Six Easy Changes for Stronger Proposal Writing



When writing proposals, one major challenge we face is generating strong, clear, and compelling text. It’s one thing to have a grammatically correct proposal, it’s another to have a proposal that actually reads well. Sometimes we have been looking at the words so long that we lose sight of some of the easy ways that we can make our writing stronger. In this week’s article, I present six easy ways to strengthen your proposal text.

1. Use strong verbs
One of the easiest ways to strengthen your writing is to express actions in verbs. To do this, it is critical to avoid nominalizations. Nominalizations are actions expressed in nouns rather than verbs. Examples include failure, investigation, movement, reaction, and refusal. Replacing weak verbs and nominalizations with strong verbs will make your sentences more dynamic, direct, clear, and concise.

Item to Avoid
Example
Change
Nominalization
The program was a failure.
The program failed.
We conducted an investigation on the issue.
We investigated the issue.
His reaction was positive.
He reacted positively.

2. Replace generalities with specifics
Another easy way to strengthen your text is to replace generalities (e.g., a lot, extensive, very, really) with quantified specifics. As an example, if the identified benefit of your COTS solution is, “saves the Government time and money,” you might be able to quantify that benefit as, “life-cycle savings of $250,000 in software development costs.” However, be careful not to be too specific: 20% will be perceived with more confidence than 22.4%, which may raise questions of validity. Adding this specificity will make your proposal writing more credible and compelling.

Item to Avoid
Example
Change
Empty words such as “high,” “numerous,” and “highly reliable”
Company A consistently received high award fee scores.
Company A consistently received award fee scores of between 95 and 100 percent.
Company B received numerous customer commendations.
Company B personnel received more than 500 customer commendations for performance on Contract A.
Our solution provided a highly reliable network system.
Our solution provided 99.9 percent network availability.

3. Include the “so what?”
A third easy way to strengthen your writing is to articulate the customer benefits consistently. Articulating the customer benefits is critical not only in feature and benefit tables, but throughout the document narrative as well. Remember, these benefits should be things that are important to the customer—typically reduced cost, reduced risk, increased quality, increased efficiency, increased effectiveness, or expedited timeline (faster). However, we often leave these benefits implied rather than stated. When articulating benefits, always answer the question, “So what does that mean?”

Item to Avoid
Example
Change
Benefit statements that lack the “so what?”
Our COTS solutions requires minimal custom development.
Our COTS solutions requires minimal custom development, which reduces software development costs by nearly $500K.
Our proprietary tool automates the process.
Our proprietary tool automates the trouble ticket process, which results in cost and schedule savings of roughly $300K annually.
Our custom tool effectively manages preventive maintenance.
Our custom tool automatically sends preventive maintenance alerts, which increases the life of critical equipment and saves thousands of dollars in unnecessary replacement costs.

4. Split long sentences
A fourth way to strengthen your proposal writing is to avoid cramming two or three main ideas into one long sentence. This can lead to long, drawn-out sentences and disjointed writing. It will also cause your message to lose focus. When you see a long, complex sentence in your section, first identify your main points. Then break the sentence into smaller sentences. To do this may require some rewording. See the example below.

Item to Avoid
Example
Change
Long, overly-complex sentences
Company A first identifies qualified personnel to support tasks by evaluating current employees for growth opportunities and to maintain critical skills and program knowledge; we then recruit contingent hires, if necessary.
Company A first identifies qualified personnel by evaluating current program employees for growth opportunities. This helps maintain critical skills and program knowledge. Once as many positions are filled with incumbent personnel as possible, we then recruit and hire contingent hires.  

5. Use Active Voice
Another surefire way to strengthen your writing is to swap passive voice for active voice. Passive voice puts the subject and the action first, which can obscure who is performing the action. Passive voice also emphasizes the object of the sentence and can make your writing wordier and harder to follow. With active voice, the subject of the sentence comes first and performs the action in the sentence. Active voice is more straightforward and concise than passive voice. It also typically results in shorter, sharper sentences. Active voice also flows better and is easier to understand.

Item to Avoid
Example
Change
Passive voice
The report was delivered on time.
The program team delivered the report on time.
The project plan was implemented by the Project Manager.
The Project Manager implemented the project plan.
Trouble tickets are responded to within 5-minutes of receipt.
A help desk technician responds to the trouble ticket within 5-minutes of receipt.

6. Make lists parallel
A final way you can strengthen your writing is to make sure you are using parallel structure. Parallel structure is the repetition of a chosen grammatical form within a sentence or list. You should take care to ensure that each item in the list has the same structure. To be parallel, each item in the list should start with the same part of speech, use the same verb tense, use the same voice, and use the same sentence/clause type. Parallel structure is easier for readers to process because they are primed for the pattern of the information.

Item to Avoid
Example
Change
Nonparallel structure
Results included:
  • Increased uptime
  • Enhanced functionality
  • It was easier to use

Results included:
  • Increased uptime
  • Enhanced functionality
  • Improved usability

Enhanced features include:
  • Dashboard reports
  • Mobile accessibility
  • You can access with a single log-in

Enhanced features include:
  • Dashboard reports
  • Mobile accessibility
  • Single-sign-on capability

We leverage our customized recruiting tool to identify, recruit, and for hiring new staff.
We leverage our customized recruiting tool to identify, recruit, and hire new staff.

Final Thoughts
Especially when we are juggling multiple proposals at once, a major challenge we face is generating strong, clear, and compelling text. Sometimes we have been looking at the text so long that we lose sight of some of the easy ways that we can make our writing stronger. Though this isn’t a comprehensive list by any means, remember that some easy ways to strengthen your proposal writing include using strong words, replacing generalities with specifics, including the “so what,” using active voice, and applying parallel construction.

Written by Ashley Kayes, CP APMP
Senior Proposal Consultant, AOC Key Solutions, Inc. (KSI)
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