Reading the Fine Print in Contracts and Solicitations

I was trying to book a quick getaway trip for this coming weekend, which led me to an online booking site. They showed a hotel deal for $327, which sounded great. However, I had to dig deeper into the application to discover that was the price per night, not for a full four nights. That served as a great reminder to read the fine print, which can affect not just personal travel arrangements but proposal solicitations you read or contracts you sign. The fine print matters.

Reading Proposal Solicitations

The good news about government solicitations is that highly important information, such as the due date or any warnings or caveats to the opportunity, are often highlighted in bold print. This isn’t a gotcha game–they want you to follow the directions and operate within federal laws and regulations.

For instance, I read an opportunity for a customer today warned companies already working on a related contract could not bid on the new opportunity because it would create a conflict of interest.

However, you can still get tripped up by the details of writing or even submitting a proposal. While I’ll be polite and not name the agency, I recall a situation a few years ago where three people with five advanced degrees among them could not figure out how to submit a proposal because the instructions were so badly. Calling the agency resulted in little help because we were told “the instructions are published for you to see, so you figure it out.”

Here are some examples of “fine print” that you need to watch for in solicitations:

  • The solicitation might specify the section headings your proposal should use, but will not always be clear about which content should go in which section.
  • Formatting: font types and sizes as well as word or page counts can create a problem if they are not caught early in the process. Little things like having your proposal number no more than 30 pages including the cover page and table of contents can mean the difference between a compliant proposal and a proposal that get rejected immediately.
  • If you have to deliver a print/hard-copy proposal (still possible in the 21st century, especially for very large procurements), you would need to have a “master copy,” which includes a cover letter and authorized signatures, plus a certain number of duplicates all including “Copy” stamps on them…plus CD-Rs of the each volume of the proposal.
  • If you have material in your proposal that might be classified in some way, make certain you understand what you can or cannot include and the specific procedures you need to follow to protect the proprietary or technically sensitive information in your document.

Signing Contracts

This becomes more of an issue if you are a freelance contributors. In addition to a non-disclosure agreement (NDA), you also will find yourself having to sign a full employment contract, which spells out what you are responsible for, how much information you can share about your customer or your relationship with them, and how to submit your invoices. The good news is, the contracts for writers usually not very long. The bad news is, for your own good and protection, you need to read the entire thing.

How to Protect Yourself from “Fine Print”

Here are some basic pointers to help you work around the inevitable fine print you will encounter in your business life:

  • Read the entire solicitation, contract, or other document you must comply with.
  • Follow the directions as written.
  • If you have a question and still have time (government proposals will have a deadline for answering questions), ask for clarification.
  • Consult with other members of your team (on proposals), including the Legal department, if you have specific questions. If you’re especially concerned about the rules of an independent contributor contract, call the customer/client and ask for clarification; depending on the type of seriousness of your concerns, you also might consider consulting with a lawyer.

Let’s be careful out there.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
This entry was posted in clients, freelancing, proposal writing, technical writing, workplace. Bookmark the permalink.

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