Big Proposal Production vs. Small Proposals

This past week or two, I’ve been supporting two different proposal efforts: one is large, with multiple partners and lots of pages; the other is for a small business pursuing a single task order under an already-existing Broad Area Announcement (BAA). The activities and responsibilities differ a great deal just by the sheer scale of the projects. Today I’ll take some time to talk about those differences–they can affect how the individual technical writer contributes and works.

The Big Proposal

A large government proposal can run 100 or more pages, involve multiple large companies, and take weeks or months to assemble. Individual subject matter experts will be assigned to the individual volumes: technical, management, past performance, price, and representations and certifications are some of the most common, and some SMEs might even receive only one section related to their particular expertise. That is not to say that you’ll have more than one technical writer on hand–you might!–but it’s also not unusual for one writer to read over the entire proposal to make certain that it reads with “one voice” at the end of all the inputs. This gets more challenging when other companies are also providing inputs, often to multiple volumes.

In my particular assignment this week, I was brought in relatively late in the process to address page count and stylistic issues…with new content still coming in! To smooth this out and not overwhelm the new guy, a consultant who had been with the proposal effort from the beginning handled the new inputs and consolidating when my simple word tweaking couldn’t make a big enough dent without removing critical technical information. He handled strategy (the big picture) while I handled tactics (details). I found the arrangement quite helpful.

Sometimes I’ve been lead writer and editor on a large proposal, and that’s not always the best way to get that “strategic” view, especially when I get bogged down by the details…this is where “Red Team” reviews by people not connected by the proposal can be most effective in helping you catch errors you might miss otherwise. Of course outside inputs by a committee can be challenging, too. You’ve got to somehow to incorporate multiple and sometimes-contradictory advice and edits (example: one person spends a lot of time rewording a paragraph that another reviewer deletes completely). That’s where you have to defer to a manager and have them adjudicate the conflict while editing continues. Still, given the sheer amount of material involved, more eyes are better.

The Small Proposal

When you write a proposal for a small business, the scope is usually small, with the proposal correspondingly smaller: 10-30 pages compared to numbers ten times that. Because it’s smaller, it’s assumed that one writer can handle most of the editorial duties. Even with that level of responsibility, even the small businesses I’ve worked for found people to support a “Red Team” review. Those fresh eyes are still helpful.

I’m often asked by students and younger practitioners if I actually write all the content in a proposal. Even in small proposals, the answer is usually no. Subject matter experts take the first crack at things, then they hand over their content to me for to smooth things out for grammar, style, and word/page count. If they give me too much content, I will trim and sometimes tweak the formatting until I’m in danger of eliminating content. If I’m still over on page count, I’ll then go back to the SME and ask them to make the requisite cuts. They know what’s critical in their content better than me.

Small proposals can still present challenges, even with reduced page counts. Despite the Paperwork Reduction Act, our government still occasionally requests things such as hard copies and even compact discs with the proposal content on them. That means the final outputs are duplicated or even triplicated, as you must create an electronic submission to upload or email; a paper copy to be hand-delivered or shipped to the customer’s office; and an electronic copy to be burned onto CD. The key in that case is to make certain that the FINAL versions of everything make it to their separate destinations. That’s where a compliance matrix can become your checklist for ensuring that everything you want done IS done. The trick, of course, is that with a smaller team, you end up more hats than simply “writer.”

All part of the adventure, folks. I do love it so. 🙂

About Bart Leahy

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