Lecture: The MIT Guide, Ch. 11: Proposals

Note: Unless I hear otherwise I will assume you understand the readings from The MIT Guide to Science and Engineering Communication. Therefore, lectures on readings from the book will tend to be short, focusing on specifics I want to highlight. If you have any questions whatsoever about the readings, including material not covered in the lectures, please ask.

Chapter 11: Proposals

As The MIT Guide to Science and Engineering Communication notes, proposals come in many forms for many different purposes, some informal and some quite formal with rigid guidelines. During the course of your career you might write a short informal proposal to your immediate colleagues suggesting a plan of action, or you might write a presentation abstract in response to a call for proposals, or you might create a Kickstarter or GoFundMe campaign to launch a product you developed during your research, or you might apply for a NSF grant, or you might present a business plan a bank in hopes of securing a business loan, or you might submit a textbook proposal to a publisher. Regardless of whether the proposal is informal or formal, and whether it’s submitted in response to a request for proposals or is unsolicited, all proposals have the following characteristics: They are sales and planning documents, they are acts of persuasion, and they function as projections that define the scope and scale of a commitment to do some kind of work.

Proposals as Sales and Planning Documents

As the The MIT Guide explains, the purpose of a proposal is to the following:

  • identify a problem,
  • explain what work will be done to solve the problem,
  • identify the people who will work on the problem,
  • argue for the qualifications of those who will work on the problem,
  • specify the time frame, location, materials, and equipment to be used to solve the problem, and
  • estimate the cost necessary to do the work.

In doing each of these things, a proposal makes a sales pitch that you should be given something (funding, a contract, permission to start, etc.) and presents a basic plan as to what you will do should that something be given.

Proposals as Persuasion

As proposals are sales pitches and planning documents, the goal of a proposal is to persuade the proposal reviewer(s) that there is a problem to be addressed, that you are qualified to address that problem, and that you have a plan to see the problem addressed.

Proposals as Projections

Because a proposal is a planning document that explains how you will go about to solve the problem needing to be addressed, the equipment and materials needed to address that problem, a time frame in which the work will be done, and the costs involved, a proposal defines a set of commitments you are promising to undertake. In order to make an effective — persuasive — argument, you need to present your plan in as much detail as you can so that proposal reviewers can evaluate your proposal’s feasibility, often in comparison with other competing proposals. And if they accept your proposal, they will expect, within reason, for you to adhere to the conditions which you promised.

Planning and Writing Proposals

As The MIT Guide notes, some key issues in planning and writing proposals include:

  • thinking in terms of both how long it will take to write the proposal and how long it will take to do the work promised in the proposal
  • understanding the criteria by which the proposal will be evaluated
  • learning how the review process for the proposal works
  • making sure that you have the appropriate permissions to make the proposal
  • understanding the request for proposals if there is one to ensure that you are addressing their needs and requirements
  • using the requirements as an outline and a compliance matrix
  • developing a work plan and schedule to produce the proposal, leaving enough time for revision
  • preparing a style and format guide should one be needed

Proposal Contents

The MIT Guide‘s list of contents for a proposal found on pages 171-175 might seem intimidating, especially if you’re thinking in terms of the project proposal you’ll submit in a few weeks for this course. Keep in mind that the list The MIT Guide presents is seeking to be comprehensive, to address all the elements one might be expected to include in a formal comprehensive proposal such as one might submit when applying for a NSF grant. The actual contents of any specific proposal will differ depending upon what it is for, to whom it is being sent, whether it is formal or informal, etc. For instance, a 250-word conference presentation proposal submitted via an online form will likely consist of nothing but a summary or abstract in which you briefly explain your presentation.

For solicited proposals, the request for proposal itself will specify what they are expecting to find in your proposal. If the RFP does not make this explicit or you are submitting an unsolicited proposal, The MIT Guide‘s list is a good starting point from which to analyze your rhetorical situation and evaluate the need or expectation of each element.