Proposal Survival Tips Revisited

It’s been a bit hectic this past spring and summer, so I haven’t had the opportunity–or, quite frankly, the energy–to write here as often as I’d like. The reason? Proposal writing. That is not a sport for the faint-hearted or disorganized writer. For one thing, many times you can get locked into the Little Room and forced to expend more energy than you normally would interacting with people more often than you would otherwise. This is especially challenging for introverts (there aren’t a lot of extroverted writers, but I’m sure they’re out there).

Anyhow, as I am sliding down the adrenaline/exhaustion ramp that is proposal season, I thought I’d throw in a few more “survival tips.” I’d be interested in learning what other writers do during “crunch time,” if not for proposal writing then writing a lot of content under a deadline.

Get Things Done Early

One thing that’s helped my proposal-writing process at Zero Point Frontiers has been writing white papers, marketing materials, and other background content on the topic before a request for proposal (RFP) ever hits the street. This pre-writing is especially important when you have a new process or widget to sell. If you already know how your process/widget should work, you don’t have to spend time and mental energy inventing it at the same time that you’re trying to respond with a compliant proposal.

Slow Down

This sounds counterintuitive, so let me explain what I mean. Obviously you’ve got a lot of text to crank out, and you need it done by the deadline. That causes you to speed up your thinking and typing velocity. However, the devil is in the details when it comes to proposal writing. You can miss things very easily. You need to take some time to slow down and make certain that you have answered the mail, included all the information you were supposed to, and followed the directions.

Here’s another one I’ve been guilty of due to too much “quick thinking”: being discourteous. If we’re in a rush, it’s very tempting to just issue short, clipped orders or responses that coworkers don’t always appreciate (and which they remember later). Slow down and remember to always take time to say “please” and “thank you” when making requests for information and remember to slow down long enough to explain the how or why behind a request. Just because you’re in “proposal heck” doesn’t mean everybody else is, and they might not have been living with the content or situation as long as you have.

Obey the Forms

During my single semester of teaching, I made content (direction following) 50% of my students’ grades because quite frankly that’s mostly how I’m graded. If I don’t include everything I’m supposed to in a proposal, that proposal gets bounced before it’s even read. If I include things the customer does not want, I can face the noncompliant bucket for a different reason.

Frank Herbert, author of the Dune series, used a phrase in his science fictional world that determined formalized rules for factions fighting each other. This “Great Convention” began every rule with the words, “The forms must be obeyed.” In government-speak, this actually means two things: 1) Follow the written directions on a proposal and 2) Follow the social or protocol rules when conducting business with your government customers. Some social rules are silly but taken seriously–I was in one meeting where I was ejected from my chair because a civil servant informed me that that was their seat in the meeting room. Other rules can get you, your company, or the government customer into serious legal trouble. This would be things like trying to get “inside information” during a proposal blackout period. When in doubt about a course of action, talk to your immediate supervisor or go as far as your company’s legal counsel before firing from the hip.

Clarify Roles and Responsibilities Up Front

This isn’t just about who will do what on the work being proposed (the org chart), but something more immediate, like who is responsible for delivering which parts of the content while writing the proposal. In a small company, this can be pretty straightforward–it might be you and a couple other people at most–but sometimes it’s just better to create a spreadsheet, list all the proposal’s required boxes, and then assign a name and due date to each of them. I’m also fond of color-coding them as work is completed–green for done, yellow for in work, red for removed (or “in danger of not being done,” your process could vary).

Leave Enough Time for Production at the End

Again, your process could vary, but a good proposal manager has to know exactly when a proposal is due and “back up” into the date when all the content needs to be completed. The content due date is not the same as the proposal due date, which might surprise some people, but is a harsh reality. Regardless of the size of the proposal, time must be allocated for the following minimum reviews:

  • Content–is everything there that’s supposed to be there?
  • Editorial review–is everything written correctly?
  • Format review–is everything appearing on the page correctly (font types/sizes, margins, captions, page numbers, headings, headers/footers, logos, graphics)?

Other proposals, depending on their length and complexity, might require additional reviews or activities:

  • Legal/contractual–have all of the certifications and representations been completed correctly and the proper signatures been obtained? If there is proprietary/sensitive content in the proposal, has it been scrubbed for inclusion–i.e., are you allowed to say that?
  • Graphic design/layout–this becomes especially important if you have a graphics-intensive proposal that requires specialized images to be created (tables, charts, concept art, drawings, etc.). Ideally, include your graphics person/department in the process early so they can start preparing graphical content in parallel with writing activities. I know, graphics people: it never happens. But some notice (a day) is better than no notice (dropping in on the artist’s desk an hour before it’s due).
  • Printing/Production/Delivery–some proposals, despite the Paperwork Reduction Act, still require companies to deliver multiple hard copies of a proposal. Sometimes they even require single-sided printing only! Other proposals require submissions via email or website. Ideally, you’re not uploading at the last minute, but if you are (it happens), make sure your email server is working and that you have a draft email ready and proofread so that all you have to do when the final document is ready is attach it and hit send–BEFORE the deadline time. (Oh yeah, and you late filers make sure you’re sending at the correct time, especially if you’re in a different time zone from the receiving office!)

But I kid you not: I had a proposal get bounced because the entire document–technical, management, and cost volumes–was not submitted before the deadline. Don’t assume that just because you got part A in before the deadline that it’s okay to submit the other parts after the deadline. It is not.

Set Clear Expectations for Subcontractors

Large, multi-party proposals add another layer of complexity to the effort because now you’re trying to collect information from multiple parts of your own organization (over which you have some authority) and others (over which you have practically none). This content might range from technical descriptions of their part of the proposed work to resumes, key personnel bios, past performance narratives, or facility descriptions. As you put together your proposal team, it’s better to spell out up front what you need from subs–length, format, level of detail, etc.–so that you aren’t facing a self-inflicted hairball as the deadline approaches.

Celebrate the Submission

Notice I didn’t say celebrate the victory. There’s no guarantee that you’ll win. When I first started doing proposal writing for pay ten years ago, I was told that the average win rate on proposals for the Department of Defense was around 50%. Proposal writing requires a thick skin. The best time to celebrate is when most of the team is in the neighborhood–at the time of delivery. Thank everyone for their help and patience (even if they didn’t offer much of either). Give yourself a little down time at the end of that day and allow yourself to relax just enough to appreciate the satisfaction of a job completed and well done. If it wasn’t well done, well, at least it’s done, right?

The deadline-driven nature of proposal writing means that it has a definite rhythm and pressure to it. You either learn to live with it or find a less stressful line of technical writing, though I can’t think of any writing that doesn’t have a deadline unless you’re writing strictly for fun–at which point how do you know when you’re done? I don’t mind proposal writing in general, but I’m glad I have the opportunity to do other types of work as well–marketing, brainstorming, engineering documents, strategic planning, and all the rest. And here’s the wicked little secret if you’re an English major and need a job–good proposal writers are always in demand and the better ones can command excellent, family-feeding salaries. Good luck finding time to write that Great American Novel, though.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Directior, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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