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Copyediting proposals

 March 22, 2016
by Paul Heron

Because several people often contribute to a large bid response, and because most content developers are non-writers, all proposals benefit from editing.

This post identifies the flaws a copyeditor should catch and correct.

The goal is clarity and power

Proposals are persuasive sales documents. Great proposals use facts and plain language to make an argument for selecting the proponent. So the general rule for copyeditors is simple: Correct anything that makes content less clear and/or less powerful.

Top 5 flaws a copyeditor should catch

The main issues we see and their consequences include:

1 Passive voice

Passive voice is the most common flaw in proposals. Passive voice is the default language of bureaucrats and others wishing to avoid responsibility. A famous example was the response of then defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld when asked about his role the disastrous Iraq War. Rumsfeld replied, “Mistakes were made.”

Overuse of the passive voice saps energy from writing. Evaluators are less likely to become engaged and enthusiastic when reading passive voice vs. active voice proposals.

Example, along with the active voice equivalent:

  • Passive: “This project was completed on time, on budget and with no lost time accidents.”
  • Active: “Our team completed this project on time, on budget and with no lost time accidents.”

2. Complex verb forms

Complex verb forms make writing weaker and less clear. Like passive voice, they sap evaluator energy.

Example of complex verb use, along with preferred alternative:

  • Complex: This section describes types of requirements that would satisfy the warranty requirements under this proposal.
  • Preferred: This section explains how to meet the warranty requirements under this proposal.

3. Wordiness

Wordiness—also called bafflegab, gibberish or gobbledygook—is jargon-laden, overly complex writing. Many proposals contain deposits of bafflegab.

Bafflegab confuses and exhausts evaluators, leading them to stop reading (and scoring) at some point before finishing the section.

Wordiness example with plain language alternative from the US Plain Language Guidelines:

  • Bafflegab: “Most refractory coatings to date exhibit a lack of reliability when subjected to the impingement of entrained particulate matter in the propellant stream under extended firing durations.”
  • Plain language: “Over time, exhaust gas damages most existing refractory coatings.”

4. Lack of specifics

Many proposals contain sweeping statements such as: “Our company is one of North America’s leaders in the _____________ industry.”

Here’s the issue: evaluators of most large RFPs follow a scoring guide that sets out the points available for each section and criteria for awarding those points. When scoring the section on relevant experience or past performance, the statement above is worth exactly zero.

Instead of empty claims, provide proof. How long have you been in business? What percent of sales is to repeat clients? What are your fill rate and on-time performance and reliability rates? What excellence awards have you won?

A copy editor may not have the specifics to correct generalities, but if they’ve somehow survived the proposal review process, he or she should flag them for follow up.

5. Inconsistencies

Proposals written by multiple contributors often exhibit very different writing styles from one section to another. Multiple contributors also introduce variances in addressing the prospect, referring to past projects, use of acronyms and abbreviations, setting up lists and tables, captioning visuals, etc.

All of these inconsistencies work against the ideal of a unified message. When noticed by evaluators, inconsistencies sow doubt. They signal that the bidder may be undisciplined and careless with details.

A style guide, customized to the opportunity, is essential to ensuring consistency. By all means distribute the guide to content developers—but don’t expect them to follow it. Your copy editor, however, will find it invaluable.

Copyediting can only do so much

A good copyeditor can lift a proposal that’s already sound. But what if your proposal contains fundamental flaws in the way it is organized and written?

Deeper issues require structural or substantive editing. Next week, we’ll examine the role of the structural editor and the flaws he or she will identify and correct.

Next week: Structural editing of proposals


Need help whipping flabby writing into shape?

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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