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Why what you learned in school about writing was wrong

If you are like me, you learned the basic five-paragraph essay format (and a bunch of variations) in school. You remember: introduction paragraph, three supporting paragraphs, and conclusion paragraph. Most variations follow the same concept: introduce, support, conclude. Then within each paragraph, you do the same thing at the sentence level. If you are writing a proposal, this is completely backwards.


  • People read proposals to make a decision — the first thing on their mind is why they should accept what you are proposing.
  • Customers read proposals to find out what they are going to get — tell them what they are going to get or what the result will be so they will want to read about how you will make that happen.
  • The goal of a proposal is to persuade — you need to communicate what you want the reader to conclude and then substantiate it.
  • Nobody wants to read a proposal — if the evaluator quickly sees what you want them to conclude, they may not need to read the details that follow.
  • A winning proposal is easy to evaluate. Picture the evaluator with a checklist in hand going through your proposal — check, check, check. State conclusions that reflect the evaluation criteria, and then substantiate with how or why.

Never save the best for last, or build to the finish. Give the reader what they want right up front in firm, positive statements. Don't ease into it by writing around it. If you ever have the opportunity to be the customer reading a proposal, you'll see how annoying it is when you have to dig into the proposal and read deep to find out what the point is.

You still need to provide the explanation and proof for due diligence, but if there is anything about your approach that you really want them to know, anything about it that is special, you should call it out first. Tell them what the approach will do for them, what the benefit of it is, and only then tell them what the approach is.

The goal is not to deprive them of necessary detail, but to give them what they want, in the order they want it. You have to give them a reason to bother reading the detail. Think about why they are reading — they are evaluating what you are proposing in order to do two things: get through the formal evaluation process (completion of scoring forms) and to make a selection. Unfortunately the former is often the primary reason.

In any event, what they are looking for is how to score you and why to select you. If they find those, then they’ll examine what you are proposing to make sure you can deliver. It is always a good idea, in any type of writing, to imagine what it’s like to be the reader.

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By Carl Dickson,
Founder of and PropLIBRARY

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