Are you making the colossal mistake of thinking in writing?

If you think the best way to figure out what to write about in your proposal is to start writing, you may be making a colossal mistake. The mistake is that you’re skipping the part where you “figure it out.” You are thinking by writing about it.

Look at how inefficient it is to have a conversation in writing. You think of something to say, and then you write it down. Meanwhile, the other person waits. When they get what you wrote, they read it and you wait. They figure out their response and write it down. You wait some more. When you finally get their response, you realize they misinterpreted something and you have to clarify. In writing. This could go on all day. At least with email you can do something else while you wait.

When you approach a proposal by writing a draft so you have something to think about you are doing the same thing. When you think after you write, every new thought spawns a re-write cycle. It is incredibly time consuming and inefficient.

But what really hurts is that you still don’t know what the proposal should be. It’s like looking for something in the dark. The only way to find it is to trip over it. And if that doesn’t happen, you could be looking for a long, long time. I have seen too many huge, must win proposal efforts embarrassingly fail because of this approach. But usually they blamed it on something else like not starting early enough --- if we start earlier next time, we'll have enough time for all the "inevitable" re-write cycles. And then they take the same approach on the next one.

You don’t have forever to wander in the dark looking at draft after draft to try to find the right proposal. You have a deadline. Thinking in writing against a deadline means that you stop when you run out of time. Instead of defining quality and doing what it takes to achieve it, you define quality as being better than the first draft and submit whatever you’ve got when you run out of time.

The alternative is to:

  • Figure out the points you are trying to make before you start writing
  • Identify what needs to be included before you start writing
  • Decide how everything should be positioned before you start writing

It's really just a matter of making lists. It helps to do it within the structure provided by the outline. But it's just a series of lists that provide reminders, placeholders, and instructions for the proposal writers.

When you have a list of things to address and something that acts like a thesis that all the details should support, you still aren’t ready to write. You need to validate that your points and list of items to address are accurate and complete. Now is the time to think it through. Not after the draft is complete, when improvements become costly.

Re-writing a narrative to prove a different point than the one in the draft is a big deal. That’s one reason why many proposals contain unsubstantiated claims. It’s so much easier to make a statement than it is to re-write the narrative to support it. If your approach to identifying what should go in the proposal is to look at the draft and try to see what’s missing, each set of additions will take a re-write cycle, and you’ll never know when you’re complete. It won’t even be your goal. You’ll be looking for a proposal that’s good enough instead of one that is ideal.

When the only guidance proposal writers get is the RFP, then compliance is all that you can expect to get back. As important as RFP compliance can be, it’s no way to beat the competition.

Proposal writers need to know what points to make and what to include. If you don’t tell them, if you make your assignments at the outline level and leave the details for them to figure out, then all you can expect back is compliance. If that. If the writers are better than average, maybe they’ll tack on some unsubstantiated points and call them “themes.”

Never give out an outline as a proposal assignment and expect the writers to figure it out. If they need to figure something out, make that a separate assignment. Ask them what points need to be made. Ask them what needs to be included. Pass it around to collaborate. Review it to be certain. That is the essence of what Proposal Content Planning is an iterative approach we developed to help people figure out what should go in their proposals. It’s part of the MustWin Process that’s in PropLIBRARY. It’s a pretty sophisticated methodology. But at its heart, it’s just a way to avoid thinking in writing. Or, as we like to think about it, a way to beat companies who do their thinking in writing.



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Carl is the Founder and President of CapturePlanning.com and PropLIBRARY.

The materials he has published have helped millions of people develop business and write better proposals. Carl is an expert at winning in writing. He is a prolific author, frequent speaker, trainer, and consultant.

In addition, the groups Carl moderates on LinkedIn provide a place for tens of thousands of business development and proposal professionals to discuss best practices and network.
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