Writing less

Feb 12, 2018

It can be harder than writing more, but oftentimes it’s necessary, so learn how to cut without gutting your message.

When I started writing this column in 2004, the size limit was 800-850 words. Sometimes, the topic was one about which I could write much more than the limit. But this was my column, so I could rethink and tweak the idea and title until I had a subject for which I could stay within the word limit.

Now the size limit is 650 words, but my process is pretty much the same.

I start with a “brain dump” – getting as much information as possible from my brain to the document. That is always more words than the limit. Sometimes, many more words.

So I read everything and determine what thoughts do not really “earn their place” in the document. Next, I reorganize for smooth “flow.” Then I read again to determine, based on the new juxtaposition of ideas, what other thoughts do not earn their place, and delete them. Now I’m down to about 800 words and I still need to cut. The next round of cuts is done like a surgeon with a scalpel – one word or phrase at a time – until I’m close enough to the limit to submit the article.

The challenge: making all these cuts without gutting the subject of the article. But it can be done.

Proposal limitations are very different. Instead of a maximum number of words, you get a maximum number of pages and, possibly, limitations on font sizes and margins.

One problem is that you think much of your current proposal already exists in previous submittals. You have many paragraphs, pages, and tables in your recent proposal and boilerplate files, including both firm and project descriptions, professional resumes, QA/QC processes, and other (to you, at least) interesting information.

So you pick and choose, and assemble a first draft, 30 pages of great information not including the project approach.

But the client has imposed a limitation of 25 pages for the submittal.

Now you spend hours cutting text, replacing paragraphs with bullet lists, wondering if you can describe the proposed staff in a one- or two-page table, emailing the client’s contact to ask about putting actual resumes in an appendix whose pages aren’t counted.

You get down to 22 pages. Then the technical lead gives you a six-page project approach! And you have to start cutting again, without gutting the approach or omitting something critical from the document.

There is a better way!

Go back to the request for proposals. What information did the client ask for? And in what order? This is what the client wants to see and how the client wants your submittal organized. Then you can go to your boilerplate or previous proposals and pull only the information that was requested.

In addition to the clues provided in the RFP regarding content and organization, the RFP may also include the client’s evaluation criteria. There may be items here in addition to the content clues provided earlier in the RFP. Without changing the organization of your submittal, you have to make sure you have addressed these criteria.

Remember: Your proposal must be about what the client wants to hear, and not what you want to say.

If you do all this and still end up under the page limit, you can add other information you think will help the owner choose your firm or team. You can also deliver fewer than the maximum number of pages. When appointed to a selection committee, the normal daily workload of the client’s staff member doesn’t go away. So they love submittals that are shorter than the limit.

And by the way, even if the RFP doesn’t include page limits, font, or margin requirements, most clients still appreciate brevity, especially when dealing with the kinds of projects for which they might receive dozens of proposals.

Bernie Siben, CPSM, is owner and principal consultant of The Siben Consult, LLC, an independent A/E marketing and strategic consultancy located in Austin, Texas. He can be reached at 559-901-9596 or at siben@sibenconsult.com.

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About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.