6 Linguistic Principles to Improve Your Proposal Edits

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Trained proposal professionals are schooled in communication strategies. We learn to prefer the active voice and to avoid jargon, clichés and false subjects. We structure intricate volumes and sections, and we integrate technical data into storylines. And at the end of each effort, we deliver customer-centric narratives, often hundreds of pages long.

Yet most of us dread analyzing individual sentences, lest we get caught up rewriting as hours pass by in a flash. When aggressive deadlines loom, we often choose to focus higher level and avoid the time-eating line by line machinations. But, dreaded or not, the grammar of individual sentences does matter. After all, the whole will only be as articulate as its pieces. Drawing on my experience as a writer and a composition teacher, I have compiled a list of 20 linguistic principles to consider when editing proposals. I present six of them here.

1. Subtle Ways to Make Use of the Details: Cumulative versus Periodic Sentences

Pay attention to the placement of the independent clause — the subject/verb structure that could stand alone grammatically. This clause holds the main idea, and its location impacts meaning. In a cumulative sentence, this main clause comes first, followed by the details. For example:

  • Comprehensive software and hardware upgrades are typically inefficient, often requiring time-consuming hands-on delivery at every desktop, laptop and server, as well as coordination with multiple remote sites.

Because of sentence structure, the understanding that “upgrades are typically inefficient” takes precedence. The later details bolster that point and linger on it at a lower level. This “main idea first” order is comfortable for readers. Most modern English defaults to cumulative structure because it can provide a straightforward summary of a multifaceted idea.

In a periodic sentence, the main point comes at the end, presented as the logical result of the upfront details. This order can be quite compelling. It highlights the sentence and adds an appealing variety to the overall document, which is likely full of cumulative sentences. But to be successful, a periodic sentence must start with relevant, compelling specifics that merit the main idea being held in suspense, and it must pay off with a final impressive point, preferably one known to concern the customer. For example, if breadth of experience is a hot button, the following sentence could heighten interest:

  • From energy-efficient office compounds in South America to ornate museums in Europe, from children’s hospitals in Africa to major highway systems across North America, we build more infrastructure across the globe than any other U.S. construction firm.

Because periodic structure is less direct, it should be used economically to avoid fatiguing a reader. When encountering periodic, consider whether the message would be stronger or clearer presented in the more straightforward cumulative way.  In the case of the example above, when reversed to cumulative with the “we build” portion first, the sentence loses its flair. Therefore, the order should not be changed in this instance.

2. Interrogate the Shady Sentences: Find Out Who Did What to Whom

During edits for placement of the main idea, readability should also be considered. At times, the main idea is not yet clear enough in the sentence to place. In those cases, tighten the language first. The formula is simple:

  • Question all vagueness. Ask: What is the action? What entity is performing that action, meaning who or what is the actor?
  • Once the action is identified, express it with a simple verb. Then, make the actor the subject. This subject/verb combination is the main idea.
  • Lastly, clean up. Eliminate any unnecessary phrases and prepositions.

Take, for instance, the sentence below, in all its preposition-full glory:

  • In the description for Product 123 is a reflection of the application of advanced technology, specifically System ABC, for use in addressing security concerns.

 Applying the formula:

  • The action is obscured, but it’s there: the application of the technology. The actor performing that action is Product 123.
  • The word “applies” is a simple verb to express “the application of.” Therefore, “Product 123 applies” is the main idea (subject/verb) of this sentence.
  • The phrase and preposition clean-up could result in this revision:
    • Product 123 applies System ABC advanced technology to address security concerns.

Or, depending on what idea should take precedence, perhaps:

  • To address security concerns, Product 123 applies System ABC advanced technology.

3. The Balanced Sentence and the Balanced Paragraph

In a balanced sentence, parallel elements are set off against each other, like equal weights on a scale — equivalent in length, structure and importance. Whether cumulative or periodic in terms of independent clause placement, each element is vital to the overall concept.

  • To err is human, to forgive divine.
  • When the going gets tough, the tough get going.
  • We design products that are innovative, but also cost-effective.

A balanced paragraph is comprised entirely of these balanced sentences — related points and counterpoints.

  • Our service desk ticketing software automates repetitive tasks but personalizes individual services. Module A increases productivity while decreasing response time. Module B supports resolution of current issues while preventing escalation. Module C stores the latest data while indexing it alongside historical solutions.

Balanced structures present a measured, often clever, symmetry that can increase credibility, if not overdone. There’s technique and craftmanship involved, so it’s best to use this structure only when several related points must be made. One or two well-placed uses of balance stand out, but several in one bid can seem gimmicky. There’s a fine line between clever and glib.

4. The Rare Occasions When Passive Voice Is Preferred

Active sentences, where the subject performs the verb, are clearer and shorter and thus favored. But occasionally passive voice has its place, too. Use it when it’s appropriate to focus on the entity affected by the action.

  • Mary was run over by a speeding truck.

Here the attention should be on Mary, so passive voice is better than the active formation — A speeding truck ran over Mary — which assigns poor Mary an inappropriate secondary role. The passive voice is also best in cases where the doer is unimportant, unknown or best unnamed.

  • The previous contract was underfunded for two acquisition cycles.

For several reasons, this passive structure is better here than the active: The government underfunded the current contract for two acquisition cycles.

5. Are Rhetorical Questions Ever Beneficial in a Proposal?

Use in the heading aside, the short answer is “no.” Rhetorical questions are asked for show only. While they can shape thought and persuade readers to an intended conclusion, this only works when the reader’s answer is known absolutely. That gamble is too risky for proposals, where reviewers are often neutral. Even if the question were impossible to answer in a detrimental way, the rhetorical question in writing is a shortcut that could undermine credibility. Rather than provide proof points and particulars, the writer constructs an inquiry with no real answer. Not only is this affectation informal, it also cannot replace the expected fully formed and detailed proposal argument.

6. It’s (Useful) Greek to Me: Anaphora

Anaphora is a repetitive construction wherein a word or phrase is repeated in successive clauses or sentences for emphasis. Anaphora evokes emotion, reinforces ideas and raises a call to action.

  • We stand ready to provide the most experienced experts on the first day of the contract. We stand ready to deploy these experts OCONUS within 12 hours. We stand ready to solve your worldwide engineering challenges skillfully and quickly.

Anaphora is memorable, so it belongs in every writing toolkit for when an idea needs amplifying. But like balanced structures and passive voice, anaphora is poisonous if overused.

This overuse warning applies in general here. Apply these principles gingerly. They are meant to overtly clarify meaning and subtly accentuate messaging, but they should not overwhelm the presentation of the logical, compelling, customer-driven solution in your technical approach.


Leigh Rastivo Nolan is a Shipley Associates consultant who has supported federal proposals as a director, manager and writer. She also does her fair share of developmental editing, close read content reviews and book critiques. She holds an MFA in fiction from Bennington College and taught writing at Old Dominion University.

Join the Conversation

  1. Jeff

    Good stuff. Love to see the other fourteen. 🙂

    reply Reply
  2. Mathew Conlin

    Great article Leigh! #2 and #4 have been my latest crusades with the subject matter experts I support 🙂

    reply Reply

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