Tips for Improving Your Proposal Writing

For the last ten years, at least a third of my income has been derived from proposal writing. I still have no idea what goes through the minds of Source Selection Boards or other organizations to ensure that you will win. What I can offer are tips to help your proposal rise above the usual engineering textbook.

You’re busy, so I’ll just get to it.

Don’t be boring

What’s boring in the proposal world?

  • Providing bland descriptions of your technology or approach: we will do X, we will do Y, we will do Z.
  • Reciting statistics…say, about your MTBF performance or how many widgets your ABC Machine(TM) can crank out in an hour.
  • Parroting the solicitation language back at the evaluators.
  • Reciting your company’s/technology’s history of doing whatever it is that needs doing.
  • Using a lot of passive voice.

I can hear some of you saying…”But, but, BUT! That’s what they asked for!” Yes, yes. And a lot of engineering proposals require the reader to be immersed in the latest software, propulsion, nanotechnology, or robotics wizardry. Technobabble is unavoidable. All reasonable points. Some of your readers might even enjoy reading dry engineering descriptions. That is no excuse for boring your readers.

State your advantages

Now I’m imagining my engineering readers thinking, “Oh, great, here comes the marketing guy trying to add razzle-dazzle and BS to a sound technical proposal!” Not at all. Lucky for my engineering colleagues, I don’t know enough about their hardware to overpromise or make up capabilities. I take the proposed engineering work for what it is. I just submit that engineering writing need not opaque.

So how would I improve things? Let’s start with that first bullet: providing bland descriptions of your technology or approach. Trust me, I’m a fan of clear and direct language–no fuss, tell me what you’re going to do–BUT…before you dive right into how you’re going to lay out your composite laminates or set up an agile coding team, it would do some good to open the overall proposal and individual technical sections with a paragraph explaining the context of your approach and why your customer should want to use it. For instance, engineering proposal writers might assume that the reader knows as much as they do so they don’t need to explain everything. I beg to differ.

You might, for a completely made-up example, have a software development approach that enables software to be developed at a specific rate or at an error rate of 1 per 1,000,000 lines of code, which might be 10X better than the industry average. You might know that, but do your readers? They might, but event if they do, that advantage is worth restating. Or you might have a technology that improves the ability of a telescope to see 8X farther than any instrument built to date; however, if all you do is describe the technology, stopping short of explaining that advantage or outcome, you miss the opportunity to highlight why your proposal stands out, you leave it to the reader to understand the implications.

Show how you’re answering the mail

Yes, it’s good to show your reviewers that you read the solicitation, and it’s often helpful to sprinkle in some of the words found there to show that you’re giving the customer what they want. However, it’s more important that your proposal “answer the mail” by showing how your solution matches the intent of those magic words and your customer’s priorities. Some of that goes to your proposal evaluation criteria: If your customer’s primary emphasis is cost, you want to be able to highlight all the places where your approach keeps your approach inexpensive (or, barring that, less expensive that your competitors’). If your customer’s primary interest is in your past performance, you shouldn’t just recite a list of everyone you’ve worked for before, but your results…hopefully all good ones. If your customer is looking for the latest gee-whiz high technology, you want to be able to show the newness of your approach/research.

Communicate clearly and directly

Passive-voice writing makes me crazy. It’s the difference between “The magnet will be moved” and “The team moves the magnet.” Another headache for the proposal reader (who, by the way, is reading more proposals than just yours): confusing readers on what the subject is and/or separating your subject and verb. Example (fictitious):

The mission of the new Constitution class vehicle, with its need to advance rapidly across multiple star systems over the course of days, can be advanced by employing the Consolidated Machinery Warp Drive.

All sorts of things done wrong here–on purpose–so you can see how they might be improved. First off–what’s the subject here? The mission of the starship or the starship itself? What’s being advanced? One clue is that prepositional phrase: “of the starship.” So really, “the mission…can be advanced.” You could fix this by saying

The new Constitution class vehicle’s mission, with its need to advance rapidly across multiple star systems over the course of days, can be advanced by employing the Consolidated Machinery Warp Drive.

Okay, that’s a slight improvement, but let’s dig a little deeper. There are still way too many words clogging up the space between the subject and the verb. I added an extra bit of ugliness here by making the verb passive: “can be advanced” vs. “advances.”

The new Constitution class vehicle’s mission, with its need to advance rapidly across multiple star systems over the course of days, advances by employing the Consolidated Machinery Warp Drive.

Better? Maybe. But do we really want the mission to be the subject of this sentence? We really want the actor here to be the warp drive. So let’s do some more serious rearranging and add some more verbs to make it clear what’s being done to what:

The Consolidated Machinery Warp Drive advances the mission of new Constitution class vehicle by accelerating the ship rapidly across multiple star systems over the course of days.

Now we’ve got a much more active sentence, with the product you want to sell–the Consolidated Machinery Warp Drive–being the first thing discussed and the subject of the sentence. And look! The verb is the next word. And two words later? There’s the thing being acted upon: the mission. This is what English professors call classic SVO (Subject-Verb-Object) construction, and it’s one of the simplest sentence structures to read. In this case, we have SVO (the warp drive advances the mission) followed by some explanatory text afterward, which might or might not be needed. The most important things done with this editing exercise were to:

  1. Clarify what is done and who is doing it
  2. Explain how it is done

If you’re an engineer and all this seems like too much thinking, just concentrate on who is doing what to whom (SVO) and leave the rest to your friendly neighborhood editor. The important things here are to make your writing clear, active, and understandable.

Do some additional reading

For more insight into how to improve your writing, the best, hands-down editing book I’ve ever read and used is Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Williams. It’s worth the time and money.

Happy proposing!

About Bart Leahy

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