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How much time should you put into proposal planning vs proposal writing?

Is your approach to proposal scheduling all wrong? With before and after scheduling examples.

Most companies have their priorities backwards and it’s hurting their win rate.

To show them, I like to tell companies that they should spend as little time as possible figuring out how to win, what they need to say to the customer to get the top score, and how they should present their offering. The much easier alternative is to write draft after draft until you run out of time without ever having figured it out. Do as little as possible to win.

Of course, you’re not going to win if you don’t build your proposal around what it will take to win and say what the customer needs to hear to give your proposal the top score. When you think about what doing these “as little as possible” means, hopefully you’ll realize that they are critically important and should be what drives your proposal scheduling priorities.

Beyond simply completing the proposal and making an on-time submission, where you should spend time on a proposal? Proposal writing can take a little time, or it can take a lot of time. When you prioritize the time to write and minimize planning, it means figuring out what to write by rewriting until you discover it. 

You’ll end up doing a lot of writing if you combine proposal writing with solutioning and figuring out what it will take to win, but you’ll end up creating a patchwork proposal and run out of time without achieving a proposal that is built around what it will take to win.

To build your proposals around what it will take to win, you need to make figuring out that and what you should offer a higher priority than proposal writing. They should come first. To achieve this, you need to give planning your proposal more time and proposal writing less time. Minimize the amount of time needed for writing and not planning. This does not mean having less time for writing than it requires. It just mean spending less time writing in circles.

How much time should you spend on proposal planning?

See also:
Successful process implementation

Let’s look at a high-level textbook example of a 30-day proposal schedule:

Day 2: Bid decision complete.
Day 5: Compliance matrix, proposal outline, and kickoff meeting complete. Proposal writing starts.
Day 19: Proposal section drafts finished and Red Team Review complete with 5-6 days left.
Day 30: Submit proposal.

Unfortunately, here's how it really plays out:

Day 3: Bid decision usually complete. But sometimes not.
Day 5: Compliance matrix, proposal outline, and kickoff meeting rushed, but complete. Just not reviewed. Proposal writing starts.
Day 19: Red Team Review says the draft sucks. The offering is all wrong. Take 2 days to figure out what to offer. 
Take 5 days to rewrite. 
Day 26: Attempting to figure out what to offer and what to write. Hold a Redder Than Red Review and find out it's still got problems. Continue rewriting.
Day 28: Give up on color labels but have another review to figure out what can be done in the time remaining.
Day 29.5: Wrap it up, no matter what. 4 hours remain for production. 
Day 29.9: Submit minutes before it's due. No one knows what changes got made.

Here is how it plays out when you reduce the time required for proposal writing:

Day 3: Bid decision must be complete. Period. Begin proposal content planning.
Day 8: Review the plan. Discover and fix the proposal approach and issues now.
Day 12: Plan is done. Start writing.
Day 19: Review to ensure the draft reflects the plan.
Day 20: Draft is okay because the plan was reviewed. But there is room to improve the presentation.
Day 24: Have a final change review to catch any remaining problems before entering final production.
Day 27: Final production.
Day 28: Review production draft and finalize.
Day 29: Ready to submit, a day early in case of submission difficulties.


  • With the emphasis on proposal planning, proposal writing starts 7 DAYS later and the time for writing is cut in HALF. But the draft review ends up on the same day. This is because having a fully validated Proposal Content Plan accelerates proposal writing. 
  • HALF of the time originally allocated writing is spent thinking things through and validating them before turning them into narrative.
  • The Red Team Review recovery also takes much less time because the planning included an intensive review of the plan, which caught the major defects before the narrative was written. 
  • The quality of the proposal at submission will be much higher, because the changes at the back end represent presentation improvements instead of strategy repair.
  • The most important dates for the proposal shift from being the Red Team, with 5-6 days left before submission, to the Content Plan Review with 11 days left. Normally you don’t find out whether the proposal is a disaster until the Red Team. But when you make the Content Plan review the priority, you find out before the document is even written.

The wrong way to look at things

Trying to maximize the time available for proposal writing because of the (inevitable) problems is the wrong way to look at things. You should minimize the amount of time it takes to write your proposal, instead of leaving it open ended. You should apply that time to:

  • Accelerating how quickly you can surface the problems before you invest in writing narrative, when they are still easy to fix. 
  • Accelerating writing, by having a plan that provides sufficient guidance to turn it into a process of elimination.
  • Accelerating proposal reviews by defining what the reviews should validate.

Transferring time from endless rewrites to planning and reviewing the plan is how you achieve getting the proposal right on the very first draft and make the back end of the schedule about improvement instead of recovery.

For the best success, try this…

Double down and put more time into reviewing the plan than you do into reviewing the draft proposal. Challenge your reviewers to validate that it's right at the beginning. The draft proposal can be quickly reviewed by comparing it to the plan, but only if the plan is valid.

Reviewing the draft should be an afterthought and a mere quality control double check. Reviewing the plan should be where you determine whether the proposal will reflect what it will take to win. The rest is just presentation.

If you're waiting until the draft and reviewing it to figure out if the proposal can win, you did something wrong before you even got there. This is a key, objective sign that your current process is not maximizing your potential win rate.

Since reducing the time to write will be counter-intuitive for some, you can:

  • Ask people if the outcome was critical, would they start any other valuable project without a plan and start building right in order to complete the project on time?
  • Track the data comparing the amount of time spent planning, the amount of time spent writing, and your win rate. Turn it into a chart that shows where the curve that maximizes win rate. You can also use this chart to refine how you do your content planning.

Don’t be pushed around just because people are nervous about something they are not good at. Instead, you have to help them overcome their fear and do the right thing instead of following their panic reaction. And yes, people who are not confident writers panic at the thought of having a deadline to complete their writing assignments. Some will even admit it. Guide them. Nurture them. But be strong my proposal warriors. Don't settle for table scraps when it comes to proposal planning if you care about winning.

Let's discuss your challenges with preparing proposals and winning new business...

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More information about "Carl Dickson"

Carl Dickson

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

Carl is an expert at winning in writing, with more than 30 year's experience. He's written multiple books and published over a thousand articles that have helped millions of people develop business and write better proposals. Carl is also a frequent speaker, trainer, and consultant and can be reached at carl.dickson@captureplanning.com. To find out more about him, you can also connect with Carl on LinkedIn.

Click here to learn how to engage Carl as a consultant.

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