Category: proposal writing

Lessons Learned from Proposal Writing

The first few pages of a Request for Proposal from the General Services Administration. It’s a lot of words.

It’s been eight years since I got my first job as a Proposal Writer. Like most people in my profession, before being hired as one I didn’t even know what it was. I was just looking for something writing-based to get paid for at that point in my life, but I didn’t expect it to change my personal style so drastically.

I’ve learned a lot from proposal writing, which is a form of marketing. Essentially, when the customer (in my case, the federal government) has a need for some service (in my case, software development, among other things), I lead a team that writes a sales pitch to them explaining why my company is the best company to do the work, how we’ll do it, and where we’ve done it before. Then, they compare what my team has written with what other companies have written and award the work based on who they think can do the best job at the lowest price.

It’s straightforward work, but within that straightforwardness is a lot of writerly nuance, good and bad.

THE GOOD

Outlining: When I was younger I was one of those writers that had to “feel inspired” in order to write. I liked to allow whatever I was writing to guide me. Proposal writing is structured and process-oriented in order to increase efficiency and, in doing so, save time, effort, and money. So, when I got my first job as a proposal writer there was a steep learning curve to meeting my employer’s expectations. One of the many reasons I was fired from my first proposal job was because I refused to outline. Over time, my experience proved to me that outlining does help keep things on track. I can’t write anything long-form without one, now. I need to know where I’m going to even put pen to paper.

Conciseness: If proposal writing has drilled one thing into me, it’s that brevity is king. With few exceptions, proposals are given strict page limits. I often find myself in a position where the government will give us 30 requirements to describe our approach to in ten pages, with very clear instructions that state anything over ten pages will not be evaluated. While writing or editing it’s literally life or death for our document if I don’t carefully consider every word and how it’s pushing forward our narrative.

Clarity: Depending on the size of the procurement, proposal evaluators are faced with reading thousands of pages of highly technical writing in order to make a determination on which company has the best solution to their problem. If there are any aspects of a proposal that are confusing, it’s unlikely the government will take the time to ask for clarification–they’ll just move on. Being as straightforward as possible, laying out the steps to a solution in clear terms, and making it as easy on the reader as you can to understand your point is imperative to being evaluated not only well, but fairly.

Active Voice: At my second proposal writing job, the owner of the company (which was pretty small) would consistently berate me for gerunds. He was right. Even today, I have to be cognizant of slipping into passive voice, which is easy to do when writing fiction as most fiction is being told by a narrator who is reflecting on events. Forcing myself to always write with active voice has changed the way I approach sentence structure and word choice.

Meeting Expectation: Proposals are simple in the sense that you are given a document with specific requirements that you must answer in full, otherwise the millions of dollars on the line go to someone that’s not you. Like the 70/30 theory, you have to meet the government’s expectations to give yourself a fighting chance. The second you veer off from the government’s requirements without providing a solid reason you’re sunk.

THE BAD

Conciseness: There is a thing as being too short. In proposals, I need to account for every word (one trick to staying within page count is to rewrite paragraphs that have hanging lines of less than half the width of the page so that every paragraph maximizes its space), whereas in fiction sometimes allowing the story to breath makes it more impactful. Author Chuck Wendig (he of the STAR WARS: AFTERMATH series and, most recently, WANDERERS) writes about this in terms of food. In that blog post he writes that story recipes should be 1/3 salt, 1/3 sugar, and 1/3 fat to be most delicious. I’ve had to relearn this coming from years of proposal writing. Allowing the characters to bullshit for a while helps the reader connect with them, explaining their backstory adds context to their decisions and personalities, etc. In proposals, the instinct is to get rid of anything that resembles extraneous information.

Repetitiveness: Because of page counts and requirements, proposals can’t be repetitive. Often, if you’re retracing steps you just point to the original tracks and say, “Go there to learn more about X.” In fiction, though, it helps to be repetitive. It reminds the reader of things. It shows what’s important to your characters and story. In fiction, repetitiveness illuminates things.

Pulling Lessons from Everywhere

One of the weird things my brain does is draw connections between everything I do. As I just spent a bunch of words describing, my experiences in professional life have influenced how I approach my writing life, for good and for ill. Even if your job doesn’t have anything to do with writing, I believe there are similar lessons everywhere. Maybe how you stay organized at your day job can inform how you organize your writing. Or the discipline you need to be successful at work can apply to every area of life. My point is that it’s helpful to think about as a way to find your own comfort zone and develop your own style.

Passion of the Career

Get it? Passion of the Christ? Passion of the Career? Fuck. I know. I’m leaving.

I realized something over my last stint of unemployment. You know, when I made a push to become more than an unknown, amateur screenwriter screaming into the void. I realized that for any career, at least any that doesn’t require back surgery at middle age or the classic phrase, “Would you like fries with that?” (probably more accurately updated as, “For 25 cents more would you like to make that a large?”), that those who are the best at their jobs, who go further in their careers than others, don’t look at what they do as a 40-hour week. For them, it’s a way of life.

I realized this as I was screenwriting because that’s exactly what it became for me.

I didn’t stop at the writing. I didn’t stop at the brainstorming. I didn’t stop at the outlining. I didn’t stop at the research. I didn’t stop at the forums. I didn’t stop at the blogs.

Screenwriting, for better or worse, seeped into every area of my life. And I didn’t mind one bit. I thought of other professions; did proposal writers seek read about proposal writing in their downtime? I know books and forums and magazines exist, so I would imagine so. I can confirm that my architect brother-in-law reads about architecture and watches documentaries about architecture and talks about architecture outside of work. Doctors do the same. As a matter of fact, it would surprise me if there wasn’t a profession out there that someone was able to be successful at their job while keeping it separated from their lives outside of work.

What this realization really means, though, is that if I fail as a screenwriter I need to be passionate about something else. Something that I care about and don’t mind dedicating my life to, 40 hours or more per week. Is that proposal writing/business development/government contracting for me?

I’m not sure, yet. I’ve been with three companies now and I can’t say I’ve ever loved what I do. However, the first two companies I worked for I didn’t like not because of the work but because I thought management was awful (if you want to argue that my attitude is a bigger problem, I’ll gladly listen to what you have to say – I have an anti-establishment streak in me but, more importantly, don’t respect people that I feel are incompetent. Do with that what you will). This new company I actually like quite a bit. They treat me well and I want to work hard for them.

But that’s still not the work.

I’ve found myself thinking more deeply about what it is I do. Thinking about ways to innovate. That may be because I’m bored with the box they put me in, or it may be because I’m becoming legitimately interested in improving. I may be interested in improving because I’m scared if I don’t I’ll never make money and feel secure because I’ll never keep a job. It’s all a bit unclear.

Regardless, knowing that to make a career there needs to be a willingness to let it seep into the cracks of your life has added perspective to my search to find something fulfilling. If I do eventually figure out that I’m more interested in proposal writing because, on a deep level, I want to be great at it like I want to be great at screenwriting then I’ll know that I’m safe.

I think that’s an important moment for anyone. We can’t all be writers/dancers/actors/athletes – all of these “fun” professions that are difficult to gain and even more difficult to maintain. The world needs proposal writers and architects and sewer maintenance people otherwise everything would go to shit (literally in that last case – ha! Ok, ok, I’m leaving…). But those people need to be passionate about what they do, otherwise their responsibilities will be shirked and they’ll find themselves in the strange limbo of joblessness I’ve lived in for the past few years.

Some of the idealists and romantics out there might cry out, “But how can you truly love more than one thing? How can you truly succeed if you’re splitting your passion between careers?” I think it’s possible. In my case, proposal writing and screenwriting are somewhat related. Not closely, but enough that I can use them to feed one another (and, on the flip side, my energies can be drained doing one and not the other). I also think that closing yourself off to opportunity by being so focused on one narrow band of opportunity is short-sighted. What if I were to have a producer call me right now, tell me there is $500,000 with my name on it for The Inhabitors, and then I hated the entire process? Would I go back to machining? Unlikely. Burger King? Never again. Proposal writing is a somewhat safe bet to ensure security for myself and, maybe someday, my family.

Because at the end of my life, when I’m able to contextualize my silly life, as important as it is to me that I tried as hard as I could to realize my literary dreams it’s more important that I don’t overlook the ones I love in doing so. I’ve spent quite a few days and nights already not being with the people I love because in my ambition I’m locked in my room striving for something bigger. That’s all well and good, but it’s no way to live my entire life. I want a family. I might even know who I want that family with. The opportunity to become a writer will be there until I take my last breath. Starting a family and actually being able to provide for them will pass me by.

This was a long post of rambling and trying to rationalize my priorities. I’m sorry for that. It’s just food for thought and a reminder to myself that ambition and dreams aren’t the be-all, end-all in one’s life. There are other things that are more important.

Proposal Writing vs. Creative Writing

I haven’t written a word of a new (or old) story in over a month. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing.

On June 16th I had my orientation for my new position, Proposal Writer and Analyst. What exactly does a Proposal Writer and Analyst do, you ask? I write proposals and analyze… uh… stuff. Duh.

In short, it’s a marketing position. Proposals are marketing materials, designed to explain how the company I work for, TCG, can help the government solve whatever problem they have. We’re an IT company, primarily, so the problems we’re trying to solve are mostly to do with technology. Sounds pretty fancy, right? You can probably imagine me working with emerging technologies the public don’t even know about, learning their specifications so I can write amazing prose that convinces the government to give TCG millions upon millions of dollars so we can push forward their technological superiority.

You would be wrong.

The truth is much more boring. While there are some amazing technologies used within government (and probably more amazing technologies I’m not privy to, not owning a clearance), most of it is pretty mundane. They use Windows as an operating system and, in most cases, Internet Explorer as a browser. Most of the time, their technologies aren’t even as advanced as the ones we use publicly or in the corporate room. This is for a lot of practical, financial, and security reasons.

Anyway, writing proposals (or white papers or capabilities statements or responding to Requests for Information) is a lot different than creative writing. For one, you’re more or less confined to a little box. Creative writers hate that (although others construct their own to maximize their perceived creativity), but with the government it’s a fact that you just have to accept. Because every government agency is different, and they have different needs/baseline technological environments, their requirements are different. This makes each solicitation different, which makes each response different.

But because of the limitations each agency faces, and because the government likes to erect walls you have to scale so they can weed out the ones not willing to do so, a proposal writer faces a lot of limitations. Page count limits, only being able to use certain fonts, following a specific structure – it all serves as a way for the government to fairly and quickly assess your qualifications but man oh man does it suck the creativity out of writing.

Or does it? (Yes, kind of)

See, just like those writers who create arbitrary rules for themselves to follow in order to force themselves to be creative, within the box the government puts you in there are ways to spice it up. It all depends on your approach.

Most companies take a by-the-books, dry, technical approach. That may be the best approach, honestly. It’s (mostly) clear, the evaluation criteria are easily met, and there is no room for interpretation.

What I’ve done in the past, and a few of my proposal writing friends sometimes do, it inject storytelling and emotional weight to their writing. It’s not an easy thing to do (and often takes much more work than “answering the mail”) but it makes the writing pop and feels more worthwhile. Here is where proposal writing and creative writing intersect – being able to find that emotional weight that connects with people and makes them want to keep reading.

Basically, believe it or not, people in the government have important jobs. Government contractors, those who try to improve the government by bringing in methods and strategies from the private sector (which tends to be more progressive and less risk-averse), and whose jobs depend on my being good at selling solutions to the government, are important. What many companies fail to do, and what makes their writing so damned boring, is tap into what makes these jobs important. Why is it important that the Library of Congress have excellent network security? Why is it important that the Department of Education has a standardized system for doling out grants? That’s where the creativity and emotion comes in.

On a more technical level, proposal writing and the limitations it comes with calls for a more concise style of prose. You don’t want to waste words. Sometimes this can lead to poor writing; things are condensed to the point where they’re barely sentences anymore. Other times it leads to writing that’s compelling and tightly paced. It’s not an easy thing to pack as much information in as few words as possible. I would say 90% of writers fail.

I haven’t mastered it. I may never master it. I’m not even sure if I like proposal writing, yet. But it has helped me to tighten my writing and I think it’s given me a screenwriting advantage, as screenplays are also short on real estate.

For someone that wants to write for a career there aren’t many options. I stumbled into proposal writing mistakenly thinking that putting pen to paper is the same wherever you are. I was wrong. It’s hard and it’s draining and it’s different than creative writing. But the experience has still helped me to grow. It’s taught me to honor deadlines regardless of anything. It’s taught me to write concisely. And it’s taught me 1,000 new ways to fail.

Still, if I ever make it as a creative writer it will be because of this detour. And if I fail as a creative writer, I could be on worse career paths.

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