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 a proposal.
Major Elements of Proposals
Most proposals have similar organization, altered primarily by acceptable length and amount of detail required by the audience.
- Title Page
- Letter of Transmittal
- Table of Contents
- List of Illustrations
- Executive Summary
*Front matter may be omitted for short proposals (e.g., an internal memo requesting a transfer of funds.)
- Definition Problem
- 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)
- Appendices (Samples, Maps, Formulas, etc.)
- Letters of Support
*Back matter may be omitted for short proposals.
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 may also want to 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 Science Foundation's Grant Proposal Guide.) 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 your proposal.
- 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.