Frequently, when reviewing drafts of a proposal, I will read a sentence, paragraph, or page, and I will have no idea what the writer was trying to communicate. When I go to talk to the writer, I will ask the amazingly probing question, “What were you trying to say here?” Amazingly, the person will usually be able to tell me what he or she wanted to write in a clear and concise couple of sentences.
I am convinced that the best proposal writing frequently never makes it onto paper. I think there are several reasons for this:
- From a developmental perspective, the ability to speak is a skill humans, as a species, developed long before the ability to reduce speech to writing. Our brains have been structuring speech for much longer than writing.
- As an individual, speech is a skill most infants learn several years before writing develops. Talking is a skill in which most of us are more practiced.
- The people who write much of a proposal’s “meaty” portions are frequently asked to do so as a sideline to their primary function. Frequently, it is not the task that they spend a majority of their time performing.
- Many people classify proposal writing as marketing, which for many people means, stringing together as many words as possible without saying anything.
- As most of us move through school, increasingly complex grammar is taught and practiced. We start with simple understandable sentences that have subjects, action verbs and predicates to complex sentences with multiple thoughts that often can be interpreted in more than one way. We understand when John says hi to Mary. But when John excels at greeting-oriented communications that signify welcome particularly to the friend’s John considers most close, the message muddles.
- Some people use writing as a method of uncovering what they think. After writing the incomprehensible, the writer frequently has in her mind exactly what needs to be written. Frequently, a task’s time is over, and the excellent writing never makes the page.
Luckily, there are simple and practical things we as proposal developers can do:
- The best writers tend not to be the people with the knowledge needed in the proposal. We should more frequently take good writers and have them interview/record the people with the necessary information. A newspaper with their reporters is a model for this.
- There are visual thinking strategies and structured writing methods that can organize our writing before we dive in too deep.
- In fact, frequently we will be better off with an effective visual than the 1,000 words that the good picture is worth.
- When you edit someone’s work and have a chance to talk to them, bring along a digital recorder. If you allow people to talk, they will tell you what you need to know. Reporters have certainly figured this out. The person will blurt out what really belongs on the page. Make sure you have a recorder there to catch it.
- Encourage people to remember what we all learned in elementary school: topic sentence, a sentence or two in support, and a conclusion. This formula really works. Moreover, it actually takes less time.
People are not natural writers. Writing is a learned skill that develops slower than talking. We should seek ways to structure our requests for information in ways that produce writing that will help us win proposals.
I’d love to hear your thoughts.