This guide is designed to help you write a Request For Proposals (RFP) in clear English.
Its objective is to help you write and format an RFP that your target audience can understand in one reading. Use Plain language techniques to help you win business, accelerate your tender process, and encourage staff to contribute to the tender process.
1. Start early.
Developing a Plain English RFP (ITT) takes time. If this is your first plain English experience, allow time to write, edit, and revise.
Add more time than you would expect to your usual time schedule for developing the first RFP in plain English.
2. Study the principles of Plain English
Remember: you want your application guidance or request for proposals (RFP) to be understandable to your target audience in one reading. This means you need to:
- Identify your target audience for this RFP, e.g., Government departments.
- Think about what they want and need to know.
- Consider what technical terms they know and what terms they may not know
- Review principles and hints for writing clearly.
- Think about how to organize and format your RFP.
3. Promote Plain English to your Staff and Senior Managers
Once you’ve seen the benefits than using plain English over more formal and convoluted writing styles, you need to promote its values to your own staff and senior management.
You need to get your staff onside so that they will begin to consider this approach to writing. Likewise, you need to convince your managers of its values, as you may need funding for a training program. Illustrate to both camps how they will benefit. Outline a high-level roadmap of how you plan to get them there and an estimated timeline for the overall program.
4. Contact an experienced proposal writer
The first time you do this, you may find it time-consuming and more difficult than you thought. If this is the case, you’re on the right track! Everything worthwhile is difficult the first time round – this is no different, but you’’ soon get the hang of it.
Another solution is to consider approaching an external consultant, especially someone who has a proven track record writing good, clear English.
5. Review previous RFPs and see where you can improve
Before you start writing your next plain English RFP, consider the following:
Literacy level. What level of education do readers need to understand the RFP as written? Use the Fog Index to find this out by taking a few selected sections and testing them.
Clarity. What parts of the RFP are hard to understand? Are the sentences too long and complex? Does it use technical terms and acronyms that the target audience may not understand?
Organization. How easy can you find the relevant information? Would the RFP be clearer if you reordered the main sections and possibly the sub-sections within it? Does the table of contents and index need sharpening? Is there too many/too few level of information in the TOC.
Repetition. Is the same information repeated in several sections? Does it have any real benefit? If in doubt – cut it out!
Headings. Should the headings be re-written in the form of questions that the section answers?
Format. Do you need to add more bullet-point lists? Put keywords in bold? Use more white space?
6. Create an outline to help readers find information faster
One very effect writing style is to write the headings as questions that each section answers. If you include sub-sections, use a numbered outline format (e.g. 1.2, 1.3) for the section headings. This helps the reader find the main sections quickly and see the relationship among subsections.
7. Write the RFP, section by section, using plain language techniques
If some sections are hard to write clearly, read them out loud and see if they are easy to understand. Work through the document section by section.
Write the first draft of the key sections first, and then work on the inside sections. Once you’ve written these, begin to refine the text by editing each section tightly. However, make sure your text does not become too cold and dry. Write as if you were speaking to a colleague that you respect; this often helps control the tone of the document.
8. Review and Revise based on feedback
Once you’ve finished the first draft, get it reviewed internally, preferably by colleagues who can add value to the review process. Don’t choose colleagues who are too close to the RFP, as they will not see errors or flaws than a neutral reviewer would. After getting their feedback, make the edits as required.
If possible, then ask some volunteers from the target population to review the draft RFP
Ask them if they can find information in the document easily. Ask them open questions, and you will get a better response. Try to avoid closed questions, e.g. is this a great RFP. Most will say Yes, just to please you – and make you go away!
Ask how much they could read in one sitting. Revise as needed.
9. Create an easy-to-read format
Format the document to make it easy to read and attractive in presentation. If you have time, prepare a template that can be re-used for all future RFPs.
This will reduce the time spend on preparing the document.
- Leave a blank line between paragraphs
- Use bulleted lists
- Highlight main points with bold and italics
- Use boxes for examples
- Use white space generously
- Include margins of at least one inch all around the page
- Use two (2) columns to increase readability, if practical
Use several different type sizes for headings. In many documents, the headings are in San Serif font (i.e. Arial) and the body is written in a Serif font (e.g. Times New Roman). Try to use a contrast in style to add emphasis.
10. Get feedback – and share it
Lastly, see if the RFP works!
Ask the external reviewers how they felt using the ‘new’ plain English RFP. Get feedback from personnel involved in the review process and collate it for distribution.
Did they find that the plain English RFP made a better application?
Was it easier to write the application, and what made the most difference?
What worked and what needs more work?
Summarize what you learned and share this information with colleagues. Encourage them to try writing plain English RFPs.
Keep a record of all the RFP’s that are written in plain English and see if their success rate is higher than the previous styles of writing.