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The Freelancer's Guide to Writing Proposals

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Writing proposals is something of an art form: you need to lay out the concept for a project, with all the amazing benefits that will make a client want to write you a check immediately, as well as the negatives, like the big price tag.

It needs to be a persuasive document, but it also needs to be clearly professional.

Decide the Formality of Your Proposal

Not every project requires a proposal. In fact, many freelancers may never write a formal proposal in their lives. A quick summary or query letter may be more than enough to land a project. But if your goal is to land bigger projects, it’s important to master the skill of writing proposals — it’s rare that you can describe a big budget project in a hundred words or less. Rather, when you’ve got multiple moving parts, you need to be able to describe what they are, why the client needs each one and the price tag.

If you don’t need a full proposal to win over your clients, it’s usually not worth the effort to write one up. However, if you need to practice your proposal writing skills, it’s worth putting together a few more in-depth pitches than you usually would offer your clients. I wouldn’t suggest doing so for a one-off article or logo, but for something a little bigger, consider taking the opportunity to practice your skills.

Streamline the Process

There are certain parts of a proposal that will be exactly the same, whether you’re writing the proposal for the biggest client you’ve ever landed or for a smaller project. So why rewrite those parts every time you need to put together a new proposal?

You can create a template for your business, allowing you to make use of the work you’ve already done. Daniel Waldman, of Evolve Communications, doesn’t use a formal template but he does get the benefit of reusing his work:

Since starting my business, I’ve written probably hundreds of proposals. Plus, in previous jobs, I had written many, many proposals. Over time, I’ve developed certain stock language for services and other items that get used again and again. It’s not a template per se, but more like a handful of standard phrases that I customize for each proposal.

It’s not necessary to create a complete template that you follow to the letter when writing a new proposal, but make sure that you don’t need to reinvent the wheel every single time that you start on a new proposal. You can get the benefit of reusing your work if you just keep a copy of another proposal open when starting another, so that you can cut, paste and adapt language.

There’s an added bonus that goes along with following a standard template or format for each proposal you write. It’s surprisingly easy to forget about a section that you usually include when you’re in a rush to get a bid out the door. By following a standard list of sections to include in your proposal, you’ll make it a lot harder to miss anything.

There are no sections that absolutely need to be in every proposal (except, perhaps, price), because of the differences between projects. But you can build a template for the types of projects you typically take on.

Understand Your Client

The secret to creating an excellent proposal — as defined by resulting in you receiving payment — is to understand exactly what your client is looking for. As Waldman describes,

The best proposals are the ones that win! What that means is that the best proposals are the ones that a) showcase your skills b) showcase your business’ personality and c) showcase your knowledge of the client. Hit all three of these, and you’re as good as hired.

Do some serious research into any client that you’re writing a proposal for. It’s not uncommon for a freelancer to have a meeting with a prospective client before creating a proposal, but you may want to go a step beyond that. Doing some research into the client’s competition, industry and other specific concerns can help you address them in your proposal.

Your clients are generally coming to you with specific problems that they need fixed. At the most basic level, a proposal is a suggestion on how to fix a problem. But that doesn’t mean that you should just stick to the problem the client tells you about. Doing that extra research will tell you if there’s another step that will really benefit a client and let you stand out from your competition.

Propose One Option

It’s almost always better to offer one specific option to your clients, perhaps with a few options that they can choose between. Following this approach means that you won’t overwhelm your prospective clients with too much to choose from. “Try not to offer ‘Chinese menu’ pricing,” as Waldman describes it. “In my experience, when faced with too many options, clients will choose none of the above. However, there are some clients who only want this.”

You can always offer a client more options later on, but it’s harder to take a choice off the table. If you can keep your proposals simple, your prospects are more likely to read the entire document. You also want to make it as easy to understand as possible. Don’t use fancy words or jargon that the reader might not be familiar with.

Always err on the side of simple language — even if you’re a writer and you want to show off. It’s important to be as clear as possible about exactly what you’re offering to do for the client in particular. A misunderstanding can force you to eat a cost, as Waldman has found out:

Be clear about what you’re going to be doing. I’ve been caught up by vague language many times in the past, and ended up being required to perform services I wasn’t expecting to do (nor was I getting paid to do them).

Similarly, you want to make your pricing easy to understand. Clients often will flip through a proposal, looking for the bottom line, before reading the rest of the document. Offer a clear explanation of the price, with the final total in bold somewhere near the front of your proposal. If a client can’t find the price, she’s not going to bother following up on the proposal, even if it’s in there somewhere.

Do whatever it takes to make sure that your prospective clients fully understand your proposals. Waldman suggests:

Depending on your line of business and how complicated your prospective client’s process is, the goal might be to have a meeting to walk through the proposal. I find that this is an important step, as there might be questions that arise. Plus, a face-to-face conversation always helps to solidify your relationship with the prospective client.

A face-to-face meeting may sound like extra work, but if it lands you the client, it’s likely worth it.

Edit As Many Times as You Can — and Then Once More

Even one little typo can throw off a prospective client and make them less interested in working with you. Proofread your proposals as many times as possible before you send them out. We’ve all worked on a proposal or a project until the wee hours of the morning, sent out a copy as soon as we’ve finished and then found numerous errors the next day. That’s just bad for business.

It may mean waking someone up, but it’s always a good idea to have someone else proofread your proposals. Our brains can play tricks on us, making it harder to spot typos, especially when we’ve read a given document several times.

A person coming to the proposal fresh, though, will have an easier time catching errors, even if he isn’t a professional proofreader. If you can have a pro take a look at your proposals, so much the better — trading some work may make for the best proposals you’ve ever sent out.

Keep Polishing Your Proposal Skills

You can always get better at writing a proposal. There’s definitely a learning curve that you need to keep moving along as your freelance business grows.

Make sure to update your templates or stock phrases as your work evolves. Waldman points out:

I used the same company bio for about 2 years, until an associate had pointed out to me that the focus of my business had changed. It was an obvious thing that needed updating, but for some reason, I had never really considered updating that section.

It’s also worthwhile to test different approaches in your proposals. It’s hard to gather enough data to see trends when you’re just sending out proposals as they’re requested, but it’s worth collecting what you can and analyzing it.

Photo credit: Some rights reserved by adamradosavljevic.

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