How to Organize a Paper: The Proposal Format

The Proposal

What is the Proposal Method?

Proposals are written for a variety of reasons and they can follow a wide array of formats. Ultimately, the goal of a proposal is to pitch an idea to person or organization and to persuade them that your idea is worth pursuing. Depending on the complexity and formality of your proposal’s scope, you may need more or less depth. All proposals have a fairly simple, basic structure, though, that follows six generic parts:

  1. Topic: State your topic and your purpose for writing the proposal.
  2. Paradigm: Describe the current state or understanding as your audience knows it.
  3. Gap: Identify the gap in knowledge of practice as the current paradigm sees it. Show what is missing (this is essentially a problem statement).
  4. Forecast:Forecast the organization of the proposal so that your reader knows exactly what to expect. Then follow that order throughout the proposal.
  5. Research: Provide detailed explanation of the research you will conduct to learn more about the problem/gap and the solution.
  6. Proposition: Propose something new, based on your research, that fills the gap or solves the problem.

With those six basic components in mind, most proposals, especially ones that require a great deal of formality, research, planning, and presentation, require much more depth and the organizational structure can include up to 14 or more different sections/components. If you’re looking for how to write a full, in-depth proposal, include the following fourteen sections and follow the order provided below:

  1. Transmittal Letter
  2. Cover/Title Page
  3. Executive Summary
  4. Table of Contents
  5. List of Figures
  6. Introduction
  7. Project/Deliverable Description
  8. Methodologies
  9. Timeline
  10. Budget
  11. Cost/Benefit Analysis
  12. Qualifications
  13. Conclusion
  14. Appendices

What Should I Know about Proposals?

Each of the above proposal sections are described below. But first, you should know a few things about how to write a proposal:

Proposals are for Solving Problems
The most fundamental thing you need to know about how to write a proposal is that you are proposing a solution to a problem. This means you should be aware of what the problem is, how serious it is, whom it affects, how (if at all) the problem has been addressed in the past, and how you expect to be able to solve it in a way that hasn’t been done before.

Audience Matters
Despite what you may have been taught in your technical or business writing class, there is no precise formula for writing a proposal. In the end, a real person is going to read (or NOT read if you aren’t careful) your proposal and it is important that you cater to their expectations. When you write a proposal for a grant, it is imperative that you follow the guidelines given by the organization. If you don’t, yours will almost assuredly be tossed. If you are writing a proposal for your company, look and see what proposals have been written in the past. Follow what is expected.

Proposals are Persuasive Documents
Perhaps it seems obvious, but when you write a proposal, you are trying to persuade people to let you move forward with your great idea. In order to get others on board, you have to be impressively and unquestionably persuasive. So make sure you frame each section of the proposal in such a way that your project sounds important, worthwhile, valuable, clear, effective, safe, feasible, or anything else that might be convincing to those reviewing it. Also, make sure you avoid statements that make you sound unsure of yourself or too confident in yourself. It’s a fine line between sounding incompetent (when you say phrases like “I think” or “I believe” or “I’m guessing that…”) and sounding arrogant (when you say phrases like “I’m sure you’ll agree” or “I’m the best option you’ve got).

Proposals Aren’t Usually Read by Just One Person
When you write a proposal, you should be aware that several people will often be evaluating the feasibility of what you are proposing. And each person has a different stake in its approval. An accountant may be in charge of reading your budget section, but might not look at anything else. A reading committee may only look at the executive summary for quick validation. Or a specialized group may only be interested in your methodologies. It’s important that you recognize in advance who will likely care about each part of the proposal the most.

Specifics Are Most Important
One of the greatest pitfalls in writing a proposal is not being specific enough. Don’t confuse length of the proposal with specifics. Some very long proposals are, simply, long-winded. Make sure that every detail you include makes the project your are proposing more clear. If a detail isn’t valuable to the stakeholders, leave it out. And avoid storytelling (or what is often referred to as “metadiscourse”) in your writing. In other words, avoid interjecting yourself and your desires, thoughts, and processes for choosing the project and deciding to write about it. Stick to why the project is important and how you’re going to complete it.

Transmittal Letter

Transmittal letters are a courtesy and a formality. They are written in professional business letter format and they are addressed to the person or review committee that you are sending the proposal to. Your transmittal letter should include a brief introduction that introduces yourself and the purpose for the proposal. The letter will usually include a very brief (one or two paragraphs) description of the project you are proposing. The transmittal letter should also include some kind of concluding statement, usually providing you contact information and a statement about being able to answer any further questions about the proposal or project.

Cover or Title Page

All professional proposals should include a cover page. These are more important than just for decoration. Cover pages provide the title of the proposal, the author(s), the date of submission, the person or committee being submitted to, and any other relevant or requested information. If you are submitting to your company or to a grant or funding organization, make sure that you follow their guidelines for what should be included in the cover page. Most organizations have a preference for the cover since they use a filing system to stay organized.

Executive Summary

Executive summaries usually immediately follow the cover page (before the table of contents). These are summaries of the entire proposal. Executive summaries are often forgotten about, but they do serve an important purpose. Remember that there are usually a large number of stakeholders involved in reading proposals. Some people just need a quick glance of the entire proposal but don’t have the time or interest in reading the entire thing. Executive summaries provide a glimpse into the entire proposal. It is important, though, that every section of the proposal is addressed in the summary. Usually, executive summaries are 1 – 2 pages in length.

Table of Contents

Properly designed proposals included a table of contents. Even for simple projects, proposals end up being a minimum of 15 – 20 pages. It is important that your proposal is organized and that readers can quickly find the information they are looking for. If the accountants only need to see the proposed budget, for example, they should be able to quickly find the page it is on.

List of Figures (And List of Tables)

Most proposals, especially long ones, include figures and tables. If someone needs to refer back to your proposal and they are only interested in your Gantt chart (which outlines your timeline), they need to know where to locate the chart. Think of the list of figures page as an extension of your table of contents that specifically locates visuals, including images, charts, graphs, diagrams, and tables. Often, if you have several figures and several tables, you’ll want a separate list of tables page from the list of figures page.

Introduction

Introductions are best if they are kept short and to the point. If you need to introduce yourself, you may, but make it brief. The primary purpose of the introduction, though, is to state your project and its purpose. This is your first chance to really be persuasive, so it is important that you really make it sound like the project you are proposing is important. This means you need to

1) Introduce your topic
2) Provide a problem statement
3) Offer a quick solution to the problem

One of the greatest pitfalls in proposal writing is failing to clearly indicate that there is an actual problem to begin with that is worth solving. Remember from above that proposals are written to solve problems. So, for example, if you are a manager of a branch of a nationwide company, and you want to propose to your superiors that you need to relocate your store to another building, you’ll need to tell them 1) that you propose the move the building, 2) that the building needs to be moved because its location hinders growth (problem statement), and 3) that you have a location in mind that will improve growth opportunities.

Regardless of what your proposal is about, however, you MUST have a problem statement and solution in the introduction. If this isn’t clear and to the point, your chances of someone reading the rest of the proposal become dim.

Project or Deliverable Description

This section can take many different names and it is often subdivided into many smaller sections. But regardless of what you name this section and how you organize it, know that your primary goal is to describe what the project is, in its entirety. You need to explain everything that you will end up producing or doing. Everything. However, avoid describing anything that explains how you will be doing it. That is for the next section, methodologies. In the project description section, you might first think in terms of a list. What is exactly everything you will be producing or helping to produce? What, exactly will the project (or deliverables) look like when completed?

It is very important that you are clear, succinct, and organized in this section. If you leave questions about what the end result will be, your reviewers are very likely to give up and deny approval for the proposal.

Methodologies

After describing the details of your project, you now how the chance to write how  you will be completing your project. Take your sections and descriptions from the project/deliverables section and describe, in detail, how you will go about obtaining the information, permissions, and other tools to complete the project. You may even need to describe fundraising plans if more money is needed to complete the project.

One of the biggest pitfalls in the methods section is stating new components to your project that were not described earlier, the project/deliverables description. Avoid stating new information about the project here. Rather, focus entirely on how you will research, plan, work through, and execute the project that was described earlier. If you find yourself realizing that you didn’t explain something in the previous section of the proposal, go back and include it there. Proposal reviewers hate nothing more than getting new surprises along the way. If new pieces of the project keep popping up in the proposal, they’ll start to wonder if you’ve thought this all the way through and if you know how much is really entailed in the project.

With that in mind, it is important that you are very specific about your methods. Describe, in detail, your research, if you will be interviewing people, who you will be interviewing, how you will create or design something, who you will consult, and so forth.

Timeline

The timeline, really, is an extension of your methods. But for clarity and organization’s sake, the timeline usually gets a section of its own. Reviewers will need to know when you will complete different benchmarks in the project and they will need to know if you’ve planned ample time between segments. Mostly, they need something to follow up with you on. A timeline is good for you, too, as it will help you keep on pace and keep organized. Think creatively about how best to visually display your timeline. Is a Gantt chart most appropriate? Or maybe a table? Or a linear timeline? Whatever you choose, make sure that it is clear what will happen when and who will be involved at various points.

Budget

To some extent, it is possible that some of your budget will show up in the methods section, but only to the point where you describe how you will fundraise. In this section, you need to outline every possible cost you can think of. You don’t need to describe how you’ll get the money (usually the organizations you propose to offer the money based on approval of the proposal and the budget proposed) unless your proposal is, specifically, about raising money. But you need to be thoughtful of every possible cost. Nothing is worse than getting a proposal approved then realizing that it will cost you more than what you were approved to spend.

Cost/Benefit Analysis

Cost and benefit analyses aren’t a requirement for many proposals, particularly for projects that don’t require a lot of money to complete. However, you may find yourself proposing something that is controversial  or that otherwise costs a lot of money. Besides stating a very persuasive problem statement in your introduction, you may need to elaborate on why this particular project is worth the money being spend. In order to be persuasive, focus on all stakeholders; point to how many people, organizations, or other entities will benefit from this. If there are risks, state them, but frame them in a way that suggests the cost will likely outweigh the risks. Remember that proposals, more than most documents, are persuasive documents and it is important that you frame everything in a way that makes your project sound very, very important. But, of  course, don’t overdo it.

Qualifications

Many times you will be writing proposals to people you don’t know. But even if you do know the person or persons in charge of reviewing your proposal, it is important that you sound qualified. In the field of rhetoric, this is called ethos, which refers to your credibility. Recognize that reviewers will be asking in their head as they read your proposal, “but why this person? Are they capable?”

Provide as much information as you think is important to build your credibility. Avoid anything that makes you sound less qualified. Some proposal reviewers will require that you state your credentials, including college degrees, work experience, knowledge, and even resumes and sample work. Make sure you know how much information they’ll want and need.

Conclusion

Every document needs a beginning, a middle, and a conclusion. Unfortunately, conclusions are often forgotten. In your conclusion, you need to restate the problem statement, reminding the reviewers how important this project is. But you also will need to provide a request for approval (so that it is clear you are hoping to obtain such). Also, you’ll need need to let reviewers know how to contact you if they need further information from you. Conclusions aren’t just busy work to polish off your document; they are a courtesy, which makes your proposal more persuasive. Andy they provide valuable information about getting a response and getting in contact with you. Without a conclusion, you may leave some unwanted ambiguity in the proposals’ scope.

Appendices

While not all proposals will need appendices, it is possible that yours might. Consider what information your reviewers may want that doesn’t readily fit into other sections of your proposal. You may need to include balance sheets, for example, that would take up too much space in the budget section. Or, you may need to include drawings that don’t really fit naturally into the project/deliverables description. If you do choose to include appendices, however, make sure that you mention them earlier in the proposal. You might state in the budget section, for example, something like this: “For further financial information, please refer to the balance sheets in Appendix A.”