Overcoming Last-Minute Writer’s Block

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Writer’s block is not restricted to novelists and short story writers; it can — and does — happen to proposal writers, too. It is all too easy to get so wrapped up in responding to your client’s individual RFP requirements that you forget how close the deadline is, you go looking for the perfect boilerplate write-up, or you search the company’s website marketing brochure to source new copy and get lost. Worse, you craft the perfect proposal write-up in your head and when you sit at your computer, you cannot remember a word. Before you know it, the write-up — or the proposal itself — is due.

Don’t believe anyone who tells you writer’s block isn’t real. It is, and in a proposal setting, it can be scary. Fortunately, proposals are a form of business writing, not works of fiction. That means to overcome proposal writer’s block, you can rely on predeveloped facts, as well as the mechanics of good, persuasive business writing. Here is how to overcome writer’s block, even under the pressure of a looming submission deadline.

Step 1: Do a complete data dump of all the facts.

If you haven’t already, create a template with the RFP requirement at the top of the page. Then type everything you know about how your organization can answer that requirement. Literally put down everything you are thinking, every brainstorm and every idea you have as you are writing. This includes typing or copying and pasting any notes, boilerplate or relevant sections from previous proposals. As you are doing so, do not think about organization, grammar, punctuation, images or layout. Above all, do not try to craft the perfect proposal write-up. You will get blocked all over again. Just type.

Step 2: Step away from the computer.

When you are done with your data dump, save your work and step away from it for a few minutes. Even if you are on a tight deadline, you can still take a quick break. Your work will be better for it. Go to the restroom, get a cup of coffee or take a brisk walk around the office. Whatever you do, disengage completely from your computer. Give your eyes and brain a rest.

A winning proposal is more than one that checks every box or makes a FedEx deadline. A winning proposal is responsive to your client’s spoken and unspoken needs. If you are stuck staring at a blank page while minutes tick away, or searching for the perfect write-up or even just trying to cudgel something together from your knowledge of the RFP requirements, you are not demonstrating your organization’s ability to meet the client’s needs. In fact, by not stepping back and taking a moment to be objective, you could end up costing yourself business through a careless error.

I personally promise, you will not miss a proposal deadline because you took a bio-break during production.

Step 3: Come back with fresh eyes.

After you have taken a few moments to rest your eyes, return to your computer, skim what you have written. As you do, highlight in a bright color the most important points on the page. I prefer to print a hard copy and use a neon pink highlighter. If I must edit online, I use Microsoft Word’s pink/purple highlight. No matter which you choose, highlight only the words, phrases, sentences and sections that specifically address how you plan to meet the client’s requirements. Stick to main points and supporting details only.

Step 4: Save and delete/restate.

Once you have highlighted the main points in your write-up, save the entire document as is in a file called “[Proposal Section] Scrap.docx.” For example, “1. Scope of Work Scrap.docx.” Save the document again as what it will finally be titled, i.e., “1. Scope of Work.docx.”

Open the scrap document and keep it in front of you. You may need to refer to it. On what will become the final copy of the write-up, go through and delete anything not highlighted on your hard copy or in the scrap document.

When you are done, save both copies and close the scrap write-up. Click the “save” button often; do not rely on the “autosave” function. Too many things can go wrong, especially in the last-minute push to complete a bid. You don’t want to lose everything and start from scratch.

Step 5: Create the core write-up.

At the end of Step 4, you will have only the content necessary to answer the client requirements in front of you. Create the core proposal write-up by breaking your content into paragraphs, and if you have phrases, fragments or bullets, organize these into sentences. Rearrange your paragraphs to follow the order of the RFP requirements or the sequential order of how you will achieve the client’s objectives based on your solution.

When you are done, restate the first sentence in the first paragraph of each section into a statement that answers the client requirements. That becomes the section, or sub-section, heading. For example, a statement such as “Our organization employs over 1,000 customer service telephone representatives in four call centers” would become the header “How We Will Provide 24/7 Customer Service.” Do not add images, graphics or additional information yet. Just focus on creating a core write-up that meets the minimal response requirements of the RFP.

Step 6: Send for review, and correct typos and text issues.

When you are done saving the core write-up you created in Step 5, check your time. If you are up against a deadline, send the write-up immediately for review. While you are waiting for feedback, start proofreading. Correct any grammar, punctuation, spelling or structural mistakes. Structural mistakes can include having the wrong client’s name in a paragraph copied from boilerplate or including the qualifications of an individual not on the proposed project team in the staffing write-up.

Do not add graphics, additional information or exhibits unless you have ample time to do so. Focus on polishing what you have already written.

Step 7: Improve, augment and enhance.

Now that the core write-up is done, you can make additional changes. Identify how much time you have left to work within your proposal’s timeline/budget. If all your core proposal write-ups and deliverables are complete, you finally have time to make changes to this one. Add, in order:

  • Proposal graphics such as images with action captions, tables, graphs and charts. Pictures break up the words on a page and engage readers.
  • Additional relevant boilerplate or text that highlights your solution. Choose only information that further demonstrates your company’s capabilities.
  • Exhibits not specifically required by the RFP. Supplemental exhibits will be seen last if they are placed at the end of a proposal or a proposal section. Even so, choose only those that support the proposal.

Step 8: Breathe!

When you are 100% done, stand up, turn away from your computer and breathe! Give yourself a huge pat on the back for not only creating an effective, responsive proposal write-up that will help you secure new business, but also for overcoming one of the major obstacles all writers face: that completely real, panic-inducing writer’s block.

Cristina M. Miller, CP APMP, is a freelance editor and proposal strategist typically found with a cup of coffee in one hand and a dog-eared RFP in the other. She manages bids for mid-to-large sized businesses and lives in New England with her husband, son and two (former) rescue dogs.

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