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Publishing a Proposal Without Losing Your Mind

     Publishing a large proposal can seem an absurdly Herculean endeavor. Conceptualizing, writing, editing, formatting, and printing a 1,500-page document with 120 graphics? In 30 days? Doesn’t seem possible. But it happens all the time.

And there’s the rub. Proposal shops (the publishing groups, often embedded in large corporations, that manage these monster productions) are notorious for running staff and subcontractors ragged in a 20-hour-a-day race to publish and deliver these documents on time. The long hours, the rate of burnout, and the level of disorder in these environments are legendary.

As a proposal editor< and the editorial manager in Computer Sciences Corporation’s (CSC) proposal publishing group for seven years, I oversaw the publication of large, complex, high-quality proposals under extremely tight deadlines. But my team and I managed to avoid the usual angst because we cultivated a structured, organized production environment. You can do it, too.

Along with my lessons learned, here’s advice for a saner process from some of the best proposal experts in the business: from CSC, Rhonda Wright, senior manager, and Ginny Furth, proposal coordinator; from Booz Allen Hamilton, Margo Goldman, senior associate, and Carolyn Quinn, associate; and from SM&A;, proposal consultant Rachael Neenan.

Rhonda Wright says, “Proposal publishing is an art. It has to be, when you’re given five days to publish 1,000 pages.” As with any art, what you learn from the masters has to be practiced and then adapted to suit your own needs.

Designate a project coordinator

Want a recipe for disaster? Go lean and bring on one freelance editor to proofread your proposal. Then assume that he can format your proposal, make coffee, and—oh, yeah—organize your production schedule and workflow. An astonishing number of companies operate in exactly this fashion.

A better way? Assign a dedicated project coordinator to oversee your production schedule and publication process end to end. Having someone manage the details of production lets the head honchos like proposal managers focus on their core responsibility: developing a winning proposal strategy. And it lets your production staff edit, design, and format the document without distraction.

Ideally, your coordinator should be a trained proposal specialist who understands the intricacies of an RFP (request for proposal) and can manage a production workforce of 10 to 30. At minimum, he or she should be highly organized, flexible, and accustomed to working under stiff deadlines.

In addition, Margo Goldman says, coordinators “have to have the right personality. They need have to have a certain authority, a certain assertiveness. When they say ‘no,’ people need to know that they mean it.” Carolyn Quinn points out that a coordinator “also must be able to stay calm in tense situations.” Or as Rachael Neenan puts it, “No matter how difficult the situation, you can never blow your stack. Staying professional is so important, because everyone else on the team reacts to you.” In other words, if your proposal coordinator loses it, your whole staff is going to lose it, too.

Add key staff

In addition to a project coordinator, you need two other professionals: an editor and a desktop publisher. The proposal editor will develop a style sheet (sometimes called the “wall of truth”) for the proposal and edit the document itself. The desktop publisher will develop a style-based template for the proposal (usually in Microsoft Word), format text, and integrate numerous files into one. The desktop publisher, who should be skilled in graphics software, will also build the figures used in the proposal.

If your proposal is of substantial size (say, over 100 pages), these leads will also oversee the work of other editors and desktop publishers assigned to the effort. Because the leads carry so much responsibility, it doesn’t pay to force-fit someone into the job who’s not fully qualified. According to Wright, “Your leads need to be true experts who know what they’re doing. Using people who aren’t publishing professionals can be very costly—and can ultimately jeopardize the proposal.”

By the way, you don’t think your proposal needs to be edited? Maybe not, if you don’t mind your client reading that hunan resources and a pubic key infrastructure are part of your solution.

Schedule production in detail

A production schedule should work backward from the proposal deadline and incorporate time for writing and revising, designing the proposal cover and the template for the text pages, formatting and laying out the copy, proposal editing and proofreading, holding author and proposal manager reviews, conducting a final quality check, and printing, assembling, boxing, and delivering the proposal.

It’s tempting to forgo putting together a schedule because “schedules always slip.” But that’s exactly why you need one, and why your project coordinator should map out every interim deadline that’s required to get from project start to completion. When these deadlines slip, you’ll indeed have to reconfigure your schedule. But you’ll know clearly where you are and what still must be done to meet your final deadline.

What to do when your schedule is drifting out of control, but the higher-ups don’t seem to care? Remind them of the dollars being wasted by the extra hours spent. “If somebody decides at the eleventh hour to change the proposal’s template,” Wright says, “a coordinator can explain that making such a change will take a certain number of hours—at a certain number of dollars per hour. When the bosses do the math, chances are they’ll drop the idea.”

Hold standup staff meetings

Getting your team together for just 10 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes in the afternoon can save hours of wasted effort that comes from misunderstanding priorities or job specifications. The purpose of a standup? To assess progress against interim deadlines, assign priorities for the day, answer questions, and adjust your schedule as needed to ensure that the project remains on track. The project coordinator should lead the meeting, and all key production staff should attend.

By the way, a “standup” meeting means just that—everyone should stand up. Keeping people on their feet nearly guarantees that meetings stay short and focused.

Use progress-tracking logs

Your proposal is 800 pages long, is being written by 23 authors, and is currently divided into 140 separate Microsoft Word files. Do you know where Section II.13.B.iv is?

If you religiously maintain a tracking log, you will. Your log should list every single piece of the document, including the cover, spine, and back cover; the tabs and tables of contents; the cover letter; every text section, broken out by volume, section, and subsection; and all supplemental material, such as appendices and attachments. Your log should track the progress of each piece through each step of the publishing cycle, including writing, editing, formatting, author reviews, and quality checks.

Wright says that she expects her project coordinators “to know the status of every single piece of a proposal during every minute of the production cycle.” Her coordinators’ tracking logs allow them to do so.

One of the additional benefits of this system, says CSC’s Ginny Furth, is that it’s standardized and used on all the department’s proposals. “I can hand off a project I’m working on to any other coordinator who’s been trained in the process,” says Furth. “They can keep the project flowing through the evening, so I don’t have to be at the office 24 hours a day.”

Control workflow and versions

Your editor has spent six hours polishing the executive summary when the proposal manager proudly hands you his rewrite of the file. Guess what? You’ve just lost version control.

To avoid these unhappy moments, you need a system for moving files through the production process and ensuring that only one person is handling a file at a time. Your system can be as simple as placing each section of the proposal in a manila folder and not allowing people to work on a section unless they have that very folder in front of them. Or you can load your files into an electronic document-sharing system like Microsoft SharePoint, which allows only one person to “check out” and work on a file at a time.

“One of the things that can really do you in on a proposal is if you lose version control,” says Quinn. “When authors send us a file to work on, we tell them, ‘That’s it, this is our file now, we own it, don’t do anything else to it.’ We make it very clear who has control over a file at any given time.”

Schedule a relief shift

It’s not unusual for Goldman to schedule freelance editors to start on a large project at 6:00 p.m. on a Friday or 9:00 a.m. on a Sunday. As soon as she sees that work will flow outside regular business hours, she rings up her freelance staff and books a second shift.

“The way that we’ve avoided burnout over the years is that we have an extensive vendor network,” Goldman says. “We use a lot of temporary support, both for editing and for design. We try to be very careful about the hours that people work, and we really step up and add staff to spell people when they need it.”

Incorporating a second shift into your production schedule allows more work to be done on a given day while avoiding the lowered productivity and increased errors that come from working your production staff 12 or 15 hours a day for weeks at a stretch. It also helps keep your most important professionals fresh and focused when they are on the job.

“I am a huge proponent of the life-work balance,” says CSC’s Wright. “We have people who have worked for a us for a long time and who also have spouses and children. People like that aren’t going to stick around if we aren’t flexible with their schedules. We ask our staff to go out on a limb for us, and we have to be willing to do the same for them.”

Proposal groups that don’t operate like this are known as “body shops,” and they regularly place multimillion dollar deals in the hands of production staff fueled only by a few cups of coffee and a few hours of sleep. Lots of places do it. But that doesn’t make it any less risky.

Know when to say no

Quality is a goal, but the deadline is the supreme goal. Proposals submitted to the federal government minutes late have famously been rejected—leaving the submitter with reams of paper and hundreds of thousands of dollars in publishing costs down the drain. “Publishing a proposal is not like publishing a novel,” says CSC’s Ginny Furth. “It’s not going to be read over and over through generations.” When a deadline is in jeopardy, she says, “I am not above pulling a folder out of somebody’s hands.”

Goldman says, “Carolyn and I are top-notch editors, but we are also extremely practical people. We know when to let go, and at the end of a project, we will not bother with the trivial.”

Last-minute changes to a proposal should be made only if they address RFP compliance issues or resolve errors that are egregious enough to threaten the deal. In other words, should production be held up to insert a missing serial comma? No. To fix a typeface smaller than that allowed by the RFP or a misspelling in the client’s name? Yes.

Leave ample time for printing

Remember that the final step of publishing—printing, assembling, and boxing a deliverable—always takes more time than you expect. SM&A;’s Neenan says one of her pet peeves is that “everyone thinks that printing magically happens in five minutes. Even people who have been in the proposal business for 15 years consistently underestimate the time that’s required.” For a large proposal, Neenan recommends building a full day into the schedule dedicated solely to printing and prepping a document for delivery. And by a full day, she means a standard business day—“not from 5:00 p.m. one day until 5:00 a.m. the next.”

Enjoy what you’ve created

When you finally have the right staff on your team and the right procedures in place, working on a proposal can actually be a pleasure. “The proposal environment is so collaborative,” says Furth. “There’s such a sense of teamwork and, over time, you become a close family.”

“Sometimes, you don’t even have to talk through what you’re doing,” says Goldman of the proposal environment. “It’s like being on the best of the military teams—everyone just knows what to do.”

Creating a proposal shop like the one Goldman describes takes time, but it’s worth it. Your proposals will run more smoothly, fewer people will scream at you, and both you and your staff will enjoy a saner quality of life. Publishing a panic-free proposal isn’t easy, but it can be done. Follow the best practices outlined here, and you’ll have a great chance of putting your next large proposal to bed on time—without losing too much sleep yourself.

Article Source:

Samantha Enslen runs Dragonfly Editorial, an editing and copywriting firm that specializes in proposals, corporate communications, medical editing, and scientific and technical publications. She can be reached at

Posted on 2009-12-22, By: *

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