Proposal Writing – a few guidelines for success

Proposal writing is a key business development skill for many businesses

Proposal writing, white papers, and blog postings is a frequent topic of discussion with clients.

Recently a client forwarded an article on scientific writing,”The Science of Scientific Writing by George Gopen and Judith Swan ((American Scientist November-December 1990))

From the end of the article:

We began this article by arguing that complex thoughts expressed in impenetrable prose can be rendered accessible and clear without minimizing any of their complexity. Our examples of scientific writing have ranged from the merely cloudy to the virtually opaque; yet all of them could be made significantly more comprehensible by observing the following structural principles:


    1.  Follow a grammatical subject as soon as possible with its verb.
    2. Place in the stress position the “new information” you want the reader to emphasize.
    3. Place the person or thing whose “story” a sentence is telling at the beginning of the sentence, in the topic position.
    4. Place appropriate “old information” (material already stated in the discourse) in the topic position for linkage backward and contextualization forward.
    5. Articulate the action of every clause or sentence in its verb.
    6. In general, provide context for your reader before asking that reader to consider anything new.
    7. In general, try to ensure that the relative emphases of the substance coincide with the relative expectations for emphasis raised by the structure.

It may seem obvious that a scientific document is incomplete without the interpretation of the writer; it may not be so obvious that the document cannot “exist” without the interpretation of each reader.

This is really quite interesting. I particulalry liked the positioning of the summary seven rules at the end of the article. This is the exact opposite of current web writing styles. But it is the last phrase, “it may not be so obvious that the document cannot “exist” without the interpretation of each reader.” that provoked the following about proposal writing. It is precisely fulfilling the expectations and requirements of the reader that is really the starting point for proposal writing. Like much of business development, proposal writing starts and ends with the client.

My major comment about this article is that, although useful, it is way too granular in it’s approach. Long before you get to the level of sentences and paragraphs it is useful to answer some other more global questions.

For example, with regard to proposal writing:

Who is the audience?

In the case of proposal writing  the answer to this question must include the boss, or even the boss of the boss, of the person the proposal is nominally addressed to. Your contact in an organization will most likely have to get approvals to spend the money to hire you. This means that the contextual information and technical level of the proposal must be adjusted so that the boss can understand what the proposal is about and why they should approve it. Understanding and responding to the decision making sturcture of your client is a key step in business development.

Make sure to answer these basic questions: who, what, why, when, how, and how much.

Who is involved in the project and what are their credentials.

Why are these people the right people? Do you have additional resources available? In some cases the proposal will specify who on the customer side must be involved to support the project

What and Why

What are the deliverables of the project and why are they important to the customer. Here you need to be careful to first speak of the business benefits of the project and only then the technical features. Remember when you buy a pen you want to write with it. The specifics of its construction are not why you bought it. This is basic Feature Attribute Benefit analysis (FABing).

How and When

These are answered first through a brief narrative description of the work to be performed and the phases of the project. Then, depending on its length and complexity, you may add a more or less detailed timeline or even full blown project plan. Be sure to set some milestones that connect with technical decision points about the deliverables as well as moments for progress payments.

Where will the project work be done?

All of it in your facility? Where will final acceptance testing be done? And so on.

How Much is your cost statement.

Pricing is too complex to address in detail here. Nevertheless, do not automatically start your pricing calculations from the traditional consulting model of:  Price equals hours plus materials plus profit. Consider the end value of your work to your client. How much technical and competitive risk is involved?How much competition are you facing? Your business development work should provide much useful information here.

But, do make a detailed estimate of your time and materials. Otherwise you are setting yourself up for failure.


If the project involves significant risk you should address this issue. This discussion should reflect conversations you have had with the client as part of your business development work. Frequently this will lead to project milestones and decision points related to the risks identified.

Outside Review

Be sure to ask someone outside of the project team to read the proposal before it is sent to the client. This person should preferably not be intimately knowledgeable of the client or project. Can they make sense of your proposal? What questions did you leave unanswered or answers lacking in clarity?

Although the article forwarded to me by my clients made some valuable points about scientific writing, you might first refer to the classic The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. And E. B. White or the Chicago Manual of Style for a more general introduction to writing.

Defining the audience for your proposal and being sure to answer the critical questions of who, what, when, how, where, and how much will take you a long way to more success.