10 Tips on Getting the Most from Your Proposal Writers

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The proposal manager/proposal writer relationship can be one of the most misunderstood relationships on a proposal team. Sometimes content creation can feel like a “Who’s the Boss?” scenario, with both the writer and the proposal manager jockeying for content creation and control. Let’s face it — that kind of interaction is a tremendous waste of time and energy, and it’s completely unnecessary. Having worked in both roles — now preferring that of writer — I offer 10 suggestions to help build the manager/writer relationship during the proposal process. These tips are based on my years of experience as a full-time professional writer, a title I use to contrast my role with that of the individual who is temporarily enlisted to work on a proposal, although the suggestions still apply.

1. Meet with the writing team before the proposal kick-off.

Setting expectations about the proposal process shouldn’t be unilateral. Meet with the writing team to understand their expectations — from storyboarding to reviews and beyond — before the kick-off. Time spent discussing the proposal process upfront will save tremendous time if individual expectations don’t meet, or worse, they clash.

2. Understand that, for some, professional writing isn’t a stepping-stone — it’s a landing place.

Often professional proposal writers have robust management backgrounds, but they choose to be writers. Many proposal writers have been winning proposal managers, but they prefer the role of individual contributor rather than manager. Get to know your writing team.

3. Share your status.

It’s standard practice for proposal writers to inform proposal managers of the status of our work and availability. In turn, let us know when you’re out, too. Many times, I’ve sent an email or knocked on an office door only to discover the proposal manager’s planned absence by way of an automated response or sticky note. An email communicating a planned absence goes a long way in fostering team unity and avoids the hierarchical perception of the proposal manager/proposal writer relationship.

4. Review and revise, but don’t overwrite.

Many times, proposal writers can carefully construct a draft, review it, check it for compliance, revise it, only to have it overwritten by the proposal manager or someone else. There are no questions asked, no track changes, no highlights or stickies, no comments in the margins. In my experience, overwriting can be the factor that damages the relationship between proposal managers and proposal writers the most — and it’s 100% avoidable. By all means, review and revise, but be sure to use industry standard revision tools, followed by discussion.

5. Include writers in proposal strategy sessions.

Many proposal strategy sessions are held without the writers responsible for the section or volume. Follow-up emails or notes are helpful supplements, but they’re not adequate substitutes, especially if strategy sessions are readily accessible online. Including writers strengthens proposal team relations, making us feel we’re part of the team, not just the proposal “scribes.” Our direct participation also helps us shape the strategies and gather supporting proofs across proposal volumes, if not immediately during the strategy session, then afterwards in a collaborative working session.

6. Include writers in color team reviews.

Writers are often overlooked in the formal color team review process, even though we are some of the sharpest reviewers, frequently with hundreds of documents (in my case, nearly 500 proposals, too) and thousands of reviews under our belts. We are especially adept at checking compliance, consistency, themes and proof points across volumes. If time allows, include your writers as formal reviewers; don’t simply relegate them to the informal “peer review” process. While peer reviews are fine, and even necessary, that shouldn’t be the only time a writer reviews a proposal.

7. Make sure writers have all the data they need.

Nothing will destroy the reputation of a professional proposal writer like fabricating data, yet there are writers, especially newbies, who resort to creating the “impenetrable fog” of facts and fiction as a last-ditch effort to avoid submitting a blank section. To avoid this, make sure your writing team has access to the tools they need: subject-matter experts (SMEs) and performance metrics, for example, but also access to you.

8. Discover that I’m an SME, too.

Professional proposal writers can be SMEs, not just in the writing process, but often in the subject material. My professional writing colleagues include licensed professional engineers, former directors of business development and software architects. I count my stint as a coffee shop manager in a major metropolitan city — a job I formerly considered a colorful but oddball bullet on my resume — as a micro-lesson in facilities O&M, staffing and security. Most writers I know are more than happy to introduce themselves to proposal managers. If an in-person meeting seems too unwieldy, ask for my professional resume or view my LinkedIn profile.

9. If problems develop, tell me.

Problems arise despite even the best proposal manager/proposal writer relationship. Over the years, I’ve worked with writers who struggle to meet deadlines, are easily distracted, overestimate their capabilities and underestimate their schedules. Working with a new or difficult writer can be a challenging and time-consuming task. Writers, as opposed to SMEs who write, may project outward confidence, but inwardly struggle with fear of how others will judge their skill sets. While a complete solution is outside the scope of this tip list, standard suggestions still hold true. Start the discussion with the writer with a positive comment — surely there’s something positive to say about the writer’s proposal product. Focus only on the tangibles: proposal requirements, process, schedule and the actual product, for example, not the writer’s personality.

From my years of teaching college, I discovered that when I held these discussions with writing students using a hard copy checklist approach of expectations/deliverables, their perception of subjectivity — a frequent complaint of writing students — diminished considerably. For writers who procrastinate, hold them accountable through daily drafts and draft updates, preferably posted in a shared online site. Then commit to reviewing their documents, even if just spot-checking. It’s a time-consuming process, but it’s far less time-consuming and stressful than scrambling the night before a color team review.

10. Believe that I’m invested in the win!

Our proposal team has an old saying: My goal is your success. Writers are members of the team, not mercenaries, and we are just as invested in the win as the rest of the proposal management team. That’s especially true if we are employees or repeat consultants with a specific company. The more invested we are in the proposal process, the more invested we are in the proposal outcome.

The proposal manager/proposal writer working relationship can be one of the most challenging but also the most rewarding. It’s worth taking the time to cultivate.

Susanne Sener, CF APMP, is a senior proposal writer for a defense company. A former college instructor, since 1998 she’s worked full-time as a professional technical, business, proposal and freelance writer.

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