7.3 Proposals

Proposals are among the most common types of technical writing found in the workplace, in academia, and in the wider community. A proposal is a document that tries to persuade the reader to implement a proposed plan or approve a proposed project. Most businesses rely on effective proposal writing to ensure the success of the business and to acquire new clients or contracts. The writer tries to convince the reader that the proposed plan or project is worth doing (worth the time, energy, and expense necessary to implement or see through) and that it will result in tangible benefits. Knowing how to write an effective proposal is a vital skill for technical communicators. Proposals must be convincing, logical, and credible; to achieve this, technical writers must consider  their audience, purpose and tone.

In a technical writing course, the proposal assignment is an opportunity to present an idea to a specific audience about improving some aspect of that company or organization. Whatever the topic, it’s important to research your topic fully and integrate that research into your final proposal.

Proposal Purposes & Parts

Proposals are often written in response to a Request for Proposals (RFPs) by a government agency, organization, or company. OThe requesting body receives multiple proposals responding to their request, reviews the submitted proposals, and chooses the best one(s) to go forward. Thus, your proposal must persuade the reader that your idea is the one most worth pursuing. Proposals are persuasive documents intended to initiate a project and get the reader to authorize a course of action proposed in the document. These might include proposals to:

      • Perform a task (such as a feasibility study, a research project, etc.)
      • Propose a new or improved product
      • Provide a service

Proposals can have various purposes and thus take many forms, but most have sections such as the following listed in Table 7.3  (the order may vary depending on audience, purpose, and situation):

TABLE 7.3: Business Proposal Parts
1. Cover Page Title page with name, title, date, and specific reference to request for proposal if applicable
2. Executive Summary Like an abstract in a report, this is a one- or two-paragraph summary of the product or service and how it meets the requirements and exceeds expectations.
3. Background Discuss the history of your product, service, and/or company and consider focusing on the relationship between you and the potential buyer and/or similar companies.
4. Proposal The idea. Who, what, where, when, why, and how. Make it clear and concise. Don’t waste words and don’t exaggerate. Use clear, well-supported reasoning to demonstrate your product or service.
5. Market Analysis What currently exists in the marketplace, including competing products or services, and how does your solution compare?
6. Benefits How will the potential buyer benefit from the product or service? Be clear, concise, and specific, as well as provide a thorough list of immediate, short-, and long-term benefits to the company.
7. Timeline A clear presentation, often with visual aids, of the process from start to finish with specific, dated benchmarks noted.
8. Marketing Plan Delivery is often the greatest challenge for online services—how will people learn about you? If you are bidding on a gross lot of food service supplies, this may not apply to you, but if an audience is required for success, you will need a marketing plan.
9. Budget What are the initial costs, when can revenue be anticipated, when will there be a return on investment (if applicable)? Again, the proposal may involve a one-time fixed cost, but if the product or service is to be delivered more than once, an extended financial plan noting costs across time is required.
10. Conclusion Like a speech or essay, restate your main points clearly. Tie them together with a common them and make your proposal memorable.

Four Kinds of Proposals

    1. Solicited Proposals: an organization identifies a situation or problem that it wants to improve or solve and issues an RFP (Request for Proposals) asking for proposals on how to address it. The requesting organization will vet proposals and choose the most convincing one, often using a detailed scoring rubric or weighted objectives chart to determine which proposal best responds to the request.
    2. Unsolicited Proposals: a writer perceives a problem or an opportunity and takes the initiative to propose a way to solve the problem or take advantage of the opportunity (without being requested to do so). This can often be the most difficult kind of proposal to get approved.
    3. Internal Proposals: these are written by and for someone within the same organization. Since both the writer and reader share the same workplace context, these proposals are generally shorter than external proposals, and usually address some way to improve a work-related situation (productivity, efficiency, profit, etc.). As internal documents, they are often sent as memos, or introduced with a memo if the proposal is lengthy.
    4. External Proposals:  these are sent outside of the writer’s organization to a separate entity (usually to solicit business). Since these are external documents, they are usually sent as a formal report (if long), introduced by a cover letter (letter of transmittal). External proposals are usually sent in response to a Request for Proposals, but not always.

*Proposal assignments in technical writing classes generally do the following:

    1. Identify and define the problem to be solved or the opportunity that can be taken advantage of. You must show that you clearly understand the problem/situation if you are to convince the reader that you can solve it.
    2. Describe your proposed project, clearly defining the scope of what you propose to do. Often, it is best to give a general overview of your idea, and then break it down into more detailed sub-sections.
    3. Indicate how your proposed solution will solve the problem and provide tangible benefits. Specifically, indicate how it will meet the objectives and abide by the constrains outlined in the problem definition. Give specific examples. Show the specific differences between “how things are now” and “how they could be.” Be as empirical as possible, but appeal to all appropriate persuasive strategies. Emphasize results, benefits, and feasibility of your proposed idea.
    4. Include the practical details: propose a budget and a timeline for completing your project. Represent these graphically (budget table, and Gantt chart). Your timeline should include the major milestones or deliverables of the project, as well as dates or time frames for completion of each step.
    5. Conclude with a final pitch that summarizes and emphasizes the benefits of implementing your proposed idea – but without sounding like an advertisement.

Additional Proposal Elements to Consider

    1. Describe your qualifications to take on and/or lead this project; persuade the reader that you have the required skills, experience, and expertise to complete this job.
    2. Decide what graphics to use to illustrate your ideas, present data, and enhance your pitch.
    3. Include secondary research to enhance your credibility and the strength of your proposal.
    4. Choose the proper format, which could be a memo to an internal audience or a formal report to an external audience.

Ethos, Pathos, and Logos

Ethos refers to credibility, pathos to passion and enthusiasm, and logos to logic or reason. All three elements are integral parts of a business proposal. Your credibility may be unknown to the potential client, so it is your job to establish that credibility by referencing previous clients, demonstrating order fulfillment, and clearly describing your product or service. By association, if your organization appears credible, your audience is more likely to view the product or service as being credible as well.

In the same way, if you are not enthusiastic about the product or service, your audience will likely not be either. Think about the following audience questions:

        • Why should the potential client get excited?
        • How does your solution stand out in the marketplace?
        • Why should they consider you?
        • Why should they continue reading?

Passion and enthusiasm are achieved by demonstrating your thorough understanding, your dedication to the project, and your interest.

Credibility is also established by supporting each assertion, not making baseless claims about your product or service, and showing your audience how the claims you make are true and relevant. Make sure you also cite sources when you use outside support. It’s helpful to use the common “According to  your points. Be detailed and specific

Language Considerations

Proposals are fundamentally persuasive documents, so paying attention to the rhetorical situation—position of the reader (upward, lateral, downward or outward communication), the purpose of the proposal, the form, and the tone—is paramount.

        • Clearly define your purpose and audience before you begin to write
        • Be sure you have done research so you know what you are talking about
        • Remain positive and constructive: you are seeking to improve a situation
        • Be solution oriented; don’t blame or dwell on the negative
        • Make your introduction very logical, objective, and empirical; don’t start off sounding like an advertisement or sounding biased; avoid logical fallacies
        • Use primarily logical and ethical appeals; use emotional appeals sparingly

Proposal Scenarios

It is easy to get confused about proposals, and some students new to technical writing may have never given much thought to producing a proposal. Here are a few sample topics:

        • Imagine that a company has a problem or wants to make some sort of improvement. The company sends out a request for proposals, and you 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.

Proposal Samples

The following proposal samples come from David McMurrey’s Online Technical Writing textbook:

Additional Resources

  • Proposals” from Online Technical Writing.



"Proposals." Technical Writing Essentials. [License: CC BY 4.0]
"7.4 Proposals." Communication at Work. [License: CC BY 4.0]
"Proposals." Technical Writing. [License: CC BY 4.0]


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