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Writing Clearly

Baskar Sundaram

Clear writing makes its points simply, demonstrating a bidder’s competence and quality. Applying principles of clear writing will make the proposal easy to see, follow, and understand, making it easier for readers to say “yes.” The goal is to make readers spend less time untangling the meaning and more time reviewing the solution.

Tell stories

Telling stories is apt for proposals because they are narratives about what one company plans to do for another and what it has done for other, similar companies. Because proposals are action documents, use human subjects whenever possible. To keep roles clear and actions clearly defined, write mainly in active voice, because it is the voice of good stories—direct and concise. Use built-in readability statistics tool available in word processing programs to convert passive sentences into active ones. Because action drives stories, use strong, active verbs to avoid abstractions.

Write like you talk

Use the same style of English you use in conversation to make your proposals more open and accessible to a wide range of audiences. Use readability statistics tools to assess your writing’s readability on two scales: the Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kincaid grade level whose scores indicate how easy or difficult the proposal is to read. Aim for a Flesch Reading Ease score of higher than 60 and a Flesch-Kincaid reading level of 7 or 8.

Use simple words with precision. Use jargon only when it’s clearly to your advantage to do so. Build intimacy with your reader through personal pronouns. Use contractions as needed to create an informal, friendly tone. Avoid contractions if you’re writing to someone you do not know or to create a tone of academic objectivity Use a variety of punctuation to engage readers. The colon and dash are both great tools for emphasizing the importance of content that follows them in a sentence. Use the dash when your tone is informal. Semicolons help join two or more independent clauses.

Write tight

Clear writing is content that respects your readers’ time by providing everything that is necessary in the briefest space possible. Following are eight techniques for writing tight: three at the paragraph level and five at the sentence level.

  1. State your idea up front and make sure everything else relates

In each section’s introduction, state how that section relates to your overall purpose. In every paragraph, follow the topic/ comment/point pattern of successful technical prose:

○ State your sole topic for your paragraph in the first sentence.

○ Support your topic with comments.

○ Provide a point statement for a powerful takeaway.

Attached is a template that uses the topic/comment/point structure to respond to interleaved Q&A RFPs.

  1. Keep paragraphs short

Shorter paragraphs are almost like dialogue and reinforce a conversational tone, especially in nontechnical sections of a proposal. The topic/comment/point structure supports a short paragraph strategy and makes it easier for your reader to follow your line of argument.

  1. Tie your sentences together to make unified paragraphs

You can improve the cohesion of your paragraphs by placing new information after old information. This allows you to create cohesion, building on what your reader has just learned and using it as a springboard to the next round of new information.

You can keep your readers aligned with your paragraph topic by ensuring that each sentence starts with a reference to that topic, preferably in the subject of each sentence. Finally, tie your sentences to others using transitions (words, phrases, and sentences that connect one idea or sentence to another).

Transitions specify relationships of time, cause and effect, space, addition, comparison, and contrast. Place them at or near the beginning of a sentence. A transition after the verb weakens the effect of the transition and sounds awkward.

  1. Use only the words your readers need

Redundancy occurs when you use words or phrases that unnecessarily repeat the meaning of other words in the sentence.

  1. Watch out for long strings of nouns in succession, or “noun stacks

When two or more nouns are used to modify another noun, it forces readers to read through the string multiple times to understand which words modify the main noun. This creates ambiguity and slows down readers.

  1. Use concrete images and precise measures

Technical writing is meant to be precise. Persuasive discourse based on logic depends on concrete proofs, so usage numbers is preferred over indefinite amounts.

  1. Be consistent when using technical terms

To minimize a reader’s frustration or misinterpretation, it is advised to make a list of technical terms in a style sheet and stick to those versions throughout the proposal.

  1. Stay positive

Readers comprehend positive statements more easily and quickly than negative statements.

Show your document’s structure

Creating the most accessible and functional proposal possible must be part of the win strategy. Make it easier for readers of your proposal to choose your solution, by considering these five techniques:

  1. Write informative headings.

Write headings that describe the contents of every section and subsection. Consider two guidelines for writing informative headings:

○ Avoid single-word headings.

○ Use a parallel grammatical structure for headings within a hierarchical


  1. Apply numbered and bulleted lists appropriately

Numbered and bulleted lists are easy ways to open up your documents for easy reading and absorption:

○ Build numbered lists to highlight items in a sequence.

○ Build bulleted lists to highlight components or elements when no

sequential order is evident.

○ Use hanging indents.

○ Limit the number of items in your lists.

  1. Transition between sections

Use transitions at the end of a section to pre-sell the content in the following section. On the flip side, provide a “landing pad” of established information for your readers as you introduce the section that follows:

○ Use cause and effect, place, addition, and comparison or contrast

transitions between sections, as you would between sentences.

○ Pull in previous takeaways that are pertinent to this new line of thought.

○ Preview an arrangement similar to that of the previous section.

○ Recap prior conclusions.

○ Recast themes that you established in your executive summary in a new


  1. Describe ideas graphically

Use graphics to create a spatial organization for sections of content. Moving left to right, top to bottom, or through a flow illustrated in the image can provide both visual and textual reinforcement for your ideas.

  1. Build a familiar schema

The aim must be to establish a repeatable model for all your unsolicited proposals so readers who receive the second, third, and fourth proposal will be “trained” in what to expect and where to find what they seek. When your customer presents an RFP in an interleaved Q&A format, build a schema that can be used to reinforce with each subsequent answer.

Plan to revise

One must always include ample revision time and cycles for proposals to reduce overall cost, to test the validity of ideas, and to ensure that the writing is ethical. Use a style sheet to present terms consistently. For your projects, create a standard style sheet that denotes preferred:

○ Usage (e.g., data as a plural noun)

○ Punctuation (e.g., comma before and in every list)

○ Capitalization (e.g., MB versus mb)

○ Industry acronyms/jargon (e.g., MFJ—Modified Final Judgment)

Schedule downtime between writing and editing. Have your peers edit your work to ensure high-quality content, style, and grammar. Use functional reviews to ensure accuracy, persuasiveness, and appropriateness.

Follow the principles of clear writing and plain language to improve your chances of winning business. Understand that all readers appreciate clear writing, even technical experts, keeping in mind that teams of analysts from a variety of backgrounds and expertise assess proposals.

Investigate ways to incorporate modern multimedia techniques (video, animation, interactive demonstrations) to keep up with communication trends. Analyze and understand your readers so you can anticipate their needs, write to their expectations, and accommodate their communication and cultural preferences. Revise your work to reduce the cost of rework, to test the validity of your ideas revealed by plain language, and to ensure the integrity of your content.

The article briefly details key examinable syllabus area from the APMP Foundation certification.

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