Clear thinking

Learn how to improve your proposals and win more business.


Copyediting proposals

 September 25, 2018
by Paul Heron

Earlier posts this month included developing content prompts for proposal writers, managing early drafts and structural editing. Approaching content management and editing systematically improves efficiency and helps avoid last-minute rewrites.

Copyediting is the next step. Sections should now be complete, compliant, well-organized and should express the win strategy. The proposal should also be in a template that uses styles to format heads and subheads , body text, lists, tables, captions, etc.

Copyediting basics

Copyediting aims to remove any remaining impediments to evaluators engaging with and understanding your offer. Prime offenders include complex and/or awkwardly structured sentences and paragraphs, confusing words and phrases, uneven formatting (including section and subsection numbering) and inconsistent use of acronyms, abbreviations, capitalization, references, etc.

At a minimum, copy editors should do the following:

  • Match the language to the prospect (U.S. English proposals for U.S. prospects, Canadian English proposals for Canadian prospects, etc.). Update the template styles to the correct version, if necessary. To reconfirm, select all, set the language preference in Word, enable check spelling, and correct any misspellings.
  • Use styles for formatting. In Word, on the Home tab, click on the Styles pane and then select Show Styles Guides and Show Direct Formatting Guides.
  • Edit to a consistent voice. Use similar syntax (short declarative sentences, devoid of bafflegab, clichés, superlatives, and idiosyncratic expressions).
  • Be consistent in using pronouns, punctuation, abbreviations, acronyms, figure and table numbering and captioning.
  • Align formatting of tables. Text size, colours, shading, border colour and line weight should be consistent.
  • Use lists consistently. This blog post provides guidelines for using lists in proposals.
  • For joint venture or consortium proposals, develop and observe guidelines for referring to team members, key individuals, reference projects, and for the use of first- and third-person pronouns when referring to the J-V or consortium and its members.

The best way to ensure high quality results is to edit in several sweeps. Choose one or two items from the list above and focus on checking just those requirements. If copyediting reveals gaps or other major flaws, flag these with comments for review and correction.

Develop and use a style guide

A style guide is indispensable for consistent copyediting—especially if proposals will be copyedited by two or more individuals. If you develop proposals regularly, consider building a guide tailored to your business. The U.S. Plain Language Guidelines are a good starting point.

Copyediting support tools

A downloadable or cloud-based support tool, such as PerfectIt or Grammarly, can improve editing speed and consistency. You can also use Word’s advanced search function to find repeat errors—but be very careful of accepting “Replace all,” which can have unintended results. Always create a new version before making global changes.

The payoff

Evaluators read to scan and score proposals. They have little patience for irrelevant or confusing content. Edits that produce clear, persuasive proposals will dramatically improve the attention your offer receives, your technical score—and your wins.


Need help writing stronger proposals?

Contact Complex2Clear

Photo credit

Paul Heron, MBA, is the founder and managing partner of Complex2Clear, and leads our bid response practice. LinkedIn 




Structural editing

 September 18, 2018
by Paul Heron

This month’s blog theme is editing proposal content. The goals are to make efficient use of resources and to avoid last minute rewrite marathons.

If you haven’t already read the posts on Developing content prompts and Managing early drafts, please do so now. They contain useful background to this post.

Structural editing (also called strategic editing) aims to ensure content responds to the RFP questions—but also that it:

  • Is logically organized
  • Contains no redundant or non-responsive content
  • Addresses the issuer’s strategic requirements and hot button issues
  • Positions the offer against known competitive strengths and weaknesses
  • Takes advantage of visualization to improve readability and persuasiveness

Before you start

Revisit the RFP requirements, evaluation criteria and scoring system, and the team’s win strategy. Review any content prompts, section outlines, or other direction provided to content developers at kickoff.

Because structural editing requires context and bold changes, the best choice for this job is often the proposal manager or another senior team member.

Structural editing process

Read the entire section without making edits. Structural editing is about adjusting structure, not sentences. If you struggle to resist copyediting while reading, try sitting on your hands. (Seriously—it works!)

Evaluate each response for structural logic and completeness. For example, if the RFP requires:

  • A yes/no or numerical answer, make this the first sentence of the response, followed by additional information, if needed.
  • A plan or approach, compare the response against the prompts or approved section outline or bullet point analysis. Restructure the response as needed. If no prompts were provided, improve the logical flow of the response as necessary.
  • Similar long-form responses (e.g. “Describe the team’s experience in . . “) in multiple sections, align the structure of all the corresponding responses, to the extent possible.

Identify the following and take the actions indicated:

  • Gaps. Solution: Highlight and comment, referring to RFP ask
  • Non-responsive and/or non-compliant content. Solution: Highlight and add comment.
  • Redundant content. Solution: Merge or cut.
  • Empty content, platitudes. Solution: Delete.

Look for opportunities to:

  • Convert plain text to tables or lists. Solution: Convert as appropriate. Consider using bulleted lists instead of text strings of five or more items. Use tables to show relationships, such as pros and cons, events and consequences (e.g. a risk management matrix), chronology, etc.
  • Visualize key ideas. Solution: Convert plain text to graphics to highlight important benefits and advantages. If your team is new to using visualization, Complex2Clear's proposal blog index links to several posts. See column “V”.

Make clear, constructive comments. Structural editing usually exposes gaps and creates other work for the content drafter, who may not have your strategic perspective. If you’ve made dramatic changes to the draft, call or meet with the writer to walk through your reasoning and next steps.

The payoff

Strong structural edits transform proposals. This step unifies multi-author responses, giving evaluators the sense that the proponent team is cohesive and well-organized, with a clarity of purpose and approach. Well-structured proposals are also easier to read and score.



Need help improving your proposal editing process?

Contact Complex2Clear

Photo credit

Paul Heron, MBA, is the founder and managing partner of Complex2Clear, and leads our bid response practice. LinkedIn 




Managing early drafts

 September 11, 2018
by Paul Heron

This month’s posts examine management tools and techniques to help proposal teams avoid last minute rewrites. Last week we explained why and how to use proposal narrative prompts.

This post looks at managing writers’ initial drafts.

First rule: Don’t wait

Don’t make the mistake of scheduling your first content deadline more than one week after kick-off. If your writers are new to proposal writing or have other priorities, you’ll likely find they put off proposal responsibilities, if allowed.

Giving writers two or more weeks to produce first drafts, especially when the response window is tight, almost guarantees a last-minute crunch.

Schedule a bullet-point review

Rather than requesting a complete first draft, consider asking content developers to analyse their sections and produce a bullet point outline within a few days. This does two things:

  • Gets writers thinking about their sections immediately after kick-off
  • Provides an indication of which writers can and will keep commitments

Maintain momentum by reviewing each writer’s outline when submitted. Involve the writer and evaluate for compliance, logical structure and use of win themes. Based on the results, either approve for drafting or request an improved outline.

On large projects, consider asking a “Pink Team,” comprised of the proposal leaders, to evaluate and comment on these bullet point outlines.

Triage first drafts on receipt

Whether or not you include a bullet-point stage, assess drafts immediately on receipt to decide whether they meet minimum standards for inclusion in a combined draft. Evaluate against two standards:

  • Is the draft compliant—that is, does it answer the question(s)?
  • Is it substantially complete? (We consider 75% as substantially complete.)

Mark up and return drafts that fail this review for rework and escalate as appropriate. Energy spent trying to rework substandard content is better invested in improving already strong copy. Accepting weak drafts also trains writers to submit poor work.

Speed is critical

Notice our emphasis on turning around outlines and first drafts quickly. Time is always short in developing proposals, making it hard to regain lost momentum.

Even on large proposals, two or three editors typically edit all drafts from a dozen or more writers. Producing a clear, compelling submission that includes win themes and rich visualization takes time—which means those editors need to start with strong first drafts.

Next week: Structural editing



Need help developing stronger proposals?

Contact Complex2Clear



Photo credit

Paul Heron, MBA, is the founder and managing partner of Complex2Clear, and leads our bid response practice. LinkedIn 




Developing content prompts

 September 4, 2018
by Paul Heron

Nearly every proposal team has had to rewrite major sections just before a deadline. These marathons typically stem from a last-minute realization that the content doesn't answer the questions. They take a toll on everyone and produce final submissions well below early expectations. 

This month’s posts explain how to avoid major rewrites.

NOTE: This approach assumes the proposal leads have taken time to analyses the RFP and develop a strategy and win themes. See this post for more on proposal strategy making.

Narrative guides and prompts

To improve first drafts, do not simply distribute the RFP to your content developers. Instead, plan and execute a proposal kickoff and give writers their sections, together with a set of prompts for answering each question.

Prompts need to be written by someone who understands the project, the prospect, likely competitors, and the team’s solution and win strategy. Develop prompts to:

  • Ensure compliance
  • Show responsiveness and to position the offer against competitors
  • Promote consistent structure 

Prompt for compliance

For complex, multi-part questions, identify all elements of a fully compliant response in a bullet point list. 

Prompt for responsiveness and positioning

To ensure the draft considers responsiveness and positioning, develop prompts such as:

  • How does our solution address the prospect’s key strategic requirements and hot button issues? Using the win themes provided, tie the solution to 2-4 prospect needs.
  • What trade-offs (if any) did we make in deciding to recommend this solution? 
  • In what specific ways is our solution superior to those of likely competitors? See competitive solutions matrix for guidance.

Prompt for structure

Consistent structure signals a cohesive team and leadership, and is especially important in RFQ responses, which typically contain high-value approach sections. See this post on consistent proposal structure for more on this topic.

The following prompts recommend a logical structure adaptable to all sections that require approaches and plans:

  • Cite 4-6 concepts or principles that underpin our approach to this deliverable. These are items that, when followed, produce successful outcomes
  • Explain exactly what we will do and how major decisions align with the concepts cited above. Use 70-80 percent of the total page limit for this part of your response
  • Show how our team has used this approach successfully in past relevant projects, citing reference projects and key individuals wherever possible
  • Link the key features of our approach to the prospect’s goals and hot button issues

Worth the effort

You may be thinking: This sounds like a lot of work. Developing clear guidance does take effort by the proposal manager or other senior team member. But this early work pays off handsomely in better first drafts and—crucially—avoidance of those last-minute rewrite marathons we can all do without.

Next week: Managing early drafts



Need help writing stronger proposals?

Contact Complex2Clear


Photo credit

Paul Heron, MBA, is the founder and managing partner of Complex2Clear, and leads our bid response practice. LinkedIn 





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