What Is Proposal Writing?

Business and Academic Publications

Man contemplating information to include in his book
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As a form of persuasive writing, a proposal attempts to convince the recipient to act in accordance with the writer's intent and at the same time, it outlines the writer's goals and methods. There are multiple types of business proposals and one type of academic proposal—the research proposal. As different as these may be, they all follow a certain set of guidelines.

What Is a Proposal?

In the book "Knowledge Into Action," Wallace and Van Fleet remind us that "a proposal is a form of persuasive writing; every element of every proposal should be structured and tailored to maximize its persuasive impact."  

In composition, especially in business and technical writing, a proposal is a document that offers a solution to a problem or a course of action in response to a need.

On the other hand, in academic writing, a research proposal is a report that identifies the subject of a forthcoming research project, outlines a research strategy, and provides a bibliography or tentative list of references. This form can also be called a topic proposal.

Common Types of Business Proposals

From Jonathan Swift's satiric "A Modest Proposal" to the foundations of the United States government and national economy put forth in Benjamin Franklin's "An Economical Project," there is a wide variety of forms a proposal can take for business and technical writing. The most common are the internal, external, sales, and grant proposals.

Internal Proposal

An internal proposal or justification report is composed for readers within the writer's department, division, or company and is generally short in the form of a memo with the intention of solving an immediate problem.

External Proposal

External proposals, on the other hand, are designed to show how one organization can meet the needs of another. They may be either solicited, meaning in response to a request, or unsolicited, meaning without any assurance that the proposal will even be considered.

Sales Proposal

A sales proposal is, as Philip C. Kolin puts it in "Successful Writing at Work," the most common external proposal the purpose of which "is to sell your company's brand, its products, or services for a set fee." Regardless of the length, a sales proposal must offer a detailed description of the work the writer proposes to do and can be used as a marketing tool to entice potential buyers.

Grant Proposal

Finally, a grant proposal is a document or an application completed in response to a call for proposals issued by a grant-making agency. The two main components of a grant proposal are a formal application for funding and a detailed report on what activities the grant will support if funded.

Structure of a Business Proposal

Business proposals are somewhat similar to business plans, in that they outline your business's mission and vision and provide concrete steps towards your goals. The proposals may be formal and informal, but they tend to follow one type of structure and should be tailored to your product and your customer's needs

If you find yourself writing an informal business proposal, you can skip the research-exhaustive steps outlined below and simply stick with a comprehensive overview of your points without necessarily backing them up with research. If your task is to write a formal business proposal, you can omit or adjust certain parts, but you need to include a lot of research.

Sections of a Typical Business Plan

  1. Title Page
  2. Table of Contents
  3. Executive Summary
  4. Statement of the Problem/Customer's Needs
  5. Proposed Solution (With Methodology)
  6. Your Bios and Qualifications
  7. Pricing
  8. Terms and Conditions

Suggestions for a Successful Proposal

  • Proofread your writing multiple times and even have someone else read it for you.
  • Your executive summary should be extremely strong. Think of it as an extended "elevator pitch," where every sentence and every word are loaded with meaning.
  • Make sure you show that you understand and restate your audience's needs accurately and completely.
  • Sell your project on both logical and psychological levels. Be clear about the steps of your methodology and align your solution and your overall mission with your audience's values.

Research Proposals

When enrolled in an academic or writer-in-residence program, a student may be asked to write another unique form of proposal, the research proposal.

This form requires the writer to describe the intended research in full detail, including the problem the research is addressing, why it's important, what research has been conducted before in this field, and how the student's project will accomplish something unique.

Elizabeth A. Wentz describes this process in "How to Design, Write, and Present a Successful Dissertation Proposal," as "your plan for creating new knowledge." Wentz also emphasizes the importance of writing these in order to provide structure and provide focus on the objectives and methodology of the project itself.

In "Designing and Managing Your Research Project," David Thomas and Ian D. Hodges also note that the research proposal is a time to shop the idea and project out to peers in the same field, who can provide valuable insight into the project's objectives.

Thomas and Hodges note that "colleagues, supervisors, community representatives, potential research participants, and others can look at the details of what you are planning to do and provide feedback," which can help solidify methodology and importance as well as catch any mistakes the writer may have made in their research.

Best Practices for Writing Research Proposals

When undertaking a large project such as writing an academic proposal, make sure you familiarize yourself with your university's guidance and consult your advisor. Similarly to the business proposals, research proposals also tend to follow a certain template, such as the one outlined below.

With research proposals, too, you have the flexibility of excluding certain parts. However, some sections need to be included no matter what, and as such, they have been bolded for you.

Sections of a Typical Research Proposal

  1. Purpose of a Research Proposal
  2. Title Page
  3. Introduction
  4. Literature Review
  5. Research Design and Methods
  6. Implications and Contribution to Knowledge
  7. Reference List or Bibliography
  8. Research Schedule
  9. Budget
  10. Revisions and Proofreading

Key Questions

No matter whether you decide to write a comprehensive research proposal and devote yourself extensively to every section mentioned above or if you simply address a few of them, you should always make sure you answer the following questions:

  • What do you plan to accomplish?
  • Why do you want to do the research?
  • How are you going to conduct the research?

Sources

  • Wallace, Danny P., and Van Fleet Connie Jean. Knowledge into Action: Research and Evaluation in Library and Information Science. Libraries Unlimited, 2012.
  • Kolin, Philip C. Successful Writing at Work. Cengage Learning, 2017.
  • Wentz, Elizabeth A. How to Design, Write, and Present a Successful Dissertation Proposal. SAGE, 2014.
  • Hodges, Ian D., and David C. Thomas. Designing and Managing Your Research Project: Core Knowledge for Social and Health Researchers. SAGE, 2010.