Special Topic: Proposal Writing [1]

Prepared by Dr. Helen Zong
(with some editing by Dr. Tony Lima,
October, 2006)


A.     What are proposals?

Proposals are documents written to convince your readers to adopt an idea, a product, or a service. They can be directed to colleagues inside your own organization (In-house proposals), to clients outside your organization (sales proposals), or to organizations that fund research and other activities (grant proposals).

In all three cases, proposals can be presented an either a short, simple format (informal proposal) or a longer, more complicated format (formal proposal). Also, proposal can be either requested by the reader (solicited) or submitted without a request (unsolicited).


B.     Types of Proposals

a.       In-house proposals

b.      Sales proposals

c.       Grant proposals

d.      Informal proposal

e.       Formal proposal

You should use the formal proposal format for your term project proposal.


C.     Formal Proposal Format:  ABC Format


•        Title Page

•        Table of Contents

•        Table of Figures

•        Executive Summary

•        Introduction


•        Technical information

•        Management information

•        Cost information



•        Conclusion

•        Appendices














D.    Formal Proposal Format:  ABC Format

1.      Title Page

-         The title page should be designed to attract the reader’s interest (e.g., a graphic). The title should describe the subject of the proposed study in a way that catches the reader’s attention.

-     The title page includes:

•     Project title, preceded by “Proposal for” or similar wording

•     Your reader’s name (“Prepared for   …”)

•     Your name or the name of your organization spelled out in full
(“Prepared by   …”)

•     Date of submission

Refer to Appendix A for an example.

2.      Table of Contents

-         Create a very readable table of contents by spacing items well on the page.

-         List all proposal sections, subsections, and their page references.

-         At the end, list any appendices that may accompany the proposal.

-         Take time to proofread the table of contents carefully.

-         Follow these guidelines:

•     Wording of headings should match within the proposal text.

•     Page references should be correct.

•     All headings of the same order should be parallel in grammatical form.

TIP:  If you first create an outline in Microsoft Word then fill in the outline with your text you can use Word to automatically generate a Table of Contents. Create a blank page following the title page, then select Insert/Reference/Index and Tables.  Just click OK to see how it looks.  DON’T EDIT THE TABLE OF CONTENTS ITSELF.  If you don’t like what you see, press Ctrl-Z to undo the table creation (leaving you with a blank page).  Go back to Insert/Reference/Index and Tables and try some of the options to get the appearance you want.  (If you don’t like your section titles change them in the outline.  It’s best to change outline elements in Outline mode.  Look in the lower left corner of the main Word window.  Click this icon  for outline mode and this one  for page preview mode.  Those are really all you need.)

3.      Table of Figures

-         When there are many tables, figures and so on, the table of figures should appear on a separate page.

-         The list should include the number; title, and page number of every illustration

TIP: When setting up tables and figures in the text label them using Word’s Insert/References/Caption feature.  That way you can easily cross-reference them in the text and have the figure numbers automatically updated when you add or delete items (Insert/Reference/Cross Reference).  Then when it’s time to insert the table of figures you can use Word’s Insert/Reference/Index and Tables to automatically generate the table of figures.  Follow the instructions in the previous section for creating a table of contents, making the obvious changes along the way.

4.      Executive Summary

-         The whole point of an Executive Summary is to summarize your conclusions in one page or less.  Busy executives (and others who simply don’t have time to wade through your analysis) will only read this and nothing else.  Write the executive summary after you’ve finished everything else.

-         The Executive Summary must grab the reader’s interest.

-         One-page overview of the proposal’s most important points

-         Follow these guidelines:

•    Avoid technical language

•    Be as self-contained as possible

•    Make brief mention of the problem, proposed solution, and cost

•    Emphasize the main benefits of your proposal

•     Write the summary after you have completed the rest of the proposal

5.      Introduction

-         Provide background information for both nontechnical and technical readers

-         Start with a purpose statement that concisely states the reason you are writing the proposal

-         Use subheadings if the introduction goes over a page

-         Use language directly from the request for proposal

-         Include a scope section to describe the range of proposed activities and completed tasks

-         Include information about: 

•     Purpose

•     Description of the project problem (A lengthy project statement should be placed in the technical section of the body of the proposal, not in the introduction.)

•     Scope of the proposed project

•     Format of the proposal

6.      Body

-         Aim the discussion toward readers who need supporting information

-         You should include three basic types of information:

(1) Technical,

(2) Management, and

(3) Cost.

-         Technical Section guidelines

•     Respond thoroughly to the client’s concerns

•     Follow organization plan

•     Use frequent subheadings with specific wording

•     Back up all claims with facts

-         Management Section guidelines

•     Describe who will do the work

•     Explain when the work will be done

•     Display schedule information graphically (schedule Gantt chart, etc.)

•     Highlight personnel qualifications (but put resumes in appendices)

-         Cost Section guidelines

•     Make costs extremely easy to find

•     Use formal or informal tables when possible

•     Emphasize value received for costs

•     Be clear about add-on costs or options

•     Always total your costs

7.      Conclusion

-         Restate a main benefit,

-         Summarize the work to be done

-         Assure clients that you plan to work with them closely to satisfy their needs.

-         End on a positive note.

8.      Appendices

-         Your proposal may not need any appendices at all.  Some reasons for including an appendix are:

·        Without an appendix the formal proposals would be too long

·        Readers have trouble locating information

·        Transferring technical details from the proposal text into appendices

·        Develop standard appendices (also called boilerplate)

·        Supporting information should be placed in appendices

-         An appendix is best to use individual paging within each appendix. For example, pages in an Appendix B would be numbered B-1, B-2, B-3.

-         Sample contents:

•     Resumes

•     Organization charts

•     Company histories

•     Detailed schedule charts

•     Contracts

•     Cost tables

•     Detailed options for technical work

•     Summaries of related projects already completed

•     Questionnaire samples


[1] Pfeiffer, Willians S., Technical Writing, a Practical Approach, 3rd Edition, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1997. pp 344~376.

[2] http://blogs.msdn.com/brian_jones/archive/2006/07/05/657510.aspx.  Accessed July 6, 2006.


TIP:  The best on-line references are available through http://library.csueastbay.edu.  Please do not use Wikipedia.  It is not reliable.

Appendix A.  Examples of Formal Proposal


      A cover page