What Can Ernest Hemingway Teach Us about Writing Proposals?

In the most recent issue of the Association of Proposal Management Professionals, National Capital Chapter’s Executive Summary, Elly Zupko of Beacon Associates has a very clever and thoughtful article on using Ernest Hemingway to write better proposals.  As she points out, proposal professionals can learn a great deal about writing from reading Hemingway’s simple, direct, uncluttered prose.

According to her, these are some the most important lessons we can learn from Hemingway that will improve your proposal prose:

Use simple, accurate words.  Too many proposals are filled with jargon, insider lingo, and overly long words that clutter and cloud the narrative.  Like Hemingway, use simple and accurate words.

Keep your sentences and paragraphs short.  Proposals should not be written like the prose of William Faulkner or Marcel Proust.  Instead, follow Hemingway by keeping your sentences and paragraphs short for readability.  Shortness will give them greater impact. 

Focus on the customer.  Too many proposals focus on the applicant, not the customer.  Make sure the opposite is true for your proposals.  Hemingway became a popular author because he wrote stories that engaged his readers.  You need to take the same approach.

Focus on the action.  Hemingway wrote stories with plenty of action – bullfights, personal conflict, warfare, hunting, fishing, and the like.  Fill your proposal with action-oriented prose.  Turning your prose into action stories will show the evaluators what you intend to do once you receive the contract.

Substantiate your claims.  Hemingway was a member of a post-World War I generation of American writers who were disillusioned by the bombast and lies of the Great War.  They craved immediacy, action, and directness over the cant of politics.  Follow Hemingway’s approach. 

Make sure that the language of your proposal is concrete, specific, and that there is solid evidence to back your claims.  Hemingway had no patience with empty promises, and neither do your reviewers.  Clearly tell them why you are best qualified, and then back it up with data, evidence, and stories to prove your point.

Looking for models and inspiration for your next proposal?  You could do worse than read a few of Hemingway’s short stories or a novel.  There you will learn how to tell compelling stories – clearly, directly, concretely, and with short sentences and paragraphs.  Channel your inner Hemingway.


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