Target Audience

Markel, M. (2015). Technical communication (11th ed.).  Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s.


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A PROPOSAL IS an offer to carry out research or to provide a product or service. For instance, a physical therapist might write a proposal to her supervisor for funding to attend a convention to learn about current rehabilitation practices. A defense contractor might submit a proposal to design and build a fleet of drones for the Air Force. A homeless shelter might submit a proposal to a philanthropic organization for funding to provide more services to the homeless community. Whether a project is small or big, within your own company or outside it, it is likely to call for a proposal.

Understanding the Process of Writing Proposals

Writing a proposal calls for the same process of planning, drafting, revising, editing, and proofreading that you use for other kinds of documents. The Focus on Process box on the next page presents an overview of this process.

the logistics of Proposals

Proposals can be classified as either internal or external; external proposals are either solicited or unsolicited. Figure 16.1 shows the relationships among these four terms.

InTernaL anD exTernaL ProPoSaLS

Internal proposals are submitted to the writer’s own organization; external proposals are submitted to another organization.


When writing a proposal, pay special attention to these steps in the writing process.



revIsInG edItInG ProofreadInG

consider your readers’ knowledge about and attitudes toward what you are proposing. use the techniques discussed in chapters 5 and 6 to learn as much as you can about your readers’ needs and about the subject. Also consider whether you have the personnel, facilities, and equipment to do what you propose to do.

collaboration is critical in large proposals because no one person has the time and expertise to do all the work. see chapter 4 for more about collaboration. in writing the proposal, follow the instructions in any request for proposal (RFP) or information for bid (iFB) from the prospective customer. if there are no instructions, follow the structure for proposals outlined in this chapter.

external proposals usually have a firm deadline. Build in time to revise, edit, and proofread the proposal thoroughly and still get it to readers on time. see the Writer’s checklist on page 443.

Internal Proposals An internal proposal is an argument, submitted within an organization, for carrying out an activity that will benefit the organization. An internal proposal might recommend that the organization conduct research, purchase a product, or change some aspect of its policies or procedures.

For example, while working on a project in the laboratory, you realize that if you had a fiber-curl measurement system, you could do your job better and faster. The increased productivity would save your company the cost of the system in a few months. Your supervisor asks you to write a memo describ- ing what you want, why you want it, what you’re going to do with it, and what it costs; if your request seems reasonable and the money is available, you’ll likely get the new system.

Often, the scope of a proposal determines its format. A request for a small amount of money might be conveyed orally or by email or a brief memo. A request for a large amount, however, is likely to be presented in a formal report.

external Proposals No organization produces all the products or pro- vides all the services it needs. Websites need to be designed, written, and maintained; inventory databases need to be created; facilities need to be constructed. Sometimes projects require unusual expertise, such as sophisti- cated market analyses. Because many companies supply these products and services, most organizations require that a prospective supplier compete for the business by submitting a proposal, a document arguing that it deserves the business.


External proposals are either solicited or unsolicited. A solicited proposal is submitted in response to a request from the prospective customer. An unso- licited proposal is submitted by a supplier who believes that the prospective customer has a need for goods or services.

Solicited Proposals When an organization wants to purchase a product or service, it publishes one of two basic kinds of statements:

• An information for bid (IFB) is used for standard products. When a state agency needs desktop computers, for instance, it informs computer manufacturers of the configuration it needs. All other things being equal, the supplier that offers the lowest bid for a product with that configuration wins the contract. When an agency solicits bids for a specific brand and model, the solicitation is sometimes called a request for quotation (RFQ).

• A request for proposal (RFP) is used for more-customized products or services. For example, if the Air Force needs an “identification, friend or foe” system, the RFP it publishes might be a long and detailed set of technical specifications. The supplier that can design, produce, and deliver the device most closely resembling the specifications—at a reasonable price—will probably win the contract.

Most organizations issue IFBs and RFPs in print and online. Government solicitations are published on the FedBizOpps website. Figure 16.2 shows a portion of an RFQ.

Unsolicited Proposals An unsolicited proposal is like a solicited proposal except that it does not refer to an RFP. In most cases, even though the poten- tial customer did not formally request the proposal, the supplier was invited to submit the proposal after people from the two organizations met and discussed the project. Because proposals are expensive to write, suppliers are reluctant to submit them without assurances that they will be considered carefully. Thus, the word unsolicited is only partially accurate.

the “deliverables” of Proposals

A deliverable is what a supplier will deliver at the end of a project. Deliverables can be classified into two major categories: research or goods and services.

reSearCh ProPoSaLS

In a research proposal, you are promising to perform research and then provide a report about it. For example, a biologist for a state bureau of land management writes a proposal to the National Science Foundation request- ing resources to build a window-lined tunnel in the forest to study tree and plant roots and the growth of fungi. The biologist also wishes to investigate the relationship between plant growth and the activity of insects and worms. The deliverable will be a report submitted to the National Science Foundation and, perhaps, an article published in a professional journal.

Research proposals often lead to two other applications: progress reports and recommendation reports.

After a proposal has been approved and the researchers have begun work, they often submit one or more progress reports, which tell the sponsor of the project how the work is proceeding. Is it following the plan of work outlined in the proposal? Is it going according to schedule? Is it staying within budget?

At the end of the project, researchers prepare a recommendation report, often called a final report, a project report, a completion report, or simply a report. A recommendation report tells the whole story of a research project, begin- ning with the problem or opportunity that motivated it and continuing with the methods used in carrying it out, the results, and the researchers’ conclu- sions and recommendations.

People carry out research projects to satisfy their curiosity and to advance professionally. Organizations often require that their professional employees carry out research and publish in appropriate journals or books. Government researchers and university professors, for instance, are expected to remain active in their fields. Writing proposals is one way to get the resources—time and money for travel, equipment, and assistants—to carry out research.

GooDS anD SerVICeS ProPoSaLS

A goods and services proposal is an offer to supply a tangible product (a fleet of automobiles), a service (building maintenance), or some combination of the two (the construction of a building).

A vast network of goods and services contracts spans the working world. The U.S. government, the world’s biggest customer, spent $327 billion in 2009 buying military equipment from organizations that submitted proposals (U.S. Department of Defense, 2013). But goods and services contracts are by no means limited to government contractors. An auto manufacturer might buy its engines from another manufacturer; a company that makes spark plugs might buy its steel and other raw materials from another company.

Another kind of goods and services proposal requests funding to support a local organization. For example, a women’s shelter might receive some of its funding from a city or county but might rely on grants from private philan- thropies. Typically, an organization such as a shelter would apply for a grant to fund increased demand for its services due to a natural disaster or an eco- nomic slowdown in the community. Or it might apply for a grant to fund a pilot program to offer job training at the shelter. Most large corporations have philanthropic programs offering grants to help local colleges and universi- ties, arts organizations, and social-service agencies.

Persuasion and Proposals

A proposal is an argument. You must convince readers that the future ben- efits will outweigh the immediate and projected costs. Basically, you must persuade your readers of three things:

that you understand their needs

that you have already determined what you plan to do and that you are able to do it

that you are a professional and are committed to fulfilling your promises

UnDerSTanDInG reaDerS’ neeDS

The most crucial element of the proposal is the definition of the problem or opportunity to which the proposed project responds. Although this point seems obvious, people who evaluate proposals agree that the most common weakness they see is an inadequate or inaccurate understanding of the prob- lem or opportunity.

readers’needsinanInternalProposal Writinganinternalproposalis both simpler and more complicated than writing an external one. It is simpler because you have greater access to internal readers than you do to external readers and you can get information more easily. However, it is more compli- cated because you might find it hard to understand the situation in your orga- nization. Some colleagues will not tell you that your proposal is a long shot or that your ideas might threaten someone in the organization. Before you write an internal proposal, discuss your ideas with as many potential readers as you can to learn what those in the organization really think of them.

readers’ needs in an external Proposal When you receive an RFP, study it thoroughly. If you don’t understand something in it, contact the orga- nization. They will be happy to clarify it: a proposal based on misunderstood needs wastes everyone’s time.

When you write an unsolicited proposal, analyze your audience carefully. How can you define the problem or opportunity so that readers will under- stand it? Keep in mind readers’ needs and, if possible, their backgrounds. Concentrate on how the problem has decreased productivity or quality

or how your ideas would create new opportunities. When you submit an unsolicited proposal, your task in many cases is to convince readers that a need exists. Even if you have reached an understanding with some of your potential customer’s representatives, your proposal will still have to persuade other officials in the company. Most readers will reject a proposal as soon as they realize that it doesn’t address their needs.

When you are preparing a proposal to be submitted to an organization in another culture, keep in mind the following six suggestions (Newman, 2011):

• Understand that what makes an argument persuasive can differ from one culture to another. Paying attention to the welfare of the company or the community might be more persuasive than offering a low bottom-line price. Representatives of an American company were surprised to learn that the Venezuelan readers of their proposal had selected a French company whose staff “had been making personal visits for years, bringing their families, and engaging in social activities long before there was any question of a contract” (Thrush, 2000).

• budget enough time for translating. If your proposal has to be translated into another language, build in plenty of time. Translating long technical documents is a lengthy process because, even though some of the work can be done by computer software, the machine translation needs to be reviewed by native speakers of the target language.

• Use simple graphics, with captions. To reduce the chances of misunderstand- ing, use a lot of simple graphics, such as pie charts and bar graphs. Include captions so that readers can understand the graphics easily, without having to look through the text to see what each graphic means.

• Write short sentences, using common vocabulary. Short sentences are easier to understand than long sentences. Choose words that have few meanings. For example, use the word right as the opposite of left; use correct as the opposite of incorrect.

• Use local conventions regarding punctuation, spelling, and mechanics. Be aware that these conventions differ from place to place, even in the English-speaking world.

• ask if the prospective customer will do a read-through. A read-through is the process of reading a draft of a proposal to look for any misunderstandings due to language or cultural differences. Why do prospective customers do this? Because it’s in everyone’s interest for the proposal to respond clearly to the customer’s needs.

DeSCrIBInG WhaT YoU PLan To Do

Once you have shown that you understand what needs to be done and why, describe what you plan to do. Convince your readers that you can respond effectively to the situation you have just described. Discuss procedures and equipment you would use. If appropriate, justify your choices. For example, if you say you want to do ultrasonic testing on a structure, explain why, unless the reason is obvious.

Present a complete picture of what you would do from the first day of the project to the last. You need more than enthusiasm and good faith; you need a detailed plan showing that you have already started to do the work. Although no proposal can anticipate every question about what you plan to do, the more planning you have done before you submit the proposal, the greater the chances you will be able to do the work successfully if it is approved.

DemonSTraTInG YoUr ProFeSSIonaLISm

Once you have shown that you understand readers’ needs and can offer a well- conceived plan, demonstrate that you are the kind of person (or that yours is the kind of organization) that is committed to delivering what you promise. Con- vince readers that you have the pride, ingenuity, and perseverance to solve the problems that are likely to occur. In short, show that you are a professional.


WrITInG honeST ProPoSaLS

When an organization approves a proposal, it needs to trust that the people who will carry out the project will do it professionally. over the centuries, however, dishonest proposal writers have perfected a number of ways to trick prospective customers into thinking the project will go smoothly:

• saying that certain qualified people will participate in the project, even though they will not

• saying that the project will be finished by a certain date, even though it will not

• saying that the deliverable will have certain characteristics, even though it will not

• saying that the project will be completed under budget, even though it will not

copying from another company’s proposal is another common dishonest tactic. Proposals are protected by copyright law. An employee may not copy from a proposal he or she wrote while working for a different company.

there are three reasons to be honest in writing a proposal:

• to avoid serious legal trouble stemming from breach-of-contract suits

• to avoid acquiring a bad reputation, thus ruining your business

• to do the right thing

Writing a Proposal

Although writing a proposal requires the same writing process that you use for most other kinds of technical documents, a proposal can be so large that two aspects of the writing process—resource planning and collaboration—are even more important than they are for smaller documents.

Like planning a writing project, discussed in Chapter 5, planning a pro- posal requires a lot of work. You need to see whether your organization can devote the needed resources to writing the proposal and then to carrying out the project if the proposal is approved. Sometimes an organization writes a proposal, wins the contract, and then loses money because it lacks the resources to do the project and must subcontract major portions of it. The resources you need fall into three basic categories:

• Personnel. Will you have the technical personnel, managers, and support people you will need?

• facilities. Will you have the facilities, or can you lease them? Can you profitably subcontract tasks to companies that have the necessary facilities?

• equipment. Do you have the right equipment? If not, can you buy it or lease it or subcontract the work? Some contracts provide for the purchase of equipment, but others don’t.

Don’t write the proposal unless you are confident that you can carry out the project if you get the go-ahead.

Collaboration is critical in preparing large proposals because no one per- son has the time and expertise to do all the work. Writing major proposals requires the expertise of technical personnel, writers, editors, graphic artists, managers, lawyers, and document-production specialists. Often, proposal writers use shared document workspaces and wikis. Usually, a project man- ager coordinates the process.

Proposal writers almost always reuse existing information, including boil- erplate such as descriptions of other projects the company has done, histories and descriptions of the company, and résumés of the primary personnel who will work on the project. This reuse of information is legal and ethical as long as the information is the intellectual property of the company.

the structure of the Proposal

Proposal structures vary greatly from one organization to another. A long, complex proposal might have 10 or more sections, including introduction, problem, objectives, solution, methods and resources, and management. If the authorizing agency provides an IFB, an RFP, an RFQ, or a set of guidelines, follow it closely. If you have no guidelines, or if you are writing an unsolicited proposal, use the structure shown here as a starting point. Then modify it according to your subject, your purpose, and the needs of your audience. An example of a proposal is presented on pages 436–42.


For a proposal of more than a few pages, provide a summary. Many organiza- tions impose a length limit—such as 250 words—and ask the writer to pre- sent the summary, single-spaced, on the title page. The summary is crucial, because it might be the only item that readers study in their initial review of the proposal.

The summary covers the major elements of the proposal but devotes only a few sentences to each. Define the problem in a sentence or two. Next, describe the proposed program and provide a brief statement of your qualifi- cations and experience. Some organizations wish to see the completion date and the final budget figure in the summary; others prefer that this informa- tion be presented separately on the title page along with other identifying information about the supplier and the proposed project.


The purpose of the introduction is to help readers understand the context, scope, and organization of the proposal.

Introducing a Proposal

the introduction to a proposal should answer the following seven questions:

What is the problem or opportunity? describe the problem or opportunity in specific monetary terms, because the proposal itself will include a budget, and you want to convince your readers that spending money on what you propose is smart. don’t say that a design problem is slowing down production; say that it is costing $4,500 a day in lost productivity.

What is the purpose of the proposal? the purpose of the proposal is to describe a solution to a problem or an approach to an opportunity and propose activities that will culminate in a deliverable. Be specific in explaining what you want to do.

What is the background of the problem or opportunity? Although you probably will not be telling your readers anything they don’t already know, show them that you understand the problem or opportunity: the circumstances that led to its discovery, the relationships or events that will affect the problem and its solution, and so on.

What are your sources of information? Review the relevant literature, ranging from internal reports and memos to published articles or even books, so that readers will understand the context of your work.

What is the scope of the proposal? if appropriate, indicate not only what you are proposing to do but also what you are not proposing to do.

What is the organization of the proposal? explain the organizational pattern you will use.

What are the key terms that you will use in the proposal? if you will use any specialized or unusual terms, define them in the introduction.

ProPoSeD ProGram

In the section on the proposed program, sometimes called the plan of work, explain what you want to do. Be specific. You won’t persuade anyone by say- ing that you plan to “gather the data and analyze it.” How will you gather and analyze the data? Justify your claims. Every word you say—or don’t say—will give your readers evidence on which to base their decision.

If your project concerns a subject written about in the professional litera- ture, show your familiarity with the scholarship by referring to the pertinent studies. However, don’t just string together a bunch of citations. For exam- ple, don’t write, “Carruthers (2012), Harding (2013), and Vega (2013) have all researched the relationship between global warming and groundwater con- tamination.” Rather, use the recent literature to sketch the necessary back- ground and provide the justification for your proposed program. For instance:

carruthers (2012), harding (2013), and vega (2013) have demonstrated the relationship between global warming and groundwater contamination. none of these studies, however, included an analysis of the long-term contamination of the aquifer. the current study will consist of . . . .

You might include only a few references to recent research. However, if your topic is complex, you might devote several paragraphs or even several pages to recent scholarship.

Whether your project calls for primary research, secondary research, or both, the proposal will be unpersuasive if you haven’t already done a sub- stantial amount of research. For instance, say you are writing a proposal to do research on purchasing new industrial-grade lawn mowers for your company. Simply stating that you will visit Wal-Mart, Lowe’s, and Home Depot to see what kinds of lawn mowers they carry would be unpersuasive for two reasons:

• You need to justify why you are going to visit those three retailers rather than others. Anticipate your readers’ questions: Why did you choose these three retailers? Why didn’t you choose specialized dealers?

• You should already have determined what stores carry what kinds of lawn mowers and completed any other preliminary research. If you haven’t done the homework, readers have no assurance that you will in fact do it or that it will pay off. If your supervisor authorizes the project and then you learn that none of the lawn mowers in these stores meets your organization’s needs, you will have to go back and submit a different proposal—an embarrassing move.

Unless you can show in your proposed program that you have done the research—and that the research indicates that the project is likely to succeed—the reader has no reason to authorize the project.

QUaLIFICaTIonS anD exPerIenCe

After you have described how you would carry out the project, show that you can do it. The more elaborate the proposal, the more substantial the discussionof your qualifications and experience has to be. For a small project, include a few paragraphs describing your technical credentials and those of your co- workers. For larger projects, include the résumés of the project leader, often called the principal investigator, and the other primary participants.

External proposals should also discuss the qualifications of the supplier’s organization, describing similar projects the supplier has completed success- fully. For example, a company bidding on a contract to build a large suspen- sion bridge should describe other suspension bridges it has built. It should also focus on the equipment and facilities the company already has and on the management structure that will ensure the project will go smoothly.


Good ideas aren’t good unless they’re affordable. The budget section of a pro- posal specifies how much the proposed program will cost.

Budgets vary greatly in scope and format. For simple internal proposals, add the budget request to the statement of the proposed program: “This study will take me two days, at a cost of about $400” or “The variable-speed recorder currently costs $225, with a 10 percent discount on orders of five or more.” For more-complicated internal proposals and for all external propos- als, include a more-explicit and complete budget.

Many budgets are divided into two parts: direct costs and indirect costs. Direct costs include such expenses as salaries and fringe benefits of program personnel, travel costs, and costs of necessary equipment, materials, and supplies. Indirect costs cover expenses that are sometimes called overhead: general secretarial and clerical expenses not devoted exclusively to any one project, as well as operating expenses such as costs of utilities and mainte- nance. Indirect costs are usually expressed as a percentage—ranging from less than 20 percent to more than 100 percent—of the direct expenses.


Many types of appendixes might accompany a proposal. Most organizations have boilerplate descriptions of the organization and of the projects it has com- pleted. Another item commonly included in an appendix is a supporting letter:

a testimonial to the supplier’s skill and integrity, written by a reputable and well-known person in the field. Two other kinds of appendixes deserve special mention: the task schedule and the description of evaluation techniques.

Task Schedule A task schedule is almost always presented in one of three graphical formats: as a table, a bar chart, or a network diagram.

Tables The simplest but least informative way to present a schedule is in a table, as shown in Figure 16.3. As with all graphics, provide a textual reference that introduces and, if necessary, explains the table.


design the security system 4 oct. 14 19 oct. 14

Research available systems 4 oct. 14 3 Jan. 15


FIguRe 16.3 Task Schedule Presented as a Table

Although displaying information in a table is better than writing it out in sentences, readers still cannot “see” the information. They have to read the table to figure out how long each activity will last, and they cannot tell whether any of the activities are interdependent. They have no way of determining what would happen to the overall project schedule if one of the activities faced delays.

Bar Charts Bar charts, also called Gantt charts after the early twentieth- century civil engineer who first used them, are more informative than tables. The basic bar chart shown in Figure 16.4 allows readers to see how long each task will take and whether different tasks will occur simultaneously. Like tables, however, bar charts do not indicate the interdependence of tasks.

Network Diagrams Network diagrams show interdependence among various activities, clearly indicating which must be completed before others can begin. However, even a relatively simple network diagram, such as the one shown in Figure 16.5, can be difficult to read. You would probably not use this type of diagram in a document intended for general readers.

Description of evaluation Techniques Although evaluation can mean different things to different people, an evaluation technique typically refers to any procedure used to determine whether the proposed program is both effective and efficient. Evaluation techniques can range from writing simple progress reports to conducting sophisticated statistical analyses. Some pro- posals call for evaluation by an outside agent, such as a consultant, a testing laboratory, or a university. Other proposals describe evaluation techniques that the supplier will perform, such as cost-benefit analyses.

The issue of evaluation is complicated by the fact that some people think in terms of quantitative evaluations—tests of measurable quantities, such as pro- duction increases—whereas others think in terms of qualitative evaluations— tests of whether a proposed program is improving, say, the workmanship on

a product. And some people include both qualitative and quantitative testing when they refer to evaluation. An additional complication is that projects can be tested while they are being carried out (formative evaluations) as well as after they have been completed (summative evaluations).

When an RFP calls for “evaluation,” experienced proposal writers contact the prospective customer’s representatives to determine precisely what the word means.


The following checklist covers the basic elements of a proposal. Guidelines established by the recipient of the proposal should take precedence over these general suggestions.

Does the summary provide an overview of the problem or the opportunity? (p. 429) the proposed program? (p. 429) your qualifications and experience? (p. 429)

Does the introduction indicate

the problem or opportunity? (p. 429)

the purpose of the proposal? (p. 429)

the background of the problem or opportunity?

(p. 429) your sources of information? (p. 429) the scope of the proposal? (p. 429) the organization of the proposal? (p. 429) the key terms that you will use in the proposal? (p. 429)


Does the description of the proposed program provide a clear, specific plan of action and justify the tasks you propose performing? (p. 430)

Does the description of qualifications and experience clearly outline

your relevant skills and past work? (p. 432) the skills and background of the other participants?

(p. 432)

your department’s (or organization’s) relevant equipment, facilities, and experience? (p. 432)

Is the budget complete? (p. 432) correct? (p. 432) accompanied by an in-text reference? (p. 432)

Do the appendixes include the relevant supporting materials, such as a task schedule, a description of evaluation technique


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