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.