Writing clearer narratives

Proposals are often the only strategic, outward-facing documents for which companies rely on non-writers. That’s because proposal writing requires technical expertise and, although some subject matter experts (SMEs) are fine writers, many are not.

Copyediting will correct flawed writing, but often gets crowded out by deadlines and budget constraints. For that reason, we recommend working to improve SMEs’ ability and comfort when drafting narratives.

Begin this process by fostering the following writing habits:

1. Client focus

Proposals are selling documents—and selling is all about the prospect. Here are some ways to demonstrate client focus:

  • Show understanding: Proposal evaluators frequently complain about vendors who launch into describing their solutions without first showing they understand the requirements. Showcase your understanding by citing requirements and how key solution features will address them.
  • Explain trade-offs: Whenever you choose one option over others in developing a solution, show how each trade-off improves alignment with one or more of the specific requirements and goals.
  • Remember WIIFM: Evaluators are always asking: What’s in it for me? Subject your content to the same question. If it’s not clear why your prospect should care about a paragraph of content, ask yourself if you need it. Remember, your aim is to explain and persuade, not to fill pages.

2. Rely on facts not fluff

When writing about your company’s history, performance and experience, use facts to make the case. Descriptors such as “world-class,” “a leading provider of,” “one of the best,” etc. are empty claims that will get you no points. Instead, state your case using facts.

3. Write (mostly) in the active voice

Active voice writing is stronger and more persuasive than passive voice. It should be used by default in proposal writing. In the active voice, it’s clear who is doing what. For example:

  • Passive: Safety Committee meetings will be held every week.
  • Active: The Safety Committee will meet weekly.

This link provides more examples and ways to spot the passive voice.

It makes sense passive voice where:

  • A process performs the action: “Effluent is piped to the digester and treated with enzymes.”
  • Who carries out the action is unimportant: “If you do not perform this maintenance monthly, your warranty will be cancelled.”

NOTE: In some situations, a bid team will purposefully use passive voice to avoid making commitments that could limit flexibility in future contract negotiations. If your company employs this strategy, communicate it to your SMEs and/or use copyediting to manage commitments. See this post on when to use passive voice in proposals.

4. Use plain language

People typically use more complex words and longer sentences when writing than speaking—either unconsciously or because they believe it sounds more authoritative. The goal should be to write as plainly as possible, considering the subject matter and audience.

Evaluators scan and score proposals, rather than reading them closely. Write for fast, easy reading by:

  • Avoiding wordiness and unnecessarily complex phrases and verb forms
  • Using simple sentences and short paragraphs
  • Managing jargon and acronyms carefully: Jargon is useful as insider shorthand, for example among aircraft cockpit crew. But some proposal evaluators may not be technical experts, so use it sparingly. Redefine unfamiliar acronyms the first time you use them in a section. Where appropriate, use a nickname (“the Committee” or “the Project”) instead of an acronym.

The U.S. Plain Language Guidelines, source of the above links, are an excellent guide for proposal writing. They make great first time or refresher reading for any writer serious about his or her craft.

It takes a strategy

Wordy, ambiguous writing often signals a lack of knowledge. Habit 1: Client focus is only achievable when writers are armed with a win strategy before they begin. Start with this post on proposal strategy basics, and then scan our blog Index under the column headings U and S to learn more.

Making good habits stick

All this is easier to say (or write about) than to do. Aim to gradually improve the level of writing over time, rather than expecting immediate changes in habits developed over years or decades.

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