Taking Ownership of Proposal Content as Writer/Editor

Winning contracts from the Federal Government is a team sport. It can sometimes require intense effort from a large group of people over years. By the time an opportunity reaches the proposal phase, many key decisions have been made, so how much impact can proposal writers and editors really have? I will argue that they can have a huge impact on whether your company wins or loses.

Our mantra at OST is, “A great idea that isn’t expressed well, isn’t a great idea.” Your company can run an excellent capture effort, offering the exact solution the government wants. But you will likely lose if it’s not articulated well in your proposal.

If high-quality proposal writing is crucial to winning, then why are proposal writers and editors sometimes treated like commodities in the Government Contracting industry? In my opinion, it’s because: 1) proposal writers and editors are not trained in persuasive writing, and 2) proposal writers and editors generally do not take ownership of the content.

What does it take to truly excel as a proposal writer and editor? That is what we’re going to talk about in today’s newsletter. 

Before we begin, OST’s writing process is divided into 3 phases: 

  1. Brainstorming and Researching, which should take 40% of your time
  2. Writing, which should take 20% of your time
  3. Re-writing, Editing, and Restructuring, which should take 40% of your time

Although the writer and editor might be two different people, I group the tasks together here to discuss the process and timing goals. 

Persuasive Writing and Editing Skills

First and foremost, a proposal to the Federal Government is a sales document. However, the Government releases complicated and often convoluted Requests for Proposals (RFPs), so it can be difficult to figure out what the Government actually wants to see in your proposal. Creating a requirements-based outline and understanding what the Government is asking for in a specific section is the foundational skill required before we can start writing or editing. For the sake of space, let’s assume that you already have that skill. What should we focus on now? 

The answer is winning content. 

A proposal’s purpose is to convince the government buyer to select your company over another company – this principle applies to all volumes, including the Cost Volume. However, I hear from many proposal writers and editors that the number one goal is compliance. While that is technically true (and can be tricky at times), it is also the bare minimum for award consideration. Let’s instead focus on what makes the difference in winning: the content.

Content is the substance of what we are offering to the government in response to their needs and requirements. A proposal writer and editor’s job is to sell their company’s solution/approach in the proposal. That means the writer/editor must understand what the government is asking for in the RFP, the technical subject matter at hand, and how to write persuasively about the company. We’re assuming you already know the compliance part, so let’s talk about understanding the technical subject matter and persuasive writing. 

As I mentioned earlier, “Winning is a team sport,” so proposal writers and editors will need to work with subject matter experts (SMEs)/project personnel in order to develop a technically accurate proposal. There are a few major skills here to mention. The first is interviewing SMEs for the information you need. Asking good questions is dependent upon your understanding of the RFP requirements and being able to determine the level of detail required to answer the Government’s needs. A great interviewer will probe deeper into the details until they find something special that creates a revelation, an “aha” moment, or an angle that will resonate with the reader. This is more of feeling and where the art truly is, which comes with experience. Great writers and editors must also master the elements of persuasive writing. These skills generally fall into the following categories: 

  • Satisfying the reader’s emotional desires, also referred to as selling to the “Old Brain”
  • Using the journalistic method of writing, which is state the main point first and add support details second
  • Employing the proper structure of a written argument using the 8Ws: Why, What, Who, How, When, Where, and Wow
  • Telling impactful stories, which are critical to modern marketing
  • Using metaphors when the customer has a blind spot
  • Submitting a clean, professional-looking document with no errors that represents the type of work your company will do if you win the contract

These are all skills that proposal writers and editors can learn and practice on a daily basis. Strictly speaking of editing, 40% of your time should be reserved for “editing,” which includes the Rewriting, Editing, and Restructuring part of the proposal writing process. OST splits proposal editing into four types of editing, which rank in difficulty from hardest to easiest to master. 

1) Editing for Content is editing the draft against the RFP requirements to determine if what is written in the proposal answers what is required in the RFP. This requires you to determine if there is missing information, if the information is accurate (or sounds accurate), and if the approach in your section is consistent with the rest of the proposal.

2) Editing for Length and Structure is about getting your section within page count – what can we cut or shorten without sacrificing quality? This editing includes moving paragraph or sentence order for better understanding and ease of reading. It also includes breaking up the long paragraphs into shorter ones and making sure graphics have a clear message. 

3) Sentences and Words is shortening sentences to an average of 20 words per sentence and removing unnecessary words. For example: 

  • Bad: Team X has physical storage facilities that are capable of qualifying for SECRET.
  • Better: Team X has physical storage facilities capable of qualifying for SECRET.
  • Best: Team X’s physical storage facilities qualify for SECRET. 

This includes removing passive voice, checking for dangling and misplaced modifiers, ensuring each sentence is complete, and removing pretentious academic or bureaucratic language (i.e., replace “utilize” and “leverage” with “use”). 

4) Editing for Mechanics is your typical copy edit. This is the most common type of editing that includes running spell check and editing for punctuation, pronouns, spelling out numbers, proper capitalization, verb tense, subject verb agreement, etc. If you struggle with this type of editing, then I recommend picking up a Hacker Handbook by Diana Hacker. 

Owning the Content

Many of the things I talked about above are skills that anyone can learn. What can’t be taught is the attitude you bring to your proposal. Owning the content and diving into the details looking for that something special in your writing is about your attitude and effort. Mastering proposal writing and editing skills is just part of the equation. To be a truly excellent proposal writer, you also have to be ready to do whatever it takes to make a proposal outstanding. 

If you have skill gaps in proposal outlining, writing, or editing, then sign up for our upcoming proposal courses.