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.
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.
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.