The Quick and Easy Guide to
A written proposal combines three forms of communication: marketing,
persuasive writing and technical writing. All marketing aims
at creating interest in and desire for a product (or service.) Persuasive
writing aims to make the reader act the way the writer wishes. Technical
writing describes products or processes in detail. As the writer of a proposal,
you must first convince the reader a product or process is desirable, and
then persuade the reader to act upon that desire by buying, approving,
using, or otherwise acting as you wish.
Writers (and others) use proposals in a number of ways. Bids, capital
appropriations requests, sales proposals, grant applications, and procedural
change proposals are all examples. Even job application materials, such
as resumes and application letters, function as proposals. Proposals may
be unsolicited or may be written in response to a Request for Proposal
(RFP). Often, a brief, unsolicited proposal leads to a more detailed, solicited
proposal. Each audience has its own requirements and/or expectations for
Examples of Proposals:
Major Elements of Proposals
Most proposals have similar organization, altered primarily by acceptable
length and amount of detail required by the audience.
*Front matter may be omitted for short proposals (e.g., an internal memo
requesting a transfer of funds.)
Letter of Transmittal
Table of Contents
List of Illustrations
Overview of Project (Solution)
Benefits of Project (Solution)
Overview of Proposal
Project Design (Detailed Description of Solution & Expected Results)
Project Management (Costs, Schedules, Materials and Staff)
Summary of Qualifications
Conclusion (Optional in most cases)
*Back matter may be omitted for short proposals.
Appendices (Samples, Maps, Formulas, etc.)
Letters of Support
Of course, you must decide if all of these elements are required, given
the RFP guidelines or an audience analysis.
Appeals or Lines of Argument
Because a proposal aims to persuade, you must consider how to best appeal
to the reader. There are four main ways to organize a proposal (or any
argument.) These are called appeals or lines of argument.
The key to writing an effective argument is to choose the appeal or appeals
that best fit the audience. Most proposals rely heavily on "Facts &
Reason", but many combine appeals. For a fuller discussion of persuasive
writing, see the Quick and
Easy Guide to Arguments.
Facts & Reason: This aims to convince via logical argument.
It relies heavily on "objective" data and interpretation. It is considered
the strongest form of argument.
Emotion: This aims to generate feelings/reactions in the audience.
Although this is the weakest form of logical argument, it can be used very
effectively if presented well.
Values: This aims to generate feelings/reactions/action based on
a set of values common to the audience. It says, " If you believe this,
you should ...." This is a very effective appeal if targeted to the audience.
Character: This aims to generate acceptance based on the source
of the claim and evidence. This is very effective if the source is considered
an expert or is well respected.
Writing Effective Proposals
Research the Problem and Solutions Fully. Prior to writing your
proposal, you will need background information on your target audience,
the scope and details of the problem, and solutions. You may want to consider
what has already been proposed or put into place. You also should investigate
the reception your proposal will likely receive.
Plan Your Proposal for Purpose, Audience and Technique. Given your
research, you will decide how to focus and target your proposal to the
audience. You should decide whether to front-load or back-load
the document. You will choose an appropriate style, e.g., narrative (formal)
or brochure (informal), and which major elements to include in your proposal.
Follow the RFP. If you have a Request for Proposal to work
from, you will know exactly what content and format the audience requires.
Follow this TO THE LETTER. Stick to the guidelines and provide information
clearly headed in the order requested. If you do have additional material
that does not fit within the RFP, but is not requested, include
it in the appendices. (For an example of an RFP, see the National Cancer Institute's Quick Guide for Grant Applications.) An Invitation for Bid (IFB) is even more restrictive,
as the project has already been defined by the agency or department. Only
the contractor choice remains undetermined. When you do not have an RFP,
you will need to rely heavily on your audience analysis. Again, reader
need and expectation will determine what to include in and how to present
Prepare for Multiple Audiences. Often a proposal will be read by
more than one audience. For example, a manager may need to get sign-off
from his/her administrator. An executive summary is a good way to
persuade a less technical reader. Also, your summary may be all that is
read. Make it usable as a stand alone document.
Organize Your Proposal for Readability and Effect. Basic writing
technique, such as chunking and visual cues, are vital for proposal writing.
Each piece of your proposal may be a barrier to convincing the audience
to read more. Use visuals and text to lead the reader to your next point.
Remember basic marketing techniques to attract and keep the audience. Keep
it easy to read. As with any writing, always review and revise your proposal
before submitting it.
Written By: George Knox © 1999