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9 Elements Of A Great Writing Proposal

Writing proposal and agreementIf you’re writing  you’re writing a query letter to a magazine or book publisher, you probably will only be accepting or working with a proposal or contract that they write and send you.

When you write for individuals or organizations you usually have to generate the proposal yourself.

Proposal writing is not rocket science, but it does take some work and some understanding of general business ideas. And yes, you will find job postings for writing proposals. Some of them will fit in this model, but many won’t.

Here are the nine elements of a great proposal for freelance writers:

Understand what the client wants. Your first job is to understand what the client wants. If you’re talking with them you have ample opportunity to ask questions. If you’re responding to an ad or job posting you’ll have to do your best to read their minds at a distance. Even when you’re using services like Elance which allow you to ask the potential client a question you’ll find they often don’t answer.

Define the scope of work exactly. Your proposal needs to include the details about what you’ll be writing. You need to define the goal or purpose of the work. Other items that may need definition may include things like research and who will do it, how any recorded material will be transcribed, interviews, approximate number of words, and the ultimate deadline. The more specific you are the fewer problems you’re likely to have. This is particularly true of big projects.

Spell out the client’s responsibility to the project. Your client has things they must do in order for you to succeed. In general, these have to do with reviewing and commenting on what you’ve drafted for them. They may also need to provide information, interviews, etc. etc. etc. The possibilities are almost endless. Make it clear what they need to do.

Define milestones. Milestones are signposts that progress is being made. On a single press release this might be 24 hours for the draft and it’s implied when you send it to the client. On larger projects you need a more formal definition. On a book they might be chapters. On a grant your milestones might be sections. You get the idea. Milestones let both you and your client know when the project is on track and when it isn’t.

Address who owns the copyright if necessary. If there’s any question about who owns the rights to whatever you’re writing spell it out.

Quote the total price. Yep, you’ve got to clearly state the total price. When you’re making a proposal this is actually what you’re offering to do the project for. If you’ve already agreed, just use that number.

Explain exactly how the payment is to be made. Define the payment terms. Sometimes this is a single payment, sometimes payment is tied to something else, like chapters or months, etc. You want to be clear when to expect payments and your client needs to know when to make payments.

Provide a way to get out if you need to. On longer projects like ghostwriting a book you may want to include some sort of escape clause. I often will say something like “This is a personal service contract. Although both parties intend to fulfill it as written here, both also recognize that sometimes projects fall apart. Therefore either party may cancel with 14 days written notice.” I only use this for ghostwriting books because the truth is I can’t proceed if the author changes their mind and I want a way to get off the hook.

Make the next step clear. I usually write the proposal so it can also be the contract and include a statement something like “initial payment indicates acceptance of this proposal in its entirety.” There are other possible next steps, like signing of a contract, an initial interview – just be sure everyone knows what it is.

Exactly what your proposals will contain will vary from contract to contract. In a ghostwriting contract, for instance, I often include the language of a non-disclosure agreement in the copyright section. For a series of press releases that’s unnecessary. Understanding each of these nine elements of good proposal writing however will help you get more contracts and avoid problems with the contracts you land.

What do you include in your writing proposals?




{ 11 comments… add one }
  • Tolsa

    Thanks Anne, for this write-up. I am writing a proposal for a 150 page organizational history manuscript project in response to an RFP. The RFP was very broad with no indication of budget ceiling and few specifics. They did specify they would not be reimbursing for travel, per-diem expenses. It is meant to be a 12-18 month contract with research and up to 6 oral interviews in addition to transcripts of interviews already conducted. I am at a loss on how to charge effectively to cover my projected expenses and skill. Would charging by the hour be advisable?

  • I hope this will help me a lot in writing really good business proposal…. I would love to know more about this points….

    Thanks a lot

    • Mark, you can always ask a specific question… I’ll do my best to answer it.

  • Annew, that really good advice , you have cover the important area. More freeelance writter should read this blog.

  • A very inforamtive post with a lot of advice for the geniune reader.
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  • Ynna

    This is very helpful guide for writing a business proposal. I will definitely follow all the tips that you have mentioned in this article. Thanks for the post.

  • Michael Lamb

    This is so very informative. For anyone who wants to write a business proposal, this post should be a perfect guide.

    Thanks for sharing.


  • For anyone starting off, in the process of perfecting their writing, these comments by Anne are priceless.


  • Very comprehensive, Anne. The only thing I would add is at times I provide options. The first is the higher cost with more services. The second is a scaled down version. I don’t do it all the time, but there are projects than lend themselves to it.

    The other thing I do is put an expiration date on it. It protects you from the prospect that comes back over a year later, after you raised your fees.
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    • Come to think of it, I occasionally do a version of that – offer a book proposal or the whole book, and sometimes suggest coaching. Didn’t think to include that – good point.

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