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As a proposal writer or proposal manager for government contracts, your goal is to create a compliant, responsive, and compelling proposal.  This is especially critical if your company proposes custom-tailored solutions like complex IT systems and services.  

With a little practice and focus, anyone at any level of writing proficiency can master the following tips to improve their proposal writing.  Better proposal-writing habits will increase your PWin (win probability) on government contracts.  Your extended capture/proposal team should also insist on good writing: Business developers, capture managers, solution architects, and pricing analysts who have worked so hard to maximize their PWin should advocate for great writing to preserve their competitive position.

The Value of Compelling Writing

In proposal development, “compliant and responsive” means you follow all instructions in the RFP and any amendments to the letter.  You usually don’t have much wiggle room here.  You can consider this the science of proposal writing. (Search the internet for “compliant responsive proposals” for guidance on this – or invest in an experienced proposal manager!)

On the other hand, “compelling” means you describe your solution in such a desirable way the customer wants to work with you and is inclined to give your proposal high scores.  This is the art of proposal writing.

To make your solutions and approaches more compelling, you must make them easy to understand by reviewers who are not experts in your products or services.  One easy way to do this – within the grasp of every writer and editor – is to choose short words and use short sentences and paragraphs.

When proposal reviewers actually LIKE to read your proposals and can understand what you’ve written, they’re much more likely to call out your strengths and significant strengths.  Assuming you submit a compliant, responsive proposal at a competitive price, these strengths will differentiate you from the competition and get you closer to a win.

1.   Shorten Your Words.

If you have ever studied writing, surely some instructor told you to use short words whenever possible. Writers who write about writing, like Michael Lydon, explain the power of using short words.  

Even the U.S. government has gotten into the act. To comply with the Plain Writing Act of 2010, the General Services Administration created to offer tips for writing government documents so citizens can understand them.  In the context of choosing words carefully, they offered a list of simple words and phrases to use instead of more complex ones.

Image - if these words could
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

During proposal evaluation, an astute reviewer might wonder why you chose to use a bunch of long words. Is it because you don’t fully understand your subject enough to state it simply?  Or you didn’t take enough time to ensure it was well-crafted?  Or were you trying intentionally to mislead or obfuscate, because you don’t want them to know you don’t have a compelling or compliant solution?

Short, simple words help the reader understand and not grow tired.  If you consider every word as a unit of effort for the reader, then longer words naturally will require more effort to understand.  Proposal reviewers have to read tens of thousands of words a day.  When they read your proposal full of short words, they may feel refreshed!

If every proposal were written with short words, reviewers might actually pay more attention for longer periods and score proposals more favorably and accurately.  Every proposal writer and editor should have the goal of increasing the proposal’s score and improving the P-Win.

2.   Shorten Your Sentences and Paragraphs.

The most frequent fault of untrained proposal writers – particularly those with a technical background – is the long sentence. This is second only to the pitfall of the long paragraph.

Long sentences and paragraphs prove extraordinarily difficult to understand. They also just look ugly and intimidating. Big blocks of gray on the page make a weary proposal reviewer think “ugh!” before they even start reading. White space is a friend to readers, just as a pause is a friend to listeners.

In newspaper writing, journalists are taught to limit each paragraph to one or – at most – two sentences. Proposal writing is a different beast. But you should strive to keep each paragraph to no more than 5 sentences. When you offer readers page after page of big, gray blobs, weary reviewers will lose the patience and desire to search for your value proposition or proof point.

(NOTE:  Proposal editors and proposal managers often “find space” in a page-limited proposal by combining paragraphs and removing the blank lines between them. However, if your proposal manager built and managed a realistic schedule with enough time for a content edit and a final copy edit, you can find better ways to bring your proposal into page count and retain the readability.

You can usually reclaim a half page out of every 10 pages with simple editing tricks – such as eliminating widows at the end of paragraphs, using acronyms more consistently, or using possessives in place of a “preposition of possession.” More sophisticated wordsmithing by a professional editor can get you even more space back.

You can also learn to break up your sentences into shorter, concise ideas. Don’t string multiple ideas into one long sentence just because you think it makes you look smart. The “simple elegance” of well-crafted, short sentences helps your reader. A good proposal writer wants to make value propositions and proof points as easy as possible to find and understand.

One easy way you can tame ungainly sentences is to avoid using semicolons to combine a long series of complicated ideas.  Technical writers might construct a sentence like this:

Our company delivers solution A; solution B; solution C; solution D; and solution E.

…where each “solution” is actually 8-10 words. This can result in one sentence that takes up 5-8 lines. Instead, consider using a bullet list or simply dividing the items into groups of 1-3 phrases.  For example:

Our company delivers solution A and solution B.  Additionally, we provide solution C and solution D. Our team has also delivered solution E.

By shortening your paragraphs and sentences, you help the reviewer find and understand your most important points. This leads to less risk of non-compliance and a higher score – including more “significant strengths” you intend for them to include in their evaluation.

Practicing and focusing on short words, short sentences, and short paragraphs can dramatically improve your proposal writing – and, in turn, increase your PWin.  

In the next column (Better Proposal Writing, Part 2), we’ll look at more easy writing tips like using active verbs, using possessive nouns, and avoiding vague propositions. If you have any thoughts about how to keep it short in proposal writing, share them in the comments below. Thanks for joining the conversation.