Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Reading :: Writing Winning Business Proposals

Originally posted: Wed, 13 Oct 2004 05:57:09

Writing Winning Business Proposals: Your Guide to Landing the Client, Making the Sale and Persuading the Boss

by Richard C. Freed, Joe Romano

Full disclosure: I took the grad level proposal writing course from Rich Freed back in 1994. It was my first semester in the Ph.D. program at Iowa State. The book was in press, so we used a course pack that was essentially the book's manuscript. I really wasn't so sure about the course: the things that Freed called proposals didn't look much like what I had been taught proposals were supposed to be (i.e., recommendation reports). And I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I didn't really "get" the methodology or warm to it until after the semester was over.

In fact, I don't think it really sank in until I taught the undergrad version of the course a few years later. I reread the book and suddenly it clicked. Perhaps that's because I had become more theoretically sophisticated by then, or because I had grown to appreciate method. Because, even though the book is written in the sort of gladhanding voice that one associates with business guides, it is quite sophisticated in its methodology. Although the business proposal is a relatively simple genre, it requires a complex -- and, more problematically, a sustained -- argument, one that will build bridges to several different stakeholders simultaneously. That's not easy, and it's next to impossible to do well the way that students are inclined to do things: procrastinate, sit down and outline the argument in one sitting, and give it a thorough copyediting. To be fair, it's also nearly impossible using the boilerplate and models of the professional proposal writer, although they tend to have experience on their side.

Freed's take is -- as I emphasize repeatedly to my students -- that writing is not expression (i.e., something that emerges from one's head) so much as it is construction, the careful building of a sustained argument out of good building materials. The first half of Freed's book is all about generating those building materials. Writing teachers may be taken aback by those materials -- which mainly consist of forms that students fill out and Aristotelian diagrams representing methods and qualifications subarguments. But they do work, they do act as enormously useful heuristics that interact to generate a multidimensional view of the many readers one's proposal can be expected to have.

Once these building blocks have been generated, assembling the proposal involves drawing heavily and in structured ways from them. It's surprising how quickly a rough draft can be assembled. Freed discusses how to make sure the argument is "aligned" and how to develop its style, displaying in the latter discussion the willingness to bend accepted mechanics rules if the result is a more persuasive document. Throughout, he reminds us that persuasion should have an ethical component: you find the best arguments, but argument building itself is a method of inquiry, a way to determine how your abilities fit the clients' needs. If you can't make that argument well, he says, you shouldn't make it at all.

In this second edition, Freed includes new and revised material: a method for guiding collaborative criticism of proposals, an expanded discussion of Situation, and a better final overview of the process. But the second edition also has the strengths of the first one. This book taught me much of what I know about sustaining arguments; I expect that I'll continue to use it for my proposal writing classes for some time.

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