The Quick and Easy Guide to
Written Proposals

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.

Front Matter*

*Front matter may be omitted for short proposals (e.g., an internal memo requesting a transfer of funds.)



Back Matter*

*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.

Writing Effective Proposals

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.