Ten Ways to Avoid Fluff and Write Stronger Content (Part 2 of 2)

Last time I explained why so much proposal writing misses the mark and five ways to make it better. Here are five more.


  1. Make it relevant.

A caveat to using graphics in your proposals: Make sure your photos and graphics are relevant. Don’t stick meaningless graphics and photos in to make it look graphicky. My rule: if you put in an image, you should always add a caption that ties it to the audience—why are you taking up space and time to show this picture? Tell the audience what’s important about it.


  1. Start a banned word list.

Anything you hear all the time in your industry, avoid it or see if there’s another word or phrase. This will freshen up your writing immediately. My personal banned word list includes “utilize,” “moving forward,” and “at the end of the day.”


  1. Say it simply.

Sometimes we write in a style that sounds “important.” This is a trap. You’ll end up with stilted prose that no one likes to read. Here’s a real-life example. I was reviewing a proposal for an airport project when I spotted a sentence in a case study about a runway project:

“Runway paving was performed during periods of darkness when airliner travel was decreased.”

What? When was the paving done? “Periods of darkness” would include anytime after the sun went down or during a total eclipse. Be careful with trying to impress: you’ll find yourself coming up with a fancy way to say “night.”


  1. Try to use active verbs, not passive.

“He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.” – Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence.

This is difficult to do in proposal writing. But you will enliven your writing by cutting out even a few passive verbs. Let’s take our airport runway sentence from number eight. We can improve it immediately by changing it to “Runway paving was performed at night to minimize airliner interference.”

That’s a passive structure. Passive structure is when the subject is acted upon instead of being an actor. Who is the actor in that sentence? It’s unstated. It’s a ghost. So the quick way to fix it is to add an actor.

“Paving crews worked at night to minimize airliner interference.”

If you’re wanting to take credit for the great idea of paving at night, you could now easily say, “We directed paving crews to work at night to minimize airliner interference.”


And number ten, Read good literature.

If you’re not already reading regularly, start the habit. And if you are reading only business and industry books, don’t neglect the classic works. Reading a lot improves your ear for good writing and expands your vocabulary as you hack your way through the jargon jungle.


The next proposal you work on—do the research, find out what your prospect cares about, and then write clearly and simply how they’re going to benefit from your services.

Writing well isn’t easy, but your audience is worth the trouble.