Government contracting is a strange and lucrative business. The federal government has dozens of agencies that all have a bunch of projects they need to complete. Instead of hiring full-time employees as civil servants (government employees), the government often contracts out a bunch of its work. So do many state agencies, like departments of transportation. When this happens, the government agency writes up a Request for Proposal (RFP) and posts it online. Businesses that specialize in working with government agencies can then read through the RFP, write a response, and send it to the government agency to try to get a contract to do the work.
Proposal writers write those responses, which are called proposals. Most proposal writers work in a “business development” department that’s responsible for looking for RFPs that match the company’s expertise. After finding a good match, the proposal writer reads the RFP and sets up a template based on the extremely exact requirements for the response. The requirements are so exact that if you get the margins or the font size wrong, the whole proposal will get thrown out! For small proposals that are less than 10 pages, the proposal writer may write the entire proposal then share it with their team for review and revision. For larger efforts, there’s a large team of people working on the response with different people and often even different companies responsible for writing responses to different sections. The proposal writer will then collect all of the different responses, edit the text to ensure the tone and style are consistent throughout, and also ensure that all of the text and graphics are correct and match the requirements in the RFP.
Proposal writing can be extremely stressful. Deadlines are often tight, and writers sometimes have to work long hours to finish a proposal. This is especially true in companies that are new to contracting and don’t really understand how to plan and schedule proposal projects. Highly competitive people love this field because with each proposal, you are competing with other companies. The company that wins can then have a project worth millions of dollars. Proposal writers are in demand with companies based in places near government facilities or near state capitols. So of course, Washington DC, and any military base, government office, or NASA base. Most companies want proposal writers to work at their office at least part of the time, so this isn’t a good option for writers who want to work remote.
Typical sections in a proposal
For each proposal, there are a couple different sections:
Executive Summary: This is usually only included in long and complex proposals. This is usually a one page summary of what will be in the proposal and is aimed at decision makers in the government agency. This is a section that requires both concise writing and persuasive writing. You want to highlight why your company is the best choice to do the work and win the contract, and it’s surprisingly difficult to condense an entire proposal into one page.
Technical Approach: This is main section of the proposal, and will follow the outline of the RFP. Usually the government agency wants to know why they should give your company the contract for the project, so the proposal will include some descriptions of relevant work. For example, if the proposal is about some engineering work at a NASA facility, the writer will include descriptions of similar engineering project either at NASA or other government agencies. The proposal will then go through each section of the RFP and talk about what types of people will work on the project, any ideas for making the project more efficient or productive, and how the workers will be organized (usually there an organizational chart). The proposal writer should sprinkle in examples of the company doing similar types of work throughout to give the impression they’re a great choice.
Past Performance: In government contracting, when you win a contract, you can then use that project in a section called “Past Performance” that describes similar work the company has done in the past. The government will conduct an annual review of the contract and give the company a rating. If the ratings are really good, it’s a great selling point in this section.
Financial Information: Every proposal has to include financial information about how many employees will work on the project, what their job titles will be, and how much they will be paid. Companies also have to describe their benefits package with health insurance, vacation days, annual raise amounts, and things like that. Basically this section is the complete budget if the company wins the contract. There is usually some text that goes along with this section that the proposal writer either writes or edits. Sometimes the company doesn’t want writers to see this section because it includes salary information.
Graphics: Proposal writers are often responsible for developing proposal graphics. These are usually flowcharts or organization charts or other graphics that illustrate some sort of process. The best way to design graphics that you can then later easily update is to use Microsoft PowerPoint.
Breaking in to this field
Proposal writing is one of the writing fields that does require some previous experience. I often got pulled into proposal projects when I worked as a technical writer and that’s how I got experience in this area. There are some great training classes you can take to get some practical experience through Shipley and Associates. They have a bunch of self-paced online courses that are quite affordable, as well as courses that are more in depth and more expensive. If you’re really serious about breaking in to this field, you can also earn a certification. A Shipley certification will definitely land you job interviews. Many job postings for proposal writers require previous experience or a certification. Shipley also offers several books that explain a lot about the somewhat cryptic proposal research and writing process.
Proposal writers must be extremely familiar with using Microsoft Word. Every single proposal I’ve ever worked on is set up in Word because it’s easy to pass the file around and different people to edit it. You have to be able to set up templates with a different front page, a table of contents, custom headers and footers, and know how to start the first page of the proposal with “page 1.” Sometimes proposals are multiple volumes so you need to understand volume numbering. In addition, since graphics are super important to proposals, you also need to know how to set up graphics in PowerPoint and save them to use in the Word file.
If you’re curious about this field and want to see some government RFPs, visit SAM.gov. This is the repository for all government contracting opportunities. You can play around with the search features and find some RFPs and other documents. You don’t have to create an account, just click on Contract Opportunities.
In the Contract Opportunities box, you can set up a search. This example shows how to search for all NASA projects. You can search for anything, like Army, Navy, Department of the Interior, etc.