4 Proposals

This chapter focuses on the proposal—the kind of document that gets you or your organization approved or hired to do a project.

Some preliminaries

In a technical writing course, the proposal assignment is an opportunity for you to present an idea to a specific, named audience about an idea you have to improve a certain aspect of that company, organization, center, or other business. Whatever topic you choose, you must be able to conduct thorough scholarly research that you will integrate into your final report.

To begin planning a proposal, remember the basic definition: a proposal is an offer or bid to complete a project for someone. Proposals may contain other elements—technical background, recommendations, results of surveys, information about feasibility, and so on. But what makes a proposal a proposal is that it asks the audience to approve, fund, or grant permission to do the proposed project.

A proposal should contain information that would enable the audience of that proposal to decide whether to approve the project, to approve or hire you to do the work, or both. To write a successful proposal, put yourself in the place of your audience—the recipient of the proposal—and think about what sorts of information that person would need in order to feel confident having you complete the project.

It is easy to get confused about proposals, or at least the type of proposal you will be writing for this class. Imagine that you have a terrific idea for installing some new technology where you work, and you write up a document explaining how it work, showing the benefits, and then urging management to install it. Is that a proposal? All by itself, this would not be a complete proposal. It would be more like a feasibility report, which studies the merits of a project and then recommends for or against it. However, all it would take to make this document a proposal would be to add elements that ask management for approval for you to go ahead with the project. Additionally, for this class, one of those elements is scholarly research. Certainly, some writers of proposals must sell the projects they propose, but in all cases, proposals must sell the writer (or the writer’s organization) as the one to complete the project.

Types of proposals

Consider the situations in which proposals occur. A company may send out a public announcement requesting proposals for a specific project. This public announcement—called a request for proposals (RFP)—could be issued through websites, emails, social media, newspapers, or trade journals. Firms or individuals interested in the project would then write proposals in which they summarize their qualifications, project schedules and costs, and discuss their approach to the project. The recipient of all these proposals would then evaluate them, select the best candidate, and then work up a contract.

But proposals also come about much less formally. Imagine that you are interested in doing a project at work (for example, investigating the merits of bringing in some new technology to increase productivity). Imagine that you met with your supervisor and tried to convince her of this. She might respond by saying, “Write me a proposal and I’ll present it to upper management.” This is more like the kind of proposal you will write in a technical writing course.

Most proposals can be divided into several categories:

  • Internal, external:  A proposal to someone within your organization (a business, a government agency, etc.) is an internal proposal. With internal proposals, you may not have to include certain sections (such as qualifications) or as much information in them. An external proposal is one written from one separate, independent organization or individual to another such entity. The typical example is the independent consultant proposing to do a project for another firm. Chances are, you will write one of these two kinds of proposals for this class, and it may be solicited or unsolicited, as explained below.
  • Solicited, unsolicited: A solicited proposal is one in which the recipient has requested the proposal. Typically, a company will send out requests for proposals (RFPs) through the mail or publish them in some news source. But proposals can be solicited on a very local level: for example, you could be explaining to your boss what a great thing it would be to install a new technology in the office; your boss might get interested and ask you to write up a proposal that offered to do a formal study of the idea. Unsolicited proposals are those in which the recipient has not requested proposals. With unsolicited proposals, you sometimes must convince the recipient that a problem or need exists before you can begin the main part of the proposal. Most of the technical writing projects we have seen in this class have been unsolicited proposals.

Typical scenarios for the proposal

Many of you may have never given much thought to producing a technical report based on a viable proposal. Several sample topics are included on the assignment sheet; here are some additional ideas:

  • Imagine that a company has a problem or wants to make some sort of improvement. The company sends out a request for proposals; you receive one and respond with a proposal. You offer to come in, investigate, interview, make recommendations—and present it all in the form of a report.
  • An organization wants a seminar in your expertise. You write a proposal to give the seminar—included in the package deal is a guide or handbook that the people attending the seminar will receive.
  • An agency has just started using a new online data system, but the user’s manual is technically complex and difficult to read. You receive a request for proposals from this agency to write a simplified guide or startup guide.
  • Imagine that a nonprofit organization focused on a particular issue wants an consultant to write a handbook or guide for its membership. This document will present information on the issue in a way that the members can understand.

Not all research topics are appropriate for technical writing. Topics that are based on values and beliefs do not fall into the category of technical. Historical and literary topics do not qualify. Always check with your instructor about any topic ideas you have before starting on your project.

In addition, keep in mind you must integrate scholarly research into your final report, choose a topic for which you can readily find such material. While interviews and other first-hand sources are often valuable to a report, one that relies heavily on these sources will not meet the outcomes of this course.

Common sections in proposals

The following provides a review of the sections you will commonly find in proposals, submitted in this class in memo format. Do not assume that each one of them has to be in the actual proposal you write, nor that they have to be in the order they are presented here.  Refer to the assignment sheet and consider other kinds of information unique to your topic that should be included in your particular proposal.

As you read this chapter on proposals, check out the sample proposal memo shared in our current week’s unit folder. Again, keep in mind that not all of the sections discussed here will show up in the examples, but most will.

Introduction. Plan the introduction to your proposal carefully. Make sure it does all of the following things (but not necessarily in this order) that apply to your particular proposal:

  • Indicate that the content of the memo is a proposal for a specific project.
  • Develop at least one brief motivating statement that will encourage the recipient to read on and to consider approving the project (especially if it is an unsolicited or competitive proposal).
  • Give an overview of the contents of the proposal.

Background on the problem, opportunity, or situation. Often occurring just after the introduction, the background section discusses what has brought about the need for the project—what problem, what opportunity exists for improving things, what the basic situation is. For example, management of a chain of day care centers may need to ensure that all employees know CPR because of new state mandates requiring it, or an owner of pine timber land in eastern Oregon may want to get the land producing saleable timber without destroying the environment.

While the named audience of the proposal may know the problem very well, writing the background section is useful in demonstrating your particular view of the problem. Also, if the the proposal is unsolicited, a background section is almost a requirement—you will probably need to convince the audience that the problem or opportunity exists and that it should be addressed.

Benefits and feasibility of the proposed project. Most proposals briefly discuss the advantages or benefits of completing the proposed project. This acts as a type of argument in favor of approving the project. Also, some proposals discuss the likelihood of the project’s success. In an unsolicited proposal, this section is especially important—you are trying to “sell” the audience on the project.

Description of the proposed work (results of the project). Most proposals must describe the finished product of the proposed project. In a technical writing course, that means describing the written document you propose to write, its audience and purpose; providing an outline; and discussing such things as its length, graphics, binding, and so forth. In the scenario you define, there may be other work such as conducting training seminars or providing an ongoing service. At this early stage, you might not know all that it will take to complete your project, but you should at least have an idea of some of the steps required.

Method, procedure, theory. In some proposals, you will need to explain how you will go about completing the proposed work. This acts as an additional persuasive element; it shows the audience you have a sound, thoughtful approach to the project. Also, it serves to demonstrate that you have the knowledge of the field to complete the project.

Schedule. Most proposals contain a section that shows not only the projected completion date but also key milestones for the project. If you are doing a large project spreading over many months, the timeline would also show dates on which you would deliver progress reports. If you cannot cite specific dates, cite amounts of time for each phase of the project.

Costs, resources required. Most proposals also contain a section detailing the costs of the project, whether internal or external. With external projects, you may need to list your hourly rates, projected hours, costs of equipment and supplies, and so forth, and then calculate the total cost of the complete project. Internal projects, of course, are not free, so you should still list the project costs: hours you will need to complete the project, equipment and supplies you will be using, assistance from other people in the organization, and so on.

Conclusions. The final paragraph or section of the proposal should bring readers back to a focus on the positive aspects of the project. In the final section, you can urge them to contact you to work out the details of the project, remind them of the benefits of doing the project, and maybe make one last argument for you or your organization as the right choice for the project.

Special project-specific sections. Remember that the preceding sections are typical or common in written proposals, not absolute requirements. Always ask yourself what else might your audience need to understand the project, the need for it, the benefits arising from it, your role in it, and your qualifications to do it. What else do they need to see in order to approve the project and to approve you to do it?

Special assignment requirements

Depending on the writing situation, your proposal may need to include other specialized elements as well. Some of these are described below. Note: some of these elements will actually be required in your progress memo for this class; however, in a real technical writing situation, your supervisor might ask you to include in your proposal any of the following:

Audience: Describe the audience of the final report (which may be different than the audience for the proposal). You may need to discuss for whom the report is designed, their titles and jobs, their technical background, and their ability to understand the report.

Information sources: List information sources; make sure you know that there is adequate information for your topic; list citations for specific books, articles, reference works, other kinds of sources that you think will contribute to your report.

Graphics: List the graphics you think your report will need according to their type and their content. (If you cannot think of any your report would need, you may not have a good topic—do some brainstorming with your instructor.)  For this class, you will be required to create and include graphics in your final report.

Outline: Include an outline of the topics and subtopics you think you will cover in your report.

Proposals and audience

Remember that, in a technical writing course, the proposal assignment serves several purposes: (1) it gives you some experience in writing a proposal; (2) it gets you started planning your term report; (3) it gives your instructor a chance to work with you on your project, to make sure you have a viable topic. For the second and third reasons, you need to include specific elements in your proposal (as noted in your assignment sheet) some of which may not seem appropriate in a real-world proposal.

In this technical writing course, the proposal is the beginning of a weeks-long research and writing process that goes through many stages until it gets to the end point: the technical report. You only submit the proposal once during this process. After that, you will write and submit different types of documents: a progress report, an outline, an annotated bibliography, a graphics draft, a report draft, and a final report. Be careful to use the term “proposal” only if you are specifically referring to the initial stage of your project.

Another point to keep in mind relates to the audience for proposals versus the audience for reports that come later in the writing process. The audience for your proposal is the person who can approve, support, and possibly fund your research and writing. The final report that you produce may be directed at a different audience. Consider the example of a proposal written to a supervisor at a solar power company suggesting the creation of a policy manual for residential solar panel installers. The proposal’s audience may be an executive, whose knowledge of the technicalities may be very broad. On the other hand, the final report’s audience is the technicians, who may have more specialized knowledge than the executive. The content and language used for these two different audiences will need to be adjusted to fit the writing situation. (For more on this, review the chapter on Audience Analysis.)

Revision checklist for proposals

As you review and revise your proposal, keep the following in mind:

  • Use the right format. Remember, for this class, you are writing this proposal in memo format.
  • Write a clear summary of (or introduction to) your proposal topic.
  • Identify exactly what you are proposing to do.
  • Insure that a report—a written document—is somehow involved in the project you are proposing to do. Remember that in this technical writing course we are both practicing writing a proposal like those done in the real world and completing a college-level research project.
  • Insure that the sections of your proposal are in a logical, natural order and that you use sub-headers and bullets (and any other formatting styles) correctly.
  • Address the proposal to your named audience—not your instructor.

Chapter Attribution Information

This chapter was derived from the following sources.

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Proposals by Annemarie Hamlin, Chris Rubio, Michele DeSilva is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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