Proposal Style Sheets

I’m in the midst of another client proposal this month, so there might be a couple proposal-related posts. Nothing wrong with that: it’s a great way for tech writers to earn a steady income and grow their business network. Today’s post will be about proposal style sheets, which help a multi-person team use the correct fonts and headers, but also achieve something approaching a similar literary style. This is harder than it looks.

The Easy Stuff

Creating a style sheet for a proposal is pretty straightforward: in it, you create a Word document (or equivalent) that includes and demonstrates all the “basics” that the team will be using on their proposal, including:

  • Title page
  • Table of contents
  • Standard body text, including font type, size, line spacing, kerning, line justification, etc.
  • Headings
    • Levels 1 through 5 are usually sufficient
    • Section numbering conventions (I, A, 1, a, i, etc. vs. 1, 1.1, 1.1.1,, etc.)
  • Page headers and footers
  • Page margins and borders
  • Image sizes, locations,
  • Caption text
  • Citation styles (if needed/appropriate)
  • Bullet styles, levels, indentions, and colors
  • Company logos
  • Page numbering conventions (where do you start page 1? With the first piece of paper, or the first page after the front matter?)

Mind you, people being people, you can still end up with some individuals refusing to follow directions or “expressing creativity” even when the instructions from the customer clearly state a specific format (at the risk of having the proposal thrown out), but at least everyone has the same starting point.

The Other Stuff

Another way proposals can get messy is with differences in nomenclature and grammar. For example:

  • How do you refer to your company, partners, or products?
    • Is it “Disney,” “Disney World,” or the Walt Disney World Resort?
    • Is it “National Aeronautics and Space Administration” every time, or is “NASA” acceptable after the first use? Are UK/print media spellings (“Nasa”) okay?
    • Is it “Super Widget,” “SuperWidget,” or “Super Widget(TM)?”
  • Do you capitalize every “important” noun in your line of business? I’m looking at you, engineers! News flash, all: just because a phrase can be turned into an acronym, that does not mean it needs to be capitalized. Examples include: request for proposal (RFP), assembly, integration, and test (AI&T), systems engineering (SE), etc.
  • Do you use numerals for every instance of a quantity, or do you spell out some of them? Personally, I got trained on the theory that you write out numbers one through ten and everything 11 and up was numerals only.
    • On a related note, do you write first, second, third, fourth, etc., or 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc.”
  • Do you write the abbreviation for the United States as U.S. or US?
  • Do you capitalize the word “internet” or not?
  • Do you write latitude and longitude out in degrees, minutes, and seconds, decimal  notation, or some other format?
  • Do you say “bottom-up review” or “bottoms-up review?” This was one of my pet peeves, and I got the standard changed to “bottom-up” because d”bottoms up” is a phrase usually associated with drinking. There are other, even less savory connotations to this phrase, but I’m certain my readers can look them up on their own.

All of these issues might not apply to you, but you might have others that require a firm rule to keep your proposal from seeing four or five different spellings for the same word.

The bottom line on an in-house (or is it inhouse?) style sheet is a useful tool for ensuring some level of commonality among your writers. However, understand that it will become a work in progress as lessons are learned and problems are identified.


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About Bart Leahy

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