Why You Should Always Establish a Proposal-Specific Style Guide

What is a Style Guide?
A proposal style guide is a set of standards for the writing, formatting, and design of a proposal. A style guide establishes style requirements to promote consistency within your proposal. Style guides set standards to be used in areas such as punctuation, capitalization, formatting of numbers and dates, table appearance, and other areas. The standards should include conventions from your proposal department’s standard style guide (if it has one), but should also be tailored to the requirements of each individual customer and request for proposal (RFP).

Why is it Important to Document a Style Guide?
By establishing these guidelines early on with a style guide, proposal writing starts out consistent. Make sure authors review the style guide before they start writing. This will ensure they are using common conventions from the start. How often do we get to Pink or Red Team, and reviewers provide comments such as, “I can’t tell if this is being led by a Project or Program Manager. It’s totally inconsistent.”

Having writers use a common style guide also makes editing easier in the end because most of the inconsistencies are already addressed. It further streamlines the editing process because the style conventions are already defined for the editors. Additionally, if you have multiple editors, they will all be editing to the same set of standards.

This is why I always try to establish a basic style guide for each of the proposal efforts I manage. I’ve outlined a basic style guide below and identified the major components I include in each section.


1 Conventions. In this section, I include conventions for items such as proposal-specific items, tenses, acronyms, and graphics/tables. Additionally, I provide guidance for punctuation, numbers, and writing style. I typically break this section out as follows:

1.1 Names, Labels, Tenses. In this subsection, I provide general guidance on proposal-specific conventions. I update the contents based on the requirements of each RFP and customer’s style preferences. At a minimum, I typically include conventions for the following:
  • Contracting Activity
  • Customer
  • RFP Number
  • Bidding Entity
  • Key Personnel Titles and Names
  • Use of Tenses
  • Acronyms
  • Graphics and Tables Naming and Numbering

1.2 Punctuation. In this subsection, I provide guidance on punctuation. I always specify the use of Oxford commas and provide the rules for hyphens, en-dashes, and em-dashes (commonly misused, and one of my pet peeves). At a minimum, my guidance typically includes the following:
  • Use one space after commas, semi-colons, colons, and periods
  • Use Oxford commas (the comma preceding “and” in a list)
  • Capitalize proper nouns
  • Use hyphens ( - ) for connecting words (e.g., ten- and eleven-year-olds)
  • Use en-dashes (  – ) to show ranges (e.g., 3 – 4)
  • Use em-dashes (— ) in place of commas or semicolons: e.g., The kite—which was red—was flying high; She was one of the greatest—her skill has not been surpassed by any other

1.3 Numbers. In this subsection, I provide guidance on how to format numbers. Unless overridden by a company’s main style guide, I typically include the following conventions:
  • Spell out numbers one through nine in text, except in dates and percentages, and when hyphenated in a compound adjective (e.g., we will implement a 6-month schedule).
  • Use digits for numbers from 10 upwards.

1.4 General Writing Guidance. In this subsection, I include general guidance about how to approach proposal writing. This subsection is particularly helpful if you have multiple consultant writers from different companies and varied backgrounds. I typically include such items as:
  • Where possible, use the customer name before the company name; use the customer name more times than the company name; and focus on what the customer will receive vs. what the company will deliver.
  • Resist the urge to capitalize words; capitals should only be used for proper nouns, names, and titles.
  • It is OK to use the pronoun “We/we” in the proposal for telling the customer what we, the bidder, will do.
  • Avoid regurgitating the RFP. Tell the reader who, how, and when you will solve the challenge presented by the RFP. The most important of these is how.
  • Always answer the “so what?” When we state that we are going to do something and how, tell the customer why: this will reduce the risk of X; that will provide continuity of operations for; this will reduce errors in Z; etc.
  • Do not make unsubstantiated claims, such as: “We have a proven track record,” or “We the most experience.” Quantify and use metrics wherever possible.
  • Avoid lengthy sentences where possible. Break up sentences long sentences to improve clarity.
  • Remember to use spell check! However, do not rely on spell check to do your work for you; it will not always catch wrong words that sound alike and other errors.
  • Use the active voice:
    • Passive: A plan will be developed.
    • Passive: A plan will be developed by Company B.
    • Active: Company B will develop a plan.
  • Put statements in the positive form:
    • Negative:  He was not very often on time.
    • Positive:  He was usually late.

*NOTE: this is not a comprehensive list

2 Writing Devices. In this section, I give guidance for how I’d like each major section to look. At a minimum, I typically request that each major section include the following devices:
  • Theme Sentence: Typically in a special font that stands out, presents a key feature of the section with benefits to the customer. For example, “Our ISO 9000-certified QCP provides DoS with acceptable quality levels and reduces the risk of cost and schedule overruns.”
  • Callout/Focus Box: Sums up an approach, customer benefits, past experience, customer testimonials, a key person’s background, and/or understanding of customer concerns. The focus box stands out to the reader and should be used to convey key messages.
  • Feature/Benefits Table. This table highlights the key features of our approach and the resulting benefits to the customer.
    • Feature: A feature is something we do or offer. For example, “We apply stringent subcontractor management processes, including X, Y and Z.”
    • Benefit: A benefit answers the “so what?” from the customer’s point of view. Examples include: reduced risk to cost, schedule, and/or performance; accelerated schedule; reduced cost, etc.
  • Action Captions. An action caption draws out the message from a graphic or table. It is not the title, which is separate. The action caption should always present a benefit to the customer or hit a customer hot button.

3 Wall of Truth. I reserve this section to include proposal-specific items that pop up during proposal development. These items might include the number of cleared personnel employed by the company, the years of experience the company has supported the customer, and proposal-specific nomenclature.

Appendix. I typically include helpful tables in the Appendix. These might include a table of commonly misused words and/or a table of language to avoid (including any company-specific forbidden words (e.g., ensure)).

Final Thoughts
Style guides help establish common conventions for your authors and editors to follow. By establishing these guidelines early on, proposal writing starts out consistent. This makes editing so much easier in the end because most of the inconsistencies are already addressed before the editors receive the documents. Establishing a style guide early further streamlines the editing process because once you reach the editing stage, the style conventions are already defined for the editors. Additionally, if you have multiple editors, they will all be editing to the same set of standards. I know it can be overwhelming to add another planning document to your proposal process, but taking the time to develop a style guide will make your proposal process more efficient and save you time in the end. Trust me, it’s well worth it!

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


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