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3.4: Proposals

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    Proposal writing can seem a daunting task. This is partly because the term is loaded with negative baggage. Consider the following common beliefs about proposal writing:

    • Writing proposals is scary and difficult.
    • Writing a proposal is putting your soul on the line.
    • The presentation must be perfect.
    • A proposal must be written at the last minute under extreme stress. [1]

    These beliefs are common, no matter how large the proposal project is. Do your best to let go of these beliefs and replace them with more productive ones. In addition to limiting beliefs, another common barrier to proposal writing is procrastination [2]. If you procrastinate, you will not produce your best work. To avoid this, set a series of short-term goals and give yourself a concrete deadline. Be realistic in setting your goals and leave time for unexpected barriers to arise along the way [3]. Begin writing the proposal early.

    During the process of writing a proposal, it is important to keep an attitude that is open to change. Like most writing, a proposal evolves and changes because it is a process. If you are too rigid in your thinking processes and goals, you will likely get stuck [4]. Openness to change and a willingness to communicate are key, especially when you are working with an individual or organization to which you’re directing your proposal. Writing a proposal often involves continuous dialogue with a program officer [5]. This dialogue will include you asking questions of the program officer to guide your research, and filling them in with your progress, using their feedback as a guide. Keeping this cycle of communication going will ensure that your proposal stays in line with the mission of the organization, and keeps you by wasting time and energy from getting off track.

    Preliminary Research

    Defining the Problem A proposal is essentially a solution to a problem. Proposals often stem from an individual’s heartfelt wish to address this problem. Although personal conviction and passion can give meaning and drive towards the completion of the proposal, these are not enough [6]. In order to come up with a viable solution, you need to build a solid foundation of research on the problem. You can use online, print and empirical sources to research the problem (e.g., interviews, field observation, etc.) [7]. Gathering this research helps you identify possible solutions and eliminate solutions that will not work. You can also include your research in your proposal to show that you have a working knowledge of the issue, strengthening your credibility.

    Writing with the Reader Mind As you write your proposal, it is helpful to imagine your real audience. Doing this acts as an anchor because it reminds you that your goal is to explain your ideas to a real person. Once you have your audience in mind, you can begin analyzing what they want by asking a series of questions. Kitta Reeds describes this in terms of the “buyer” and demonstrates the importance of moving from vague, general questions to specific questions:

    From To
    Is my idea any good, anyway? Who will want to buy this idea?
    What do I want to say? What does the buyer want to hear?
    Can I actually write this? How can I target my idea to this specific buyer?
    What’s the best way for me to say it? How will that buyer understand it best?
    How can I convince anyone to buy this idea? What logic of persuasion or entertainment will attract that buyer?
    What do I want to say first? What will this buyer want to know first?
    How do I want to organize this proposal? What will the buyer want to know next?
    What do I mean to say here? What does this buyer need to hear at this point to be convinced?


    By shifting to questions about a real audience, the proposal writer simultaneously reduces their anxiety through depersonalization while producing specific answers that will guide the writing process. Although the above chart targets a specific buyer, this kind of analysis can extend to proposals that are not asking for money (although in a sense, anyone who reads your proposal is a “buyer” of your ideas).

    Outlining a Solution

    In the process of building and organizing ideas, it’s helpful to use a variety of techniques to help you visualize and play with the structure. Mindmaps, sticky notes, and list making are all good ways of generating and organizing ideas (you can search Google for free mindmapping softwares). A mindmap uses symbols organized spatially and it focuses on relationships between ideas, usually using arrows. Sticky notes can be made into a mindmap and are convenient because they allow you to easily move ideas around [9]. In addition to using the tools to organize your ideas, you can also do more research to grow your solution. Find similar projects and determine which aspects make them successful or unsuccessful. Once you have a basic outline of your solution, make a chart of its cost and benefits [10].

    Writing the Proposal

    Introduction A strong introduction is concise and direct. If you choose to give background information, keep it to a minimum [11]. According to Johnson-Sheehand, an introduction should contain the following points in some order or another: topic, purpose, background information, importance of the topic to the readers and the main point [12].

    Description of the Problem Following your introduction is a description of the problem. This should begin by emphasizing why this problem is important and relevant to the reader, followed by its causes and consequences. This section should end with a sense of exigency (creating an urgent need that demands action). Tell the reader what will happen if the problem is not addressed -[13].

    Body The introduction to the main body of your proposal should also be concise (notice a theme here?). State what your proposal is and why it is the best [14]. A short and direct explanation and justification of your proposal establishes credibility early, and prepares the reader to follow the details of your proposal. After this brief overview, you can then provide a detailed, step-by-step explanation of how your plan will be carried out [15]. Your concluding statement should discuss the deliverables of your proposal, that is, the concrete benefits carrying out your proposal [16].

    Costs and Benefits Prior to your conclusion, you can further support your argument by including a costs and benefits section [17].

    Conclusion Once again, the conclusion should be short and concise. In it you should do three things: restate the thesis, restress the importance of the topic, and “look to the future,” which helps the reader visualize how the proposal will result in a brighter future [18].

    Presenting the Proposal Before you present your proposal, you should do a thorough revision and proofread. It should be polished, error-free and represent your best work [19]. Your style should be persuasive and authoritative [20]. Connecting with your audience important, because you are trying to persuade them to accept your proposal. Rhetorical devices (ethos, pathos, and logos) will enhance your argument. Metaphors and similes can be particularly influential [21].


    1. Reeds, Kitta. The Zen of Proposal Writing. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2002. Print. p. 4-5.
    2. Reeds, p. 9
    3. Reeds, p. 10
    4. Reeds, p. 15
    5. Moursund, David. Obtaining Resources for Technology in Education: A How-to Guide for Writing Proposals, Forming Partnerships, & Raising Funds. Eugene: International Society for Technology in Education, 1996. Print. p. 35.
    6. Moursund, p. 51
    7. Johnson-Sheehan and Paine 232-233
    8. Reeds, p. 20
    9. Reeds, p. 56-57
    10. Johnson-Sheehand, Richard, Paine, Charles. Writing Today. Boston: Pearson, 2010. Print. p. 235.
    11. Johnson-Sheehand and Paine, p. 235
    12. Johnson-Sheehand and Paine, p. 235
    13. Johnson-Sheehand and Paine, p. 237
    14. Johnson-Sheehand and Paine, p. 237
    15. Johnson-Sheehand and Paine, p. 238
    16. Johnson-Sheehand and Paine, p. 238
    17. Johnson-Sheehand and Paine, p. 239
    18. Johnson-Sheehand and Paine, p. 239
    19. Moursund, p. 35
    20. Johnson-Sheehand and Paine, p. 240
    21. Johnson-Sheehand and Paine, p. 240

    3.4: Proposals is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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