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My previous article about tips for good proposal writing and editing emphasized brevity to save space, clarify meaning, and increasing your PWin.  I suggested you focus on using short words, short sentences, and short paragraphs in proposals, just as you would in good fiction or journalistic writing.

This article offers four more tips that any proposal writer or editor can master easily to improve your writing.  The end goal is the same – to win more procurements and grow your company.  The time you spend practicing clear, concise writing is an investment in growth.

1.   Use Active Verbs.

Professional writers, teachers, and coaches suggest using active verbs more than any other technique for improving your writing – and with good reason.  Passive verbs are usually boring.  Entire pages of passive verbs can literally make a reviewer’s mind go numb.

You can find myriad examples and tutorials online for HOW to restructure your sentences to turn passive verbs into active verbs.  In the context of proposal writing, I want to focus on WHY you should do this.

Take this example:  “The data architecture will be modified to facilitate alignment with the new business processes.”  Other than laziness, this writer might have used passive voice in this sentence for two common reasons:

  1. He did not know WHO will modify the data architecture and didn’t have/take time to find out. So he simply said it “will be modified”.
  2. His firm knew it was important to modify the architecture during this project but didn’t want to commit to doing this activity – hoping if they left it unclear then they could later avoid the obligation.

Most proposal reviewers will find both of these unacceptable.  The government wants to know you fully understand and can explain how the work will get done – and by whom.  The government also will flag any risk to successful delivery you create by failing to commit to critical activities.

Sentences in active voice naturally state that someone does something. Thus, the example above becomes: “NewCo will modify the data architecture to align it with new business processes.”  This easily removes both potential weaknesses.  A proposal full of clear, active statements should give the reviewer full understanding and great confidence in your ability to deliver.

2.   Use a Possessive Noun to End a Sentence.

Everyone can master this simple technique to make a proposal easier to read and save space – potentially lots of space.  How often have you seen (or written) something like this?

“This activity will improve the productivity of the agency.”

Pay specific attention to instances like the example above in which you end a sentence with “[noun] of [someone]”.  In this situation, you can change the structure to “[someone’s] [noun]”.  In the example above, you can end the sentence with “the agency’s productivity.”

While some academics argue we overuse apostrophes in English, I contend you should remain vigilant of this poor habit and use a possessive noun to replace this type of prepositional phrase to end your sentences.

Note: When you pay attention, you’ll notice that many (most?) sentences end in a prepositional phrase.  This is simply the way the English langauge works. Here are a few examples from this very article:  “with new business processes”, “to deliver”, “in this sentence”, “of good writing”. The point is to watch for opportunities to use an apostrophe in place of a possessive prepositional phrase, when it makes sense.

3.   Avoid Vague Adjectives.

My first college journalism professor included the same question on the quiz at the start of every class.  “What are the five leaches that suck the blood of good writing?”  He said the sooner we learned them, the more points we would earn on each quiz!  It’s almost 30 years later and I still remember the answer:  little, rather, very, pretty, and some.  

He tried to make us aware how often we use vague, non-specific adjectives in our writing. And we owe it to our readers to tell them specifically what we mean. Not only that, but we show how lazy we are as writers if we can’t think of more powerful words than these!

Instead of “he was very angry,” maybe say “he was irate.”

Photo by Ryan Franco on Unsplash

A teenager who might be “pretty good at chess” instead might be “a budding grand master.”  

Or instead of writing that your friend “brought some beer” to the tailgate, you could instead say she “showed up with a six-pack of FullSteam Paycheck and a half-case of Florida Cracker.”

Do you see how in each case the easy change to more specific and descriptive words made the sentence easier to read? I encourage you to memorize the five leeches that suck the blood of your good writing – and look for other leeches that have attached themselves to your writing habits. Your readers will appreciate you!

4.   Break Up Long Lists.

In proposal writing, we often need to describe our team’s many tasks to accomplish the customer’s desired objective.  Consider this inconsiderate example:

To achieve this strategy, the ACME team will provide knowledgeable engineers capable of employing world-class software engineering; effectively use a tailored IMP and IMS to ensure all program requirements are planned, tracked and monitored through completion; execute the program using CMMI ML3 processes to improve performance; ensure continuous improvement across the program by using our 6Sigma methods; use tools that streamline required work and provide increased insight into program cost and schedule performance; and leverage a standard decision-making process to ensure timely decisions.

You could easily convert this run-on list into a bullet list.  If your RFP imposes severe space constraints, you might waste a lot of white space with a bullet list.

Instead, you can keep it in paragraph form, but break up the list into individual sentences like this:

The ACME team will achieve this strategy by providing knowledgeable engineers capable of employing world-class software engineering. We will use a tailored IMP and IMS effectively to ensure we plan, track, and monitor all program requirements to completion. In addition, we will improve performance by using CMMI ML3 processes and ensure continuous improvement across the program with our 6Sigma methods. Our team will use tools that streamline work and increase insight into program costs and schedule performance. Finally, we will leverage a standard decision-making process to ensure timely decisions.

This paragraph is not shorter than the original.  But it is a LOT easier to read.  The separate sentences also allow you to emphasize your approach’s various benefits. So watch for long lists where you feel you need to use semicolons to clarify your meaning.  Break those lists into separate sentences for clarity and emphasis.

I hope these four tips and the two tips in the previous article will help you improve your proposal writing.  Do you have other easy tips to help proposal writers improve their chances of winning?  If so, leave them in the comments below.