In the heat of hustling to meet a submission deadline, editing the proposal can get cut short, which is a crucial part of developing a professional document. Many factors impact your probability of winning (Pwin) when proposals are not thoroughly edited, some of which are:
Mistakes and inconsistencies in spelling, grammar, and usage suggest a lack of professionalism to readers and evaluators. However, the implications go beyond mechanical correctness. Reviewers might wonder whether the government should expect this level of workmanship if you win the contract.
Editing can provide a late-stage check on compliance. You may lose a contract without a checklist of RFP requirements and a final check.
Inconsistencies in style and tone can make your proposal seem disorganized when volumes are assembled from multiple section authors. If your narrative looks like a patchwork quilt, the government may think the lack of discipline is something they can expect during the project and work products you will provide.
Key win themes in your solution may get lost or not presented in a way that resonates with the customer. Reviewers may overlook something great because it was confusing to read or it was written in passive voice.
Proposal Editing Is Iterative
Editing is an iterative process and you can never do it enough. Hollywood director John Huston once quipped that movie scripts are never completed – they’re simply abandoned. And veteran government proposal managers have mumbled, “One way or another, it all ends up in a box.”
Contrary to a commonly held belief, you can’t tack on editing as a late-stage task that takes place after the authors think they’re done with their section drafts. A professional, disciplined approach will apply an editor’s mindset and attention throughout all phases of proposal development. This will save time later in the proposal process when the deadline looms and there’s not enough time to get everything done.
You will undoubtedly review your own writing multiple times, from different viewpoints and for different reasons. You or your assigned editors will assist and support authors and managers repeatedly in their reviews of the documents. Each draft review by managers or color team review by in-house evaluators will flag inconsistencies and inaccuracies. Your editor must consistently apply these corrections throughout all documents.
Management-level reviewers will often request revisions to improve both compliance and effectiveness. Your editors should ensure these revisions are consistent and mutually reinforcing.
It’s confusing for reviewers to read the name of key personnel only to find different names in different sections. This can happen because a key person withdrew their candidacy in the middle of the proposal process.
Presenting a cohesive solution requires these types of consistency checks. It takes a tremendous amount of time to tie up all of the loose ends, so editing on a continuous basis will help.
Editing Your Own Proposal Writing
It’s rare that authors don’t give their sections enough attention. Unless an SME is in a blinding hurry, they are more likely to obsess over revisions and be slow to consider the task complete. This devotion is understandable in performers who have come to identify closely with the customer’s needs and wants. Being passionate about the project is a virtue, after all.
But, at some point, objectivity must win out. Here are some suggestions for iteratively refining your drafts without losing your head in the process:
- Step away from the piece for a day. “Sleep on it” is generally good advice. Your head, and your point of view, will be clearer in the morning.
- Review your proposed-final draft in hardcopy. You’ll experience the tasks of reading and marking up pages differently. And doing so simulates more closely how some reviewers will see your presentation. As drafts get closer to final, you can pay attention to the positioning of figures, captions, and benefit statements in relation to page breaks. Ideally, you want the key benefit stated on the same page as its illustration.
- Read it aloud. If you stumble over awkward phrases, rewrite them. And if sentences seem so long you lose track of the point, break them up.
- Record yourself. You may find even more opportunities for improvement on playback.
Editing Someone Else’s Writing
An objective editor must be able to explain every edit, and an author must be able to defend every statement. Objectivity is crucial to the process, even though rival team members are known for unfairness with each other. Remember to keep things constructive and that winning is a team sport. Be professional with your criticism or be open to feedback from people trying to help improve the proposal.
Such objective editing is both iterative and incremental. Professional editors refer to the increments as levels of editing, which proceed from the general to the specific to the mechanical.
Editing As Compliance Checking (Substantive Editing)
Also called developmental editing, substantive editing takes a high-level focus on content. The strategy devised by top managers and team leads flows through as win themes, benefits, and answers to requirements.
Where appropriate, the authors use the customer’s own phrasing and jargon, drawn from the language of the RFP. Your writers must substantiate each asserted benefit with proof statements.
Technicalities show deep familiarity with the topic but strive to express key concepts so generalists can understand and appreciate benefits. Generalities often result from cutting and pasting excerpts from past proposals. You must fine-tune and tailor them to the customer’s specific needs and environment.
Editing for Conciseness and Effect (Structural Editing)
Edits at this level aim to achieve conciseness. Cuts and revisions in text length keep sections and documents within assigned page limitations – without sacrificing key messages. Order of paragraphs and sections typically must conform to RFP guidelines but also should be in a logical order within sections.
Topic sentences of paragraphs get close attention to ensure they state the premise clearly and forcefully. Material that seems unfocused gets either rewritten or cut. Figures and tables get benefit-oriented action captions with flagged call-outs in the text.
An important quality-control step occurs here as the one-voice edit. The editor applies a single thematic approach and a deliberate grammatical style to achieve consistency of presentation.
A one-voice edit makes varied inputs of multiple experts and authors sound like they were written by one person.
Copyediting and Proofreading
Note a basic difference: Copyediting encompasses spelling, grammar, and adherence to your corporate style guide. Proofreading ensures that statements and figures in source documents are reproduced exactly (or corrected as necessary) on the pages of the proposal. Some suggested tools and techniques include:
- Spelling and grammar-checking software is becoming increasingly sophisticated. But challenge and review all suggested changes manually. When using a grammar-checker, note initial settings that apply sets of rules based on. For example, check whether the document’s presentation style is set to technical or marketing-oriented.
- Follow a corporate style guide for consistency and apply one final touch to achieve the one-voice edit.
- Emphasize active voice. Remember that passive voice, by its nature, obscures the identity of the actor resulting in confusion about responsibility for results. Passive voice is always longer than active voice, and is the enemy of clear writing.
- Keep a style sheet, accumulating spelling and capitalization exceptions, especially those in the RFP. As a general rule, use the customer’s preferred form.
- Accumulate acronyms and their definitions. Have a rule for spelling out acronyms on first appearance, whether in a volume or in a section. Note whether the RFP specifies an acronym list as mandatory in your submission.
- Proofreading is particularly important in cost volumes. Transcribing or even pasting from source documents can introduce errors.
The OST Proposal Editing Training course includes more practical and hands-on tips and tricks. All are based on our lessons learned and best practices developed from years of supporting winning major federal proposal initiatives. Our class covers setting your proposal teams up for success, estimating your effort and time, and editing tools and mechanics.
We also provide guidance on specialized editing tasks, such as editing Key Employee resumes and Past Performance sections.
Whether you edit your own work or must make an entire volume consistent, never underestimate the power of making yourself detached and objective. Every editor has the power to make their proposals better. Build the time into your proposal schedule to allow for multiple iterations by individual authors and the various levels of subsequent editorial review to ensure quality and demonstrate professionalism.
Remember, a proposal that conveys professionalism and tells the customer that your team can deliver the products and the quality that your proposal promises.
We originally published this post on February 14, 2013. We updated it on March 20, 2020.
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