunch.

Furthermore, we should not forget the towel.

 

As you can see, the points on the list of the right always have the verb in the same tense and person and the outlier is added at the end. Keep in mind that this does not only apply to bullet lists, but also to offering several ideas in a sentence (e.g. this cake is sweet, tasty and beautiful is better than this cake is sweet, tastes good and I like the way it looks)

 

Notes on deliverables and numbering

There are two possible ways to deal with deliverables: you can give them a number or leave them without it.

Giving them a code creates a unique reference. For example “D4.2 Final Report” tells the reader that the Final Report is the second deliverable of WP4. This also means that the Final Report can be referenced to in the text by using “D4.2”. The disadvantage in this is that you add text and that it might be difficult for a reader to follow precisely all deliverables if you only refer to them with the code. Alternatively, just provide the deliverable’s name. You lose structure and information, but it is possibly clearer for the reader.

No option is better than the other, it depends on the type of project and on the client.

 

Numbers and percentages

Numbers and percentages can be such a powerful weapon when convincing your audience. Suppose you want to buy a new motorbike: if I tell you it has a lifetime of three years and in that time it will cost you just as much as a cappuccino per day, wouldn’t you at least think about it? It’s true, a cappuccino is 2.5€ a day. If you buy one a day for three years the total is 2737.5€ – the cost of your bike.

My point here is not trying to have you buy a bike (although I think you should because they are AWESOME), but to show you how presenting numbers and percentages in a certain way can work differently in the reader’s mind.

Think, for example about saying 3 in 4 instead of 75%, or vice versa, depending on what you are trying to accomplish. Saying “there are two robberies a month” is technically the same as saying “every two weeks someone gets robbed”, but the actual interpretation is different.

 

Page breaks (web vs. printed)

How will your final delivery look like? It is either a PDF file or similar, or it is a printed-out copy.

PDF file: make sure to include a page break before each level 1 Title. This way each new chapter will start on a new page.

Printed copy: include a section break before each level 1 Title and have the next chapter start on an odd page.

Considering that PDF files will be printed, you could also consider always including a section break. This is fine, however if the proposal is less than 20 pages it is not that important. Keep in mind that most proposal also have a page limit. Rather than forgetting about page breaks cut the text or erase a few pictures or diagrams.

 

Pronouns

When faced with a doubt, prefer the use of pronouns to an impersonal sentence. Pronouns have the great power of being specific. This means that their use can identify responsibilities in a sentence. For example:

  • The budget for 2025 needs to be increased.
  • The financial department needs to increase the budget for 2025.

In the second case, the burden of increasing the budget is clearly put on the financial department and is not just a general statement.

Note of caution, please check that all pronouns agree – in other words, make sure you don’t switch between “you”, “we”, “they”, etc. – especially when there are more people writing on a document in parallel.

 

Readability indexes

Readability indexes are a less-known feature of MS Word. Basically, these indexes run a test your document and provide you with an indication of how easy or how complex to understand your text is.

To enable these statistics in Microsoft Windows:

Microsoft Office Button -> Word Options -> Proofing -> select check grammar with spelling -> select the Show readability statistics check box.

To enable these statistics in Mac OS:

Word -> Preferences -> Spelling and grammar -> select the Show readability statistics check box.

Now, some versions of MS Word use the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level test and the Flesch Reading Ease test, whereas others use Gunning’s Fog and Gulpease, and there might even be other versions that use different indexes. Therefore, first figure out what your MS Word version uses, and second understand what that index actually expresses.

Whatever you choose, remember that those indexes are formulas, and there is much more to a text than a formula. For this reason, yes, trust the results of the tests, but do not make it your only meter for evaluating the quality of your document.

 

Redundancy

You can either choose a circumlocution to express a concept or a precise word. Most of the time the concept remains the same. As a general rule, choose the shorter version. This also applies with synonyms. Make sure your sentence still sounds good after you change it.

Wrong Right
On a weekly basis Weekly, every week
On this ground Because
In order to To
An amount of X X
This, which was set up last year, is… This, set up last year, is…
Is able to Can
A large amount of Many
Each one of these points Each point
As well as And
To follow up on this concept Furthermore
Usage Use
The following concepts These concepts
Very
Thing (find a synonym)

 

Reference and Bibliography styles

References and bibliography are important; end of discussion. How important? Honestly, less than you might think. Unless you are doing academic or legal work, you might cut a corner or two when it comes to this.

There are three main styles you can choose from:

  1. MLA;
  2. APA;
  3. Chicago / Turbian.

Honestly, I think it is pointless to even describe how you should quote what. Pick one style and make it your own or come up with a clear enough style yourself. Nobody is going to cut points off your proposal for not having an official reference style (unless you have made a total mess – try not to).

Best choice, Zotero or any other software (see above, page 80). In case you don’t have the chance to use it, ask the coordinator to decide on one specific style – or if you are the coordinator decide for the rest. The only important aspect in this is coherence. Leave academics and lawyers to build a perfect bibliography, luckily this is not your main problem.

 

Tenses

Always prefer the present tense. It is clearer, shorter and simpler. This, again, is not a rule you must obey at all costs, but it’s a preference you should have. For example, notice the difference between:

  • The city hall needs to move the cars away from the bus lanes;
  • The city hall would need to move the cars away from the bus lanes.

The latter sentence is longer and its message is not as clear as “would” expresses doubt.

__________________

I’m done… what now?

Now it’s up to you my friend. What you have just read is but an instruction manual, applying the rules and figuring out what works for you is your task! There is no way you can recall everything on command when you need it, unless you’ve practiced working with funding for a long while. Start by taking the proposal structure you found on my site and use it as your basis, then, start playing around with your favourite writing technique, ideas and structures will come into place. Fix the proposal budget and sooner than later you’ll have a proposal ready.

Remember that not all techniques will work for you, everyone has a different mindset! Play along with them and bookmark this post: peek in whenever you’re stuck despite your efforts. Whenever this happens, grab a random technique and start playing around, inspiration will come!

Best of luck my friend, and if I can ask you for a favour… share my friend, share! 😉

2 Comments
    • Mario
    • 06/10/2015
    Reply

    Nice article, but I have to say that it is not a mistake to end a sentence with a preposition. That’s a common myth. Please check this link for details:

    http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2011/11/grammar-myths-prepositions/

    Or simply google: Ending a sentence with a preposition myth

      • Edoardo
      • 07/10/2015
      Reply

      Hey Mario, thanks a lot! Totally agree with your source – I think the page hits pretty much the same point I wanted to make but explains it a lot better, i.e. correct forms of English may not always sound the best so in these cases it’s perfectly fine to use what sounds most natural.

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