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14 ways to reduce the amount of writing you have to do for a proposal

Less writing. Less time. Less work.

Take a moment and ask yourself why you're interested in reducing the amount of proposal writing. It could be because you're out of time. Or have strict page limits. Or have other priorities and want to reduce the effort required by a proposal.

This is where I'd normally jump in with an ROI calculation that shows that the impact on your win rate of doing a proposal well makes it mathematically worth it. However, today I'm going to skip that and take an unjudgmental look at what it takes to reduce the amount of proposal writing.

See also:
Making Proposals Simple

How to do proposals The Wrong Way™ is a topic I love to write about. Because, let's be honest, sometimes the "best practices" won’t help you. They generally aren't applicable to adverse circumstances. 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™ can ruin your chances of winning. You have been warned. But it can also help you survive the experience. 

Can you make a shorter proposal without hurting your chances of winning?

The length of what you write for your proposal only matters if it’s related to what it will take to win.  Adding detail may or may not impact what it will take to win. The trick to winning a short proposal is to understand what it will take to win so that you can say only that and do it in the fewest words possible. Most people add detail when they aren't sure what the customer is looking for and just want to cover the bases.

The points below are not about how to achieve the best presentation or maximize your chances of winning. That's what the rest of PropLIBRARY is for. These are for when your top priority is to do less proposal writing. 

As anyone who has had to cut a proposal down to reach an RFP-mandated page limit can tell you, it can take a stupidly huge amount of time to shorten a proposal that's too long. 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 simple, easy techniques like these to help them achieve that.

The following tips are useful, risky, and problematic, but also 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 to make their decision. I could stop right there because it's really all you need to know about proposal writing in general, 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 introduce, inform, include, claim, prove, differentiate, explain, position, qualify, score, comply, and more all in the same narrative. Stop doing that because it expands the amount of writing. Separate the points you are trying to make from the details of your offering. Use theme statements under headings, call out boxes, subheadings, tables, or anything else. Create zones where the parts go so that you don't have to connect them all with transition words or make them "flow." It will help you be less wordy, while still making the points. Go for punchy over smooth.
  3. Only do one thing in each sentence. Quit trying to write the perfect sentence. Quit trying to combine things like features and benefits in the same sentence. 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. You can even create proposal writing formulas for your paragraphs with each sentence having a single purpose. 
  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 introduce. Don’t be indirect. Think of your entire proposal as a checklist instead of a document. Instead of engaging with your narrative like it's literature, enable the customer to process their decision like a checklist that's presented as paragraphs.
  5. Don’t try to tell a story.  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. Let your story be revealed without telling it.
  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. Or 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. If your proposal needs a summary, then it's not well organized or you wrote too much. If your proposal needs a summary, the customer probably doesn't want to read your proposal (even if it has a summary).
  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 don't need you to close out with something more. They just want to be done and 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? 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. Don't put them through a long 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. Simply say “Our process is shown in the exhibit.” Don't create graphics that require explaining in the text. Ever.
  13. Tables. Tables work best when you can take a bunch of items in your outline 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. Another great thing about tables is that you can often structure them so you don't even have to use complete sentences. Often just a few words for each item will do. Try planning your proposal around tables and see how much less writing you actually have to do.
  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 the company's commitment, values, dedication, or other expression of intent that don't actually say what the company is going to do. Don't promise things. Just do them. While you’re at it, simply delete any sentence that starts with “We understand” because all it's probably going to show is 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 to communicate that you deeply understand. Oh, and delete all those unsubstantiated claims too. Better yet, don’t write them in the first place. Make fewer claims. Focus on proof points.

Remember, the goal is not to write a long proposal and then edit it down to a concise proposal. The goal is to write it that way from the first draft. Think twice, write once. Then go home.

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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.

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