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14 tips for reducing the amount of writing you have to do for a proposal

Less writing. Less time. Less work.

This is related to a topic that I love writing about, how to do proposals The Wrong Way™. But first, we need to be clear. Sometimes the best practices won’t help you. And sometimes just simply getting something submitted is such a great challenge that going the extra distance to improve your chances of winning is not an option. That’s when you may have to do a proposal The Wrong Way™. Doing a proposal The Wrong Way™ is not about winning. It’s about survival. These techniques can ruin your chances of winning. You have been warned.

Now let’s talk about this anyway because it’s fun. And potentially useful.

You should write to win. Length should only matter if it’s related to what it will take to win. But sometimes you don’t have the resources to do things properly. The points below are not about how to achieve the best presentation or maximize your chances of winning. They are about how to shorten your proposals. 

I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter. — Blaise Pascal, 1657

As anyone who has had to cut a proposal down to reach a page limit can tell you, it takes time to shorten things. If you want to save time and resources, the trick is to shorten it on the first draft. And since you’re probably working with proposal contributors who are not professional writers, you need easy techniques.

So here are some tips that are useful, risky, problematic, and effective in the right circumstances:

  1. Don’t talk about anything the customer doesn’t care about. Don’t say what you want to say. Only say what the customer needs to hear. I could stop right there, but you’d probably find that annoying.
  2. Separate features, benefits, qualifications, and what you are offering. Normally proposals contain a lot of narrative. And in that narrative, we try to do a bunch of things all at once. We add or expand our sentences to inform, prove, differentiate, explain, position, qualify, score, comply, and more. So stop doing that. It expands the writing. Separate the points you are trying to make from the details of your offering. It will make you less wordy, while still making the points. Go for choppy over smooth.
  3. Only do one thing in each sentence. Quit trying to write the perfect sentence. Quit trying to combine features and benefits. You still need to address the benefits. But when you weave them in and throughout, you make the proposal wordier than it needs to be.
  4. Quit talking around it and just say it. Simply state the facts, details, proof points, qualifications, and benefits. You don’t have to ease your way into them. Don’t be indirect. Think of your entire proposal as a checklist instead of a document.
  5. Don’t tell a story.  Hmmm. Every proposal tells a story, even if you don’t try to. So tell a story about how easy you are to work with by making your proposal checklist simple. Just don’t explain the story. Let it be told by the clarity and simplicity of what you submit.
  6. As much as possible, group things. When you group them, you can remove a lot of connecting words. You can make one point that addresses all of them. For example, in Quality Control Plan, you might say “Here are all the ways we improve quality by increasing transparency:” and then give them a super tight, concise list. You might say “Things we do to address the RFP requirement:” and then just give them a list.
  7. Write in lists. Bullets may or may not save space, but writing in lists definitely does. Write a long semicolon-separated paragraph with nothing but details if you have to. Just don’t explain every item in your list.
  8. Don’t summarize. Summaries are redundant. Skip them. Telling them what you are going to tell them, telling them, and then telling them what you told them makes for long proposals, just like this sentence.
  9. Don’t write warm-ups. Don’t introduce by setting a context, stating some universal principle, describing some background, providing history, or otherwise saying anything other than what you offer or why it matters.
  10. Don’t write conclusions. Building to the finish in a proposal is a mistake. Make your point up front and then support it. Don’t feel like you need to put something at the end. If you made your point, then the evaluator got what they needed. They want you to stop. Seriously. They want to be done. They don’t need to read through a recitation or a conclusion that doesn’t add anything new and just gives them more to read before they are done. Just stop. Do you hear me? It’s okay to just stop. Seriously. Now would be good. Once the point has been made, that’s all they need. Giving them more to read might just be counter-productive. Don’t feel like you're leaving them hanging or can’t say goodbye. Just stop already.
  11. Make points, then stop. Spend a moment thinking before typing. What point do you need to get across? Make the point. Prove it. Then stop writing.
  12. Graphics. Graphics may or may not take less effort and space. In the right circumstances, they can radically simplify. If a process has more than half a dozen steps, you can probably illustrate it in less space than you can describe in writing. Just don’t explain the graphic in your text. Just say “Our process is shown in the exhibit.” 
  13. Tables. Tables work best when you can take a bunch of headings in your outline with short responses, and collapse them into a table instead of using headings. Tables are also great for making sweeping pronouncements and applying them to lists of things like RFP requirements.
  14. Delete all the promises. I have reduced the length of some of the proposals I’ve reviewed by pages, simply by deleting all those statements about their commitment, values, dedication, or other expression of intent as opposed to what they are actually going to do. While you’re at it, simply delete any sentence that starts with “We understand” because it’s probably only going to show that you know how to copy and paste. Real understanding would show that you know how to deliver the results they are looking for and wouldn’t need to use the word “understand” at all. Oh, and delete all those unsubstantiated claims too. Better yet, don’t write them in the first place.

Remember, the goal is not to edit down to a concise proposal that reads like a competent checklist. The goal is to write it that way from the first draft. Think twice, write once. Then go home.

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Carl Dickson

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

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

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