Writing Clearly

Too many opportunities are lost because of ambiguous and overly complex language, long and dense sentences, and vague, lifeless prose. Clear writing, in contrast, makes its points simply, demonstrating a bidder’s competence and quality.

Introduction

Clear writing can differentiate your proposals from those of your competitors. Applying principles of clear writing will make your proposal easy to see, follow, and understand, making it easier for your readers to say “yes.”

If your writing is clear, your readers probably won’t notice—and that’s a good thing. Your goal is to make readers spend less time untangling your meaning and more time reviewing your solution.

The root cause of unclear business communication is style, not form or grammar. Style represents the way we put words together at the sentence and paragraph level to express our content and perspective. This article focuses on matters of style.

For information about the form of proposals, see APMP BOK sections on Proposal Organization, Proactive Proposals, and Executive Summaries.

Best Practices

1. Tell stories.

In Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, Joseph Williams says, “Storytelling is fundamental to human behavior. No other form of prose can communicate large amounts of information so quickly and persuasively.” We tell stories through characters and their actions. 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. Customers pay for results, so our proposals should actively express how we perform for them.

Instead of: Design decisions were made to human factors’ specifications.

Write: Our engineers designed our products to work like you do.

To keep roles clear and actions clearly defined, write mainly in active voice. Sentences in active voice place the agent of the action as the subject and the action itself in the verb, followed by the object or the thing changed by the action.

In passive voice sentences, it’s the reverse: The subject is the goal of the action and the action is partially obscured (a form of the verb “to be” precedes a past participle form of the main verb). The true subject is often the object of the preposition “by.” Active voice is preferable because it is the voice of good stories—direct and concise.

Word processing programs usually have a built-in readability statistics tool that can tell you the percentage of passive sentences in your writing. Use the tool to convert passive sentences into active ones.

Instead of: The inspection of the facility was made by the OSHA representatives.

Write: OSHA representatives inspected the facility.

Passive voice is preferable in two situations, however:

When your audience doesn’t need to know who is performing the action. Be aware, however, that some use passive voice to avoid responsibility.
When you need to maintain a consistent string of subjects in a paragraph and passive voice is the only way to do so (see the following techniques for unified paragraphs).
Because action drives stories, use strong, active verbs to avoid abstractions. Technical content often hides complex actions in the form of nominalizations, or verbs and adverbs that have been converted to nouns. Look for the action verb behind the nouns that end in –tion and -sion. (For additional endings and tips for finding and converting nominalizations, see the Fix Nominalizations guide).

Instead of: There is a need for additional examination of the code problem.

Write: The programmer must examine the code more closely.

2. Write like you talk.

Every reader, even a technical expert, appreciates clarity. Use the same style of English you use in conversation to make your proposals more open and accessible to a wide range of audiences.

Some readability statistics tools assess your writing’s readability on two scales: the Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kincaid grade level. These scores indicate how easy or difficult your proposal is to read. Aim for a Flesch Reading Ease score of higher than 60 (the higher the score, the easier to read) and a Flesch-Kincaid reading level of 7 or 8 (for grade level, lower is better).

Use simple words with precision. Opt for briefer, more common words when meaning is not compromised. The following two sentences mean the same thing, but the second one, which uses shorter words, is easier to read and understand.

Instead of: We will utilize Six Sigma methodology to ensure end-to-end quality.

Write: We will use Six Sigma methods to ensure end-to-end quality.

Use jargon only when it’s clearly to your advantage to do so. Technical or professional jargon can sometimes demonstrate mastery of a subject and gain a technical reader’s trust. However, because a proposal is usually assessed by people with different degrees of technical knowledge, be sure to define any necessary jargon you use either parenthetically after the first use of the term or by a link to a glossary definition. The best approach is to use nontechnical language, unless you are writing to technical experts only.

Build intimacy with your reader through personal pronouns. The style of business communications is increasingly less formal. Using third-person pronouns and collective nouns (for instance, ABC Company instead of we or us; customer instead of you) puts distance between you and your reader, yet implies no greater degree of objectivity. Using the “you attitude” (directly addressing your reader in the second person) is brief, more closely resembles the way people talk, and will help you avoid passive voice.

Use contractions as needed to create an informal, friendly tone. If you’re writing to someone you do not know or someone you know is more traditional, avoid contractions. If you want to create a tone of academic objectivity, avoid contractions. If you want a familiar, personal tone to your proposal—say, if you are writing on behalf of a salesperson—contractions help you mimic spoken English. Let your reader be your guide.

Use a variety of punctuation to engage readers. While punctuation is more a matter of grammar than style, the following two examples show how punctuation brings emphasis and cohesion to your content. The colon and dash are both great tools for emphasizing the importance of content that follows them in a sentence. Use them after complete sentences to point to a single word, a list, another complete sentence, or a series of complete sentences. How do you choose between them? Use the dash when your tone is informal.

Instead of: We detected problems in the following areas: accounts receivable, accounts payable, and debit entries.

Write: We found serious problems—in accounts receivable and payable and in debit entries.

Semicolons help join two or more independent clauses when you want to show that they are closely related without having to overtly state that they are.

Instead of: The new console has more features. However, the new console does require a separate power supply.

Write: The new console has more features; however, it requires a separate power supply.

3. Write tight.

Clear writing is content that respects your readers’ time by providing everything that is necessary in the briefest space possible.

According to Microstyle: The Art of Writing Small, the growth of information and knowledge makes human attention the scarcest commodity, and readers “scan, skim, and screen” to conserve their attention for the messages that deserve it most. Following are eight techniques for writing tight: three at the paragraph level and five at the sentence level.

State your idea up front and make sure everything else relates. Clear writing lets readers know quickly and clearly why they need to read what you’ve written. This applies at every level of your proposal—document, section, and paragraph. In the transmittal letter and executive summary, clearly state your purpose. 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. Do not mix messages by loading multiple ideas into a single paragraph. The topic sentence establishes the topic for that paragraph alone.
  • Support your topic with comments. Comments are the “proofs” in our proposals, and they should solely support the topic you set in sentence one. While there is no limit to the number of comments you can include, the more the comments you use, the more likely your reader will lose your thread.
  • Provide a point statement for a powerful takeaway. In the final sentence, remind your readers why this topic is important to them. In proposals, this is a great place to reinforce win themes and differentiate your solution from that of your competitors.

To see a template that uses the topic/comment/point structure to respond to interleaved Q&A RFPs, see RFP Q&A Response Template.

Keep paragraphs short. Shorter paragraphs are easier to read. Shorter paragraphs are almost like dialogue and reinforce a conversational tone, especially in nontechnical sections of a proposal. Even indepth responses can be made more reader friendly by creating shorter paragraphs based on the various levels of ideas you need to present.

The topic/comment/point structure supports a short paragraph strategy and makes it easier for your reader to follow your line of argument. You may even separate the point statement from the main paragraph to make the paragraph shorter and the point more emphatic.

Instead of: We approach projects of this scope through a defined program management process. In the initial phase, the ABC Company team identifies the processes and tools required to implement and validate the project. We then systematically develop a resource plan and roadmap to maximize the potential for success through end-to-end management of the deployment and the associated processes and tools. As a result, you will have the defined strategy and experienced resources to help ensure a successful implementation.

Write: We approach projects of this scope through a defined program management process. In the initial phase, our team identifies the processes and tools we need to implement and validate the project. In phase 2, we develop a resource plan and roadmap that ensure we control the deployment of the associated processes and tools.

Because we follow this two-phased approach, you will have the defined strategy and experienced resources to help ensure a successful implementation.

Tie your sentences together to make unified paragraphs. Readers lose their way in paragraphs for two main reasons:

  • They receive new information before they know how it relates to information they already know.
  • They lose track of the main topic of the paragraph because the subjects of each sentence vary.

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.

Instead of: You strive to be the best wireless company in the world. To achieve consistently high levels of customer service, your internal processes and technologies must perform reliably.

Write: You strive to be the best wireless company in the world. Being the best means you must delight your customers consistently. Your consistency depends on support technologies that are “always on.”

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.

Instead of: Your Personal Identification Number (PIN) should arrive via email within one business day after registration. ABC Company currently does not have the capability to permit members to choose personalized PINs. The company selected a four-digit number for your PIN.

Write: Your Personal Identification Number (PIN) should arrive via email within one business day after you register. Your PIN is a four-digit number that ABC Company selected. Your PIN cannot be personalized at this time.

Last, 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.

Instead of: The engineers failed to validate the findings with field operations. The department heads asked the chief engineer to retest the procedure as a result.

Write: The engineers failed to validate the findings with field operations. As a result, the department heads asked the chief engineer to retest the procedure.

Use only the words your readers need. Respect your readers’ time by eliminating redundant and unnecessary words. Redundancy occurs when you use words or phrases that unnecessarily repeat the meaning of other words in the sentence.

Instead of: This new feature will completely eliminate all errors for a true and accurate count.

Write: This new feature will eliminate errors for an accurate count.

Wordy phrases add girth to writing with no added value and, with proposals, that can be the difference in meeting page counts and not.

INSTEAD OF WRITE
Take into consideration Consider
In order to To
Has the capacity for Can

Watch out for long strings of nouns in succession, or “noun stacks.” When you use two or more nouns to modify another noun, you force readers to read through the string multiple times to understand which words modify the main noun. This creates ambiguity and slows down readers.

Instead of: Provide an operations human resource recommendations “blueprint” process that will define and optimize the Operations Support Model structure to meet target state requirements.

Write: For our human resources team, we recommend a “blueprint” that will define and optimize their support model to meet targets required by the state.

Use concrete images and precise measures. Proposals are a genre of technical communication, and technical writing is meant to be precise. Persuasive discourse based on logic depends on concrete proofs, so use numbers over indefinite amounts.

Instead of: some/many/few

Write: exact amounts and measures

Be consistent when using technical terms. Readers of technical documents get confused when you use a synonym or alternate word when referring to technical concepts, instructions, or equipment. To minimize a reader’s frustration or misinterpretation, make a list of your technical terms in your style sheet and stick to those versions throughout your proposal.

Instead of: using several synonyms for screen like, monitor or terminal

Write: the most accepted term, like screen, in every instance

Stay positive. Whenever possible, tell your readers what something is rather than what it’s not. Readers comprehend positive statements more easily and quickly than negative statements. If you place several negative statements within a paragraph, your reader will struggle to comprehend your meaning.

Instead of: Do not discontinue running diagnostics until none of the errors are present.

Write: Continue to run diagnostics until all errors are eliminated.

4. Show your document’s structure.

Because a proposal evaluator often looks for ways to eliminate bidders, creating the most accessible and functional proposal possible can be part of your win strategy. When you facilitate readers’ access to your content, you make it easier for them to choose your solution. Make it easier for readers of your proposal to choose your solution, by considering these five techniques:

Write informative headings. Knowing that your readers scan, skim, and screen your proposals, write headings that describe the contents of every section and subsection. Consider two guidelines for writing informative headings:

  • Avoid single-word headings. Headings like Recommendation and Finances may be too vague or generic to keep your busy reader from having to read every word that follows.
  • Use a parallel grammatical structure for headings within a hierarchical level. This is a subtle way to let readers know where they are in your proposal. Some options for heading styles include:
STYLE EXAMPLE
Verb phrase Troubleshooting Issues in Your Custom Network
Clause Why You Need Custom Troubleshooting Procedures
Apposition Troubleshooting: Why we customize our procedures (Note: this is a great enhancemensingle-word headings)
Theme The Need for Custom Troubleshooting Procedures
Question Why Do You Need Customized Troubleshooting Procedures?

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. Use numbered lists for procedures, step-by-step instructions, and references to numbered components.
  • Build bulleted lists to highlight components or elements when no sequential order is evident. For emphasis, place your most important bullet list items in the first, second, or last positions.
  • Use hanging indents. Wrapping text around the bullet or number reduces the eye’s ability to separate the items listed.
  • Limit the number of items in your lists. Limit the number of items in your lists to between three and seven. If you have more items to display and cannot exclude any, group them into labeled categories (again, between three and seven items, optimally).

 

Transition between sections. Just as readers can get lost within paragraphs, they can easily lose interest or lose the thread of your message from section to section and volume to volume.

Radio shows transition between segments by “packaging” (providing a teaser) for an upcoming topic. You can use a similar technique to draw your readers into the next section of your proposal. 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 light

 

Describe ideas graphically. Use graphics to create a spatial organization for sections of content. Content plans use this technique to help contributors build content by describing what they see in the graphic. 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. When you apply this technique, always refer directly to the graphic in text so that readers can quickly reference the image, or even choose which delivery method, text or graphic, that they prefer.

 

Build a familiar schema. Most proactive proposals are structured documents with standard major sections, beginning with a summary then describing the client’s current situation, your company’s solution, the cost, and the implementation plan. You should aim 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.

Building a schema is more difficult when the customer dictates how the proposal should be organized. Some would say it’s not necessary, because the customer who released the RFP will demand you respond in the schema they prefer.

However, there is a way to leverage your proven organizational schemas within the context of a customer’s dictated structure. When your customer presents an RFP in an interleaved Q&A format, build a schema that you reinforce with each subsequent answer. AT&T uses a five-part schema to build reusable Q&A knowledge bases and to condition reviewers to more easily assess their responses (see RFP Q&A Response Template).

5. Plan to revise.

Always include ample revision time and cycles for your proposals to reduce overall cost, to test the validity of your ideas, and to ensure you are writing ethically. As you review your work, apply the following tips:

Use a style sheet to present terms consistently. Most large companies have a corporate style reference for all types of business writing. If yours does not, use style guides such as the AP Stylebook or The Chicago Manual of Style. 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. A waiting period away from the document will allow you to find errors and validate ideas more easily and without emotional baggage.

Have your peers edit your work to ensure high-quality content, style, and grammar. If you are part of a proposal team, ask your peers to review your work and offer to do the same for them. Look for opportunities for substantive, grammatical, and general stylistic improvement.

Use functional reviews to ensure accuracy, persuasiveness, and appropriateness. These are a standard approach to revision, using objective reviewers not linked directly to the proposal in progress. For a thorough discussion of functional reviews, see Review Management.

Common Pitfalls and Misconceptions

Using proposals as technical references

Many proposal contributors and even some proposal managers think that proposal content must be the dense, complex, and jargon-ridden prose of technical manuals because technical experts compose the primary audience or are the key influencers for decisions.

In most cases, this is simply not so. Along with these technical experts, financial experts, managerial experts, process and quality experts, and executives also read some or all of many proposals. Any reader with expertise outside the immediate content at hand is a novice.

Furthermore, research indicates that technical readers appreciate clear writing as much as novices, because:

  • Clear writing doesn’t “dumb down” content. It specifies who does what, shows how technology works and fits into a workplace, and provides guides and definitions for terms outside any reader’s expertise.
  • Clear writing clarifies ideas. Clear writing eliminates the mystery of jargon, the ambiguous actions hidden within nominalizations, the shorthand of conceptual shortcuts, and the content density of stacked nouns so that ideas stand on their merits and become assessable to all who need to understand them.

 

Writing proposals in objective, formal language

Many business professionals think that proposals, because they are official business documents and precursors to contracts, should be written in an objective and formal—that is, legalistic—style. Yet proposals are primarily sales documents. Selling is interpersonal, from one representative to another. Your proposal is a primary communication medium for you to solidify your offer to a buyer through mutual agreement.

In that sense, proposals are written arguments—appeals to gain a buyer’s agreement but also to enlist that buyer in solving a problem. Attempts to downplay the interpersonal relationship, the sense of people helping people, will only serve to diminish cooperation and trust, which are hallmarks of successful written arguments.

Summary

  • 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.

Terms to Know

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