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University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Writers Workshop: Writer Resources

Writing Tips: Proposals


A proposal is an offer to do something or a suggestion that something be done. The writer's purpose is to persuade readers to improve or to alter existing conditions, to add to a service, to authorize the creation of a new service, or to support a plan for solving a problem or doing a job. There are MANY kinds of proposals. Some are solicited and others aren't, some are 1,000 pages long and others may be informal letters. Some may detail an entire revision of a service, while others might simply offer a preliminary plan or guide for improvement or suggestion for further research. Here, we'll focus on the latter kind of proposal, a preliminary plan, guide, or suggestion for improvement and/or research.

Important Considerations for a Proposal


The audience for a proposal is multiple and may involve many levels of technical understanding. Generally, the audience is composed of decision-makers who are busy but interested and who appreciate a clearly written, detailed, and thoughtful proposal.


Your tone should be confident but not arrogant, encouraging but not overly friendly, moderately formal but not stiff. Don't hesitate to offer suggestions, but don't complain or insult anyone in the process. Define jargon as necessary, but don't be condescending to readers (assume they're intelligent and generally well-informed). Focus on a problem or a need rather than upon who creates which problem and why.


A proposal should aim to (1) define a problem (which includes a lack) of some sort, (2) offer an answer, which can be a detailed solution, a hypothetical plan, or just a thoughtful suggestion for further evaluation and research.


You must research your proposal. Some may involve (1) calling people around campus, (2) either gathering written information from them or from the reference room, and (3) making detailed observations of your own about an existing condition.


Use clear, active language and embed details into your sentences. Avoid rhetorical flourishes, but don't make the language overly simple, either (it's probably not true that business communication involves short, brisk sentences--these are choppy and hard to read).


Format is more important to a proposal than to, say, a formal argument or even an editorial. Proposals of the most varied kinds can include the following in order to ensure readability:

Proposal Structure


Be as specific as possible here (this is true for subject lines in memos). The title serves to state the problem (thesis) of the proposal. Say what you need to, but don't make it too long. Don't be catchy, as with titles for essays or editorials.

Center titles and subheadings, use wide margins, number pages, double-space typeface.


When necessary, bullet paragraphs (don't do it to avoid writing complete sentences, though). Bullet with circles, asterisks, dashes, or numbers, etc.


In an introduction, you should consider, in some fashion, most of the following:


In the body, you should consider the methods, materials, timetable, facilities, personnel, necessary research, etc.


In the conclusion, you should make a request for action, even if it's just to think about a problem anew, and suggest some orientation toward the future.

Note: although many proposals use standard arrangements, each proposal depends upon its own particular level of complexity and stage of research and inquiry. Let your material guide you as much as the standard formats.