Advice before Writing a Project Proposal

Writing project proposals is not something to take lightly. Your future might depend on whether or not someone approves or funds your project.

“I think people have come to realize that it’s not enough to submit generic content,” Sant says. He believes proposals really need to be about understanding a client’s needs. “It makes it more persuasive and less of an information dump,” he continues.

Plan ahead for writing a project proposal. Clear your schedule and focus. Know who will be writing the proposal. Will it be one person or several people? Who will edit the final proposal, so it has one voice and a consistent message? Is someone gathering all of the information and data you need?

“The key is organizing before you write. If you organize your thoughts, that goes a long way when writing proposals,” Harris emphasizes. Don’t just cut and paste from other proposals and don’t write just to write. “You need to go into it thinking you are going to win it. Bid on things you can win,” he says.

Gather your resources and know what you need. Set timelines and assign tasks. Be realistic about what you can accomplish and in what time frame. Research the topic you’re proposing. Make sure you know and respect the specific requirements for the proposal, especially deadlines.

Harris says APMP puts out RFPs several times each year and receives many proposals. Often, if a proposal is due at 5:00 pm EST on a Friday, some people turn it in on Monday morning, thinking the deadline is not important. Being late disqualifies the proposal. “You have to be logical. If you miss the deadline for turning in a proposal, why should I think you will meet the deadlines in the proposal?” Harris explains.

When you are almost ready to write, outline the proposal and get peer feedback during this and other stages of writing the project proposal. It’s better to know sooner rather than later if someone does not agree with what you are proposing.

Use headers for the sections of the proposal, since some people pan and scan it. If there are charts, images, or graphs, make sure they look good.

As for the writing itself, be sure to do the following:

  • Use clear language and avoid jargon.
  • Get to the point and do not make the proposal too complex.
  • Define acronyms and have an acronym page if there are a lot of them.
  • Use action words like organize, prepare, research, restore, achieve, evaluate, exhibit, offer, lead, involve, engage, begin, compare, reveal, support, demonstrate, define, implement, instruct, use, produce, validate, test, verify, recognize, etc.

Sant talks about writing style by explaining three types of words to avoid: “fluff, gruff, and weasel words.” Sant explains fluff words as the unnecessary words, like game-changing, world-class, synergistic, state-of-the-art, best, uniquely qualified, robust, innovative, etc. “The more you use fluff words, the less the reader trusts you. They don’t mean anything,” Sant says.

Gruff words are the confusing and large words often used in academic and legal documents,  and they do not impress a reader. “That’s writing in which the goal isn’t to communicate, but to intimidate,” Sant explains. “We want the writing to be clear. Sentences should be 15 to 18 words. Complicated and complex language communicates complex and complicated projects,” he offers.

Sant says weasel words are the ones writers often use to camouflage uncertainty. That uncertainty comes across to the reader, leaving them to wonder if the project will work or not. Examples of weasel phrases are may, could, and might.

In case different people review different sections of the proposal, make sure each section can stand alone. Don’t assume a reviewer has read all the previous sections of your proposal.

Harris suggests looking for ways to make the proposal visually appealing, like using charts, graphics, timelines, and diagrams.

Think about what success will look like after the project is finished and make sure that positivity gets into the proposal itself.

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