Online Technical Writing: Proposals
This chapter focuses on proposals—the kinds of documents that get you or your organization approved or hired to do a project. While this chapter focuses on proposals in general, see the section on proposals for documentation projects for the specifics of getting hired to write technical documentation.
For illustrations of the discussion you are about to read, see:
As you get started, make sure you understand the definition we're using for proposals. Also, make sure you understand the proposal assignment—not to write just any proposal but one that, at least in part, proposes to write something.
Real proposals.i To begin planning a proposal, remember the basic definition: a proposal is an offer or bid to do a certain project for someone. Proposals may contain other elements—technical background, recommendations, results of surveys, information about feasibility, and so on. But what makes a proposal a proposal is that it asks the audience to approve, fund, or grant permission to do the proposed project.
If you plan to be a consultant or run your own business, written proposals may be one of your most important tools for bringing in business. And, if you work for a government agency, nonprofit organization, or a large corporation, the proposal can be a valuable tool for initiating projects that benefit the organization or you the employee-proposer (and usually both).
A proposal should contain information that would enable the audience of that proposal to decide whether to approve the project, to approve or hire you to do the work, or both. To write a successful proposal, put yourself in the place of your audience—the recipient of the proposal—and think about what sorts of information that person would need to feel confident having you do the project.
It's easy to get confused about proposals, or at least the type of proposal you'll be writing here. Imagine that you have a terrific idea for installing some new technology where you work and you write up a document explaining how it works and why it's so great, showing the benefits, and then end by urging management to go for it. Is that a proposal? No, at least not in this context. It's more like a feasibility report, which studies the merits of a project and then recommends for or against it. Now, all it would take to make this document a proposal would be to add elements that ask management for approval for you to go ahead with the project. Certainly, some proposals must sell the projects they offer to do, but in all cases proposals must sell the writer (or the writer's organization) as the one to do the project.
Types of proposals. Consider the situations in which proposals occur. A company may send out a public announcement requesting proposals for a specific project. This public announcement—called a request for proposals (RFP)—could be issued through newspapers, trade journals, Chamber of Commerce channels, or individual letters. Firms or individuals interested in the project would then write proposals in which they summarize their qualifications, project schedules and costs, and discuss their approach to the project. The recipient of all these proposals would then evaluate them, select the best candidate, and then work up a contract.
But proposals come about much less formally. Imagine that you are interested in doing a project at work (for example, investigating the merits of bringing in some new technology to increase productivity). Imagine that you visited with your supervisor and tried to convince her of this. She might respond by saying, "Write me a proposal and I'll present it to upper management." As you can see from these examples, proposals can be divided into several categories:
Other options for the proposal assignment. It may be that you cannot force your report-project plans into the proposal context. It may be that you cannot force your brain into imagining a proposal scenario. There is the option of writing the straight academic proposal—you address it to your instructor and make no pretence of realism. See an example of this type of proposal. Talk about this option with your instructor—there may be other requirements or a difference in the way it is evaluated.
Typical Scenarios for the Proposal
It gets a bit tricky dreaming up a good technical report project and then a proposal project that proposes at least in part to write that report. Here are some ideas:
Common Sections in Proposals
The following is a review of the sections you'll commonly find in proposals. Don't assume that each one of them has to be in the actual proposal you write, nor that they have to be in the order they are presented here—plus you may discover that other kinds of information not mentioned here must be included in your particular proposal.
As you read the following on common sections in proposals, check out the example proposals starting on page . Not all of the sections discussed in the following will show up in the examples, but most will.
Introduction. Plan the introduction to your proposal carefully. Make sure it does all of the following things (but not necessarily in this order) that apply to your particular proposal:
Now remember: you may not need all of these elements, and some of them can combine neatly into single sentences. The introduction ought to be brisk and to the point and not feel as though it is trudging laboriously through each of these elements.
Take a look at the introductions in the first two example proposals listed at the beginning of this chapter, and try to identify these elements.
Background on the problem, opportunity, or situation. Often occurring just after the introduction, the background section discusses what has brought about the need for the project—what problem, what opportunity there is for improving things, what the basic situation is. For example, management of a chain of daycare centers may need to ensure that all employees know CPR (maybe new state guidelines have been enacted about CPR certification). An owner of pine timber land in east Texas may want to get the land productive of saleable timber without destroying the ecology. (The section entitled "Need for a Wellness Program," in example proposal 1 (listed at the beginning of this chapter) is a good example of this.)
It's true that the audience of the proposal may know the problem very well, in which case this section might not be needed. Writing the background section still might be useful, however, in demonstrating your particular view of the problem. And, if the the proposal is unsolicited, a background section is almost a requirement—you will probably need to convince the audience that the problem or opportunity exists and that it should be addressed.
Benefits and feasibility of the proposed project. Most proposals discuss the advantages or benefits of doing the proposed project. This acts as an argument in favor of approving the project. Also, some proposals discuss the likelihood of the project's success. In the forestry proposal, the proposer is recommending that the landowner make an investment; at the end of the proposal, he explores the question of what return there will be on that investment, how likely those returns are. In the unsolicited proposal, this section is particularly important—you are trying to "sell" the audience on the project.
Schematic view of proposals. Remember that is a typical or common model for the contents and organization—many others are possible.
Schematic view of proposals—continued. Remember too that each of the specific sections shown here may not be necessary in your proposal and that the order shown here may not be entirely right for your proposal.
Description of the proposed work (results of the project). Most proposals must describe the finished product of the proposed project. In this course, that means describing the written document you propose to write, its audience and purpose; providing an outline; and discussing such things as its length, graphics, binding, and so forth.) In the scenario you define, there may be other work such as conducting training seminars or providing an ongoing service. Add that too.
Method, procedure, theory. In most proposals, you'll want to explain how you'll go about doing the proposed work, if approved to do it. This acts as an additional persuasive element; it shows the audience you have a sound, well-thought-out approach to the project. Also, it serves as the other form of background some proposals need. Remember that the background section (the one discussed above) focused on the problem or need that brings about the proposal. However, in this section, you discuss the technical background relating to the procedures or technology you plan to use in the proposed work. For example, in the forestry proposal, the writer gives a bit of background on how timber management is done. Once again, this gives you the proposal writer a chance to show that you know what you are talking about, and build confidence in the audience that you are a good choice to do the project.
Schedule. Most proposals contain a section that shows not only the projected completion date but also key milestones for the project. If you are doing a large project spreading over many months, the timeline would also show dates on which you would deliver progress reports. And if you can't cite specific dates, cite amounts of time or time spans for each phase of the project. (See the examples of the schedule section in the examples proposals listed at the beginning of this chapter.
Qualifications. Most proposals contain a summary of the proposing individual's or organization's qualifications to do the proposed work. It's like a mini-resume contained in the proposal. The proposal audience uses it to decide whether you are suited for the project. Therefore, this section lists work experience, similar projects, references, training, and education that shows familiarity with the project. (See the examples of the qualifications section in the examples proposals listed at the beginning of this chapter.)
Costs, resources required. Most proposals also contain a section detailing the costs of the project, whether internal or external. With external projects, you may need to list your hourly rates, projected hours, costs of equipment and supplies, and so forth, and then calculate the total cost of the complete project. With internal projects, there probably won't be a fee, but you should still list the project costs: for example, hours you will need to complete the project, equipment and supplies you'll be using, assistance from other people in the organization, and so on.
Conclusions. The final paragraph or section of the proposal should bring readers back to a focus on the positive aspects of the project (you've just showed them the costs). In the final section, you can end by urging them to get in touch to work out the details of the project, to remind them of the benefits of doing the project, and maybe to put in one last plug for you or your organization as the right choice for the project.
Special project-specific sections. Remember that the preceding sections are typical or common in written proposals, not absolute requirements. Similarly, some proposals may require other sections not discussed above. Don't let your proposal planning be dictated by the preceding discussion. Always ask yourself what else might my audience need to understand the project, the need for it, the benefits arising from it, my role in it, my qualifications to it What else might my readers need to be convinced to allow me to do the project? What else do they need to see in order to approve the project and to approve me to do the project?
Organization of Proposals
As for the organization of the content of a proposal, remember that it is essentially a sales, or promotional kind of thing. Here are the basic steps it goes through:
Notice the overall logic of the movement through these section: you get them concerned about a problem or interested in an opportunity, then you get them excited about how you'll fix the problem or do the project, then you show them what good qualifications you have—then hit them with the costs, but then come right back to the good points about the project.
Format of Proposals
You have the following options for the format and packaging of your proposal. It does not matter which you use as long as you use the memorandum format for internal proposals and the business-letter format for external proposals.
Special Assignment Requirements
Remember that the assignment for this unit serves several purposes: (1) to give you some experience in writing a proposal; (2) to get you to start planning your term report; (3) to give your instructor a chance to work with you on your report project, to make sure you've got something workable. For the second and third reasons, you need to include certain specific contents in (or with) your proposal, some of which may not seem appropriate in the proposal proper. If it doesn't fit in the proposal proper, put it in a memo to your instructor as is done in first example proposal listed at the beginning of this chapter.
Here's a checklist of what to include somewhere in the proposal or in an attached memo to the instructor:
Revision Checklist for Proposals
As you reread and revise your proposal, watch out for problems such as the following:
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