GUIDE 2022

How to Write a Proposal in 11 Steps

If you’re a proposal writer, you know that writing a proper proposal is no easy task. No matter if it’s business proposals or project proposals, creating a full proposal from start to finish takes time.

A potential customer or a new client doesn’t know that writing a proposal isn’t that much about writing. Writing is usually the easy part. 

Hence, the top reasons why proposals fail are:

  • Significance – The client doesn’t show an understanding of the problem in their proposal letter.
  • Approach – Missed deadline, sent the proposal to the wrong organization, or did not follow the provided rules.
  • Investigator – The client’s line of work doesn’t fit the project.

In other words, the client or the person who wrote the proposal didn’t do research. To help out, the article will cover all required steps for how to write a proposal, from researching to writing a conclusion. If you’re interested in learning via video, then watch below. Otherwise, skip ahead.

Phase 1: Research Proposal

If you’re just starting as a proposal or a grant writer, the article will also help you prepare for discussions with potential clients (especially for freelance proposal writers). Clients rarely know what it takes to create a great proposal, and it’s your job to explain. Furthermore, it’s your job to use your critical thinking and ask the right questions to get specific details about the client and their business.

All of that happens in the research phase, so let’s start.

Define Target Audience

Although you should specialize, you never know who’s your next potential client. It’s less messy if you work for a company with a structured workflow, multiple templates, and other team members. But if you’re alone, you need to define your objectives.

Defining the target audience means two things:

  • Learn about the client
  • Learn about the proposal target

You usually start by learning about your prospective client. What’s their business, niche, general background information, etc. Depending on your current knowledge of their industry, you want to ask more questions if you feel comfortable taking the task. For example, writing a research proposal for human resources isn’t the same as writing a business proposal for a military company.

Next is figuring out who’ll be reading the proposal. The readers are the decision-makers who decide if your client will get the project or grant or not.  Your goal is to convince the decision-maker to take the right action. Naturally, you need to know who they are.

The questions to ask are:

  • Who will be reading the proposal?
  • What do you need to do to convince them to make a favorable decision?
  • What do they want to hear that your client can provide?
  • Do they prefer a formal or informal writing style?

Define the Problem

Defining the problem isn’t a big deal since an agency or business clearly states it in their RFP (request for proposal).

Unfortunately, the problem gets more convoluted as you figure out can your client deliver. To figure out the solution, you need to understand the problem.

Although your client will have a general idea of the issue at hand, don’t let that stop you from asking questions. The client is looking to gain something from the proposal so that they will be biased. You’re here to help them. Even it is by facing the harsh reality that their business isn’t the right one.

For example, just because your client knows how to ride a bike doesn’t qualify them for a bike manufacturing grant.

By defining the problem, you’re creating the first layer of your proposal writing. The problem is where you begin writing. Without deep understanding, your chances to do a great job diminish.

Questions to ask in this research step are:

  • Why is this problem significant to the proposal prospect?
  • What are they getting from solving the problem?
  • Ask the client to explain how the issue fits their business capabilities?

Define Solution

Now that you understand the problem, it’s time to understand the solution. You can observe the solution as the client’s problem since the answer will make or break their business proposal.

This step shouldn’t be difficult. If your client knows what they are doing, the answer should come out naturally.

Nevertheless, it’s best to dilute to the very core of how the solution works by asking the following questions:

  • Does the solution make sense?
  • Does the solution fit the timeline?
  • What do you hope to gain from delivering the solution?

Define the Writing Style

With the first three steps ready, we approach proposal writing. Knowing the target reader helps you with defining the style. Additionally, you can get a solid idea of the style by reading their RFP. How they write the RFP is how you should write the proposal letter.

No matter if it’s a grant or business proposal, the tone should be plain and direct. The goal is to inform the reader and incentivize action, not to entertain or bore them. Also, complex verbiage won’t impress anybody. Ask yourself:

  • How to create a persuasive tone that strikes a chord with the specific reader?

Although this depends on the reader, you create a persuasive tone with simple sentences backed by research. Think of it like chess. You want to bring the opponent (reader) in a position where they have to comply.

Create an Outline

The outline is never part of your final proposal. But it is a valuable document that helps you as you write. It’s like a cheatsheet.

Gather all the relevant details such as goals, benefits, costs, ideas, and quantitative data you have in a single place. There’s no need to spend too much time creating the outline, but it should have basic information such as problem, solution (why your solutions are the best), and business information.

Additionally, if the proposal requires an executive summary, it also helps to include primary budget data.

If you’re interested in understanding the finer details of writing a proposal and becoming a top-tier proposal writer, then check out our proposal writing certification course.

proposal writing certification

Phase 2: Write

Congrats! You should be ready to write everything with detailed research, including a business proposal, proposal letter, executive summary, convert letter, and a brief overview. If you’re using a proposal template, feel free to have it by your side.

Proposal writing has a broad niche, and you never know what the following proposal will require, so you must be ready. 

Keep in mind that you need to think of the deadline. This is where your organization skills will come into play since you’ll need to balance the limited time you have between writing and researching.

Now, let’s start by introducing your client.

Company/Organization Introduction

When someone mentions an introduction, the first picture we get is a polite handshake or a nod followed by the sentence “Hello, my name is…”

Although your business proposal introduction should be polite, it also needs to be convincing. You’re not writing fiction where the story slowly heats up. The proposal should be blazing from the first sentence.

To achieve that, use your client’s information as the skeleton of the introduction instead of as the meat. For example, the starting sentence can be: “Our company, Bycicyle Builders, knows that there aren’t enough bicycles in our city. We reduce car usage from 75% to 50% by integrating the latest bicycle building technology that will effectively make new bicycles 20% cheaper.”

You can also start with data and use that as the build-up for the introduction. Whatever your approach is, stay away from including opinions. You can use facts, but opinions aren’t trackable and rarely work. Although the opening is a general overview, it’s also the setup for the rest of the proposal.

Finally, as you’re writing the introduction, think about the title page. Research shows that proposals with a visually appealing title page tend to work 45% better.

Clarify the Problem

Before you move on to the next step, you need to understand why you’re writing this section of your project or business proposal. You’re not explaining the problem (the reader already knows that). You’re showing how well you and your client understand the issue.

Great questions to answer are:

  • What is the problem?
  • What’s the problem’s cause?
  • How does the problem affect society or industry?

You should have valuable data that you can use here to emphasize your understanding and interest. If you can point to additional issues, you can further impress the audience.

Proposed Solution

The solution is the most critical section. Here you’ll address the client’s capability to stand out amongst the competition by providing benefits that others can not. How can the company or organization meet the objectives and solve the issue?

Whenever a new business creates their first proposal, they often fall into the trap of social proof. When presenting the answer, they focus more on what they assume the reader wants to hear than the question and answer. Although the goal is to satisfy the reader’s need, the road to that goal shouldn’t be complimenting the reader but practical possibilities.

If you go back to questions in the previous step, this section should answer:

  • How your client’s business will address the problem?
  • Why are you offering the particular answer?
  • What is the outcome?

Start with the general impact. Address the main benefit and objectives. After, move to explain why your ideas are better. Don’t assume that the reader will accept the offer at face value. Just because you know your proposition is incredible doesn’t make it clear to others.

Reasons for “why” can be plenty. Maybe it’s more cost-effective. Perhaps it solves the issue faster or with a less negative impact on the environment. The more data and research you present, the better. Furthermore, if you can provide an example of your proposition achieving the claimed goals, that’s extra points.

If you can’t prove that the proposal works, you’ll fail since there will be candidates that can do precisely that.

After reading the section, the audience should be ready to talk about money.

Define Schedule & Budget

Now that you have the reader’s attention, it’s time to move to the second most crucial part – budget. Every proposal is a business proposal, making it an investment. Even if you have the best solutions, it won’t matter if the project costs are too high.

If the RFP requires an executive summary, you’ve probably touched on the budget, but this is where you go in detail since merely providing the total cost isn’t enough.

Look at this section as if you’re starting from the beginning. You’ve successfully convinced the reader into your project. Now you need to do it again.

You prove that your client’s business is the best investment by sticking to facts and covering every penny.

Questions you should answer regarding the budget and schedule are:

  • When do you see the project starting?
  • What are specific steps spread across the general timeline?
  • How does each step tie to the previous and next one?

Use responsive pricing tables and visuals if possible. A simple clickable table can make the budget more intuitive.

Anything that will make it easier for the reader to understand how you plan to spend the money across a specific schedule. The more detail you provide, the better the proposal. A good proposal offers solutions, but it balances it out with the cost. Include any document (or research article) that benefits your cause.

It’s possible to win a proposal with costs that are over the initial budget. But in that case, your company needs to offer additional reasons why they are worth the extra investment.

Finally, it’s always a good idea to double-check everything you wrote before the budget section. The last thing you want is that the numbers don’t match on page two and page nine.

Write a Conclusion

No matter if you’re writing a grant or business proposal, you need to wrap it up. But instead of writing a conclusion as a polite “see you again” message, use the conclusion to your advantage.

A nice trick to use here is an executive summary, cover letter, or any document example that summarizes the proposal. If you have one, you can use the content for the conclusion, but remember to rewrite it.

The conclusion is the proposal summary and should remind the target audience why your client is the best choice. Instead of telling them to have a nice day, go through everything mentioned in previous sections.

Only after you feel like you’ve made your case should you wish them a nice day and thank them for consideration.

Edit & Proofread

Embrace the fact that the first draft of the proposal will rarely be the final version, and that’s perfectly normal. Start by editing the proposal and follow up with your client (or coworkers if you have them) reading the proposal.

Don’t shy away from editing every little doubt that you have. It might feel cumbersome at times, but that’s what proposal writing is about—being meticulous and patching up every single hole. This is also where a proposal template might help. A proposal template usually has guidelines that help when you write a proposal. As a result, there’s less content to edit.

When editing the proposal (and other documents such as the proposal letter), make sure you check for the following:

  • Remove cliches – Cliche phrasing makes any article seem lazy. The cliche in business proposals means phrases such as “we understand the problem.” Does that sentence explain that you do understand the problem? No. Providing data and solutions does.
  • Remove passive voice – Passive voice makes the proposal vague. And in a copy that’s all about convincing, you want to avoid vagueness. Always use active voice as much as possible.
  • Remove weak and useless phrases – It’s impossible to list every example, but if you know how to write a proposal, you’ll know bland terms when you read one. Words such as “We believe, think, feel” are useless and sound weak. Write confidently. If you genuinely believe that the business idea works, you won’t resort to words and phrases.

You need to proofread every new proposal draft. If you don’t have somebody else to proofread, take a break before checking for grammatical errors. Writing and proofreading require two different approaches, and mixing the two results in a poor business proposal.

Proposal Specifics

Depending on the proposal type, you might have to write additional content. Before we dwell on proposal specifics, let’s cover extra copies that go for every proposal.

If you have data that didn’t fit the main proposal, you can add an appendix. But don’t do it just because you have extra content. If it makes the proposal too heavy, it’s better to leave it out. Only add an appendix if you’re 100% confident.

Don’t forget to include contact information. It sounds obvious, but many business proposals make it difficult to get in touch. You can add as a part of the background information or part of the proposal letter.

If you’re sending a proposal electronically, the receiver has your email. But that isn’t an excuse to share company details in any way that makes replying quicker.

Also, some proposals might need press releases so you can promote the project.

Business Proposal

You should write a business proposal per instructions, but you may need to create additional content.

First, there’s the executive summary. This is a short document that summarizes the proposal. Although shorter than actual business proposals, readers should make a decision purely by reading the executive summary. You write it to make the decision easier for readers who don’t have the time to read the whole proposal.

A business proposal also often includes the bidder’s qualifications. Does your potential client have the experience and knowledge to solve the issue?

Finally, you might need to include legal documents that cover possible legal matters after writing a proposal.

Research Proposal

A research proposal is somewhat different since it focuses more on the methodology used to prove a hypothesis. Although the format isn’t different from a business project proposal, how you approach the proposal is.

Instead of writing about how you’ll solve the issue, you write about the methodology you’ll use to research a specific phenomenon. Similarly, if you’re using a questionnaire, you should include the questions and summarize what you hope to achieve by asking the questions.

Research proposals have a higher tendency to fall into the social proof trap than others. That’s especially the case if researching people’s habits, emotions, or daily behavior since the results vary based on the researcher’s approach.

Grant Proposal

With a grant proposal, you’re directly asking for money. Meaning, you need to pay extra attention when creating the budget section. You can use a grant proposal budget template to help you out.

Just like an executive summary, you should have a cover letter. A cover letter summarizes your proposal but also reminds the reader of any previous interaction. Grant proposals are also unique for the way a business or an organization finds one.

Your client might have direct contact with the grant provider. Reminding the provider about previous interactions is a helpful bump in the right direction.

Grant proposals differ from state to state and between different government agencies. But most grant proposals usually ask for the following documents:

  • Organization and financial overview
  • Latest financial statement
  • Company budget (income and expenses)
  • The latest IRS tax-exempt document copy
  • The latest annual report

These documents go outside your responsibilities as a proposal writer. But as you write a proposal letter, it’s good to know what to look for when reading an RFP.

Conclusion

The article provides a better understanding of how to write a proposal of any type. Remember that every bid is different, and although a template like this is helpful, it doesn’t take away from your research time.

The next potential client will be different than the previous one. Although every proposal you write requires an introduction, finance, problem, answer, and conclusion, you need to adjust the sections to every company. The average proposal success rate is 30% for new proposals. Meaning to succeed, you need to be thorough.

Look at it from the reader’s perspective. They get hundreds of proposals full of ideas. Instead of looking at how to bypass rules, think about making the decision-making process more manageable.

By creating a habit of observing the project from the client’s and reader’s perspective, you’re setting yourself up for a winning proposal.

FAQ

Here are the most frequently asked questions about writing proposals.

What makes a good proposal writer?

A great proposal writer can write a convincing proposal that clearly describes the question and answer and makes it easy to make significant financial decisions. Additionally, great proposal writers are confident enough in their writing skills that they can spend more time researching than writing the proposal.

How to become a proposal writer?

Proposal writers start by getting a bachelor’s degree in communication, English language, or another relatable field. Although you can become a proposal writer without a college degree, it’s easier to land jobs. An alternative is online grant writing courses that offer the required knowledge, skillsets, and certifications that you can use as proof of your capabilities.

 


If you are new to proposal writing and are looking to break-in, we recommend taking our Proposal Writing Certification Course, where you will learn the fundamentals of being a proposal writer and how to write winning proposals.

Josh Fechter
Josh is the founder of Technical Writer HQ and Squibler, a writing software. He had his first job in technical writing for a video editing software company in 2014. Since then, he has written several books on software documentation, personal branding, and computer hacking. You can connect with him on LinkedIn here.