Proposal managers and senior staff often seek out project managers as domain experts to help write sections of proposals either for potential clients or in response to government request-for-proposals (RFPs). No one pretends that this is going to fun; it just has to be done if you want to keep getting new projects! (Warning: It is also added to all the other tasks you have on your plate.)
In sympathy with your situation, here are a few tips about proposal writing that I picked up through helping or writing hundreds of proposals.
- Use an upside down pyramid structure—meaning begin each section or paragraph with your assertion about the end-product and its usefulness, the benefits of your approach, or the reason this will work. Follow the assertion with backup detail or justification. I know this does not seem logical from an engineering point of view where one moves purposely through steps toward a conclusion, but it is an essential selling strategy and that is what proposal writing is all about—selling.
- Use simple, active sentences—subject-verb-object. Do not use passive voice. For example instead of saying, “Research has found that applying basic principles of agile programming allows a project to quickly accommodate changes in requirements.” Say, “Agile programming methods accommodate changing requirements.” Then justify that assertion with evidence. Here is some simple guidance on voice from The Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue University.
- Use action verbs. Active sentences have action verbs that make writing more powerful than namby-pamby forms of the verb to-be. Here is list of action verbs to help you write engaging proposals. I know this is hard to do always— just look at some of the “bad sentences” I write in this Blog!
- Create meaningful graphics. Many people (read reviewers) grasp ideas or concepts more quickly from graphic presentation than long, and sometime convoluted, text. Fortunately, this is often easier for project managers with their engineering or computer science background than it is for other writers because they tend to think in pictures. Graphics are not clip art. Useful graphics are process diagrams, decision matrices, or notional user interfaces that tell a story or give instruction. Good graphics take a lot of time to create. Do not forget the action caption telling the reviewer what they are seeing and what they should conclude.
- Avoidable gotchas:
1. Read the instructions or directions. Make sure you understand the problem to be solved from the point of view of the customer and the reviewers.
2. Don’t use jargon or buzzwords without explaining.
3. Don’t assume your readers understand technical terms—provide a simple explanation.
4. Take advantage of spelling and grammar checkers built in to word processing programs.
5. Appreciate editors and give them your writing and materials in time for them to do their jobs.
Please add your thoughts, suggestions, or lessons from proposal writing experience to help others new to this opportunity.