Proposal Writing Guidelines from an Industry Perspective

In my last blog I provided insight from a Government’s perspective about common mistakes evaluators see in proposals. After posting the blog in a LinkedIn group, we received the following comment from a Government Contracting professional:

“So many contractors merely parrot what the RFP says and don’t say how they will do it or whether they have done anything like it before. Quite often proposals are marketing pieces and almost a waste of time to read. If we have a great many proposals, the temptation is to look for reasons to “toss” a proposal, it can be simple things like not following the page count, font or margin size… don’t let it happen to you!”

This stood out in my mind because we see this issue consistently when we participate in proposal reviews. As this gentlemen suggested, not stating your approach or answering the question of “how” is a deficiency. Not following the specific instructions in Section L on font size or page count will get your proposal thrown out before evaluators even read it, but not describing the how is equally fatal to your effort. Here are some guidelines for writing proposals and several tips for each guideline.

Give the Government what they are asking for in the solicitation.  This is a very simple concept–compliance first and value second–but sometimes hard to do because of the way solicitations are written. Section L requirements may be few and broad but refer back to a Statement of Work (SOW) that is filled with requirements. In this case, we often find proposals deficient during reviews do not cover all requirements in the SOW. We have also frequently seen the reverse, when the instructions do not require any narrative about the SOW but the proposing company spends dozens of pages trying to talk about it. The best way to focus and avoid these pitfalls is to develop a strong annotated outline utilizing and implement rolling reviews during development. This will significantly mitigate this risk and is a great practice when starting the writing process for a proposal in earnest. Some basic tips for this guideline are:

  • Know who you are writing to. It’s not Government executive leadership, program managers (PM) or contracting officers (KO) but most often middle managers tasked to evaluate proposals while still responsible for their normal workload.
  • Follow a consistent structure. At the volume level tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them. At the task level, demonstrate knowledge of the subject, explain how you will meet or exceed a requirement (approach), and provide evidence of this approach (proof).
  • Respond to requirements Section L in the context of Section M. A best value feature must satisfy the requirement, provide benefit to the Government and must justify paying a little more.
  • No unsubstantiated claims. Claims such as, “Industry leading process resulting in greater efficiencies and lower costs” mean nothing if you don’t provide proof from a recognized source (business magazine rating, award, certifications) proving ‘industry leading.’

Make it easy.  This is an important tip, especially in light of how proposals are evaluated. Once proposals are received, an initial screening for responsiveness and compliance is conducted. This initial screening could eliminate your proposal if you don’t follow directions or evaluators cannot find expected responses to requirements. Make sure your narratives are organized, clear, concise and easy to read. A great practice is to follow the Army writing guidelines (or use writing guidelines published by the agency that released the solicitation). Use short sentences with action verbs, no long, uncommon words (nothing over three syllables), and write paragraphs with five or less sentences. Finally, the use of pictures/graphs/diagrams may be beneficial but only if they enhance or clarify the narrative provided in the proposal. Some tips for this guideline include:

  • Paint the picture. Lay out in the opening narrative what they are about to read in a way that serves as mental map for the content.
  • Make as simple as possible, but as complicated as necessary, to explain your approach. Map requirements to your proposal by using words found in the requirement.
  • Tell evaluators what you will do, how you will do it, provide proof and then explain why it matters to the Government.
  • Ensure evaluators can ‘cut and paste’ strengths to justify their evaluations. Be sure your identified strengths can pass the ‘so what’ test… are they clearly worth paying a little more for?
  • Pictures/graphics/diagrams should frame your key discriminators, help explain complex narratives or highlight strengths but they should never be used to manage whitespace or replace narratives.

Don’t antagonize the rater.  This may seem blatantly obvious but is most often too subtle to be noticed by Offerors. These unintentional, or in rare cases intentional, slights can stem from several factors but significantly impact ratings. An example is when evaluators have to look for responses to requirements. This is clearly never intentional but evaluators are reading several proposals and if they struggle to find responses they will get frustrated. Your outline should follow the solicitation and responses should directly map to the requirements. If you do not agree with something in the solicitation don’t write something snide or tell the Government where they are wrong in your response, simply respond to the requirement as written. You can make recommendations on how to improve but make your response positive without poking the evaluator in the eye. Some tips for this guideline include:

  • Don’t show a communication structure in a proposal where your senior leaders appear to coordinate directly with Government leadership above the organization putting out the solicitation (i.e., a program office is putting out the solicitation and your response shows your senior leaders communicating directly with the Army Staff).
  • Don’t inadvertently insult the reviewer by talking down to the evaluator in your response or pointing out where a requirement or comment in the solicitation is not correct.
  • Don’t tell an evaluator what you might do, are thinking about doing, or what you are proposing, just tell them what you will do and how you will do it.
  • Don’t write more than necessary–they have more than enough to read.
  • Don’t spend time suggesting how dysfunctional the Government is and that it will all be fixed when you arrive. Candidly, if they are dysfunction then they already know it and don’t need us to point that out!

In the end, remember Government evaluators are human beings who must follow a process. How you organize and describe what you will do to satisfy the requirement is how they will decide who wins. This seems obvious, but sometimes our proposal development processes either don’t account for what the Government must do during the evaluation process or we simply lose sight of this in our effort to get it delivered.

These are just a few guidelines and tips; Agility offers a comprehensive Source Selection training where participants learn and discuss topics like this. To find out more about Agility classes or to learn more how Agility can support your company please go to

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-J. Michael Courtney