Editing to reduce the length of your proposals

Writers should work within page budgets, but sometimes you need last-minute editing strategies to help shorten a document

At the end of the proposal lifecycle, we’re all looking to cut page count—either to fall within the maximum page count or to increase readability with whitespace. While writers should adhere to page budgets early in the process to avoid last-minute stress, here are three quick editing tasks that will help decrease overall page count.

1. Remove nominalized verbs. Removing nominalized verbs saves space and makes writing easier to read.

Nominalization occurs when we turn a verb, adverb, or adjective into a noun. Proposals are typically littered with verbs turned into nouns. Nominalization isn’t grammatically incorrect, but it clutters writing because nominalized verbs have to be paired with a true verb, thus doubling the number of words it takes to describe a simple action.

Does all this sound complicated, or give you flashbacks to elementary school? Don’t worry, the principal is easy to understand with the following examples:

Nominalized phrase Single-word replacement
We will give an analysis We will analyze
We will develop a solution We will solve
The board will make a decision The board will decide
The administrator will make an announcement The administrator will announce

 

People unknowingly resort to nominalized phrase when they’re trying to elevate their speech or they aren’t sure what to write. Unfortunately, nominalized phrases actually dilute the impact of writing. Find these phrases in your proposals and replace them with the appropriate verb, and you’ll save space.

2. Replace passive voice with active voice. We often hear that we should avoid passive voice, but a lot of people aren’t sure what passive voice is.

Passive voice occurs when the object of a sentence is made the subject of the sentence. The type of passive voice we see in proposals is when we say that something has happened or will happen, but we don’t say by whom.

A classic example of this kind of passive voice is “the ball was thrown” or “the ball was thrown by Tim.” Both say an action “was done”—a hallmark of passive voice—instead of saying “he did it.” Re-written in active voice, the sentence is much shorter: “Tim threw the ball.”

Passive voice is an easy trap to fall into with proposals; without a very clearly defined solution, writers are often unsure of who will be doing what on the project. As a result, proposals are bloated with sentences like the following:

Passive sentence Active sentence
The quarterly report will be reviewed prior to submission to the COR. The board will review the quarterly report prior to submission to the COR.
After the meeting, the notes will be distributed. After the meeting, the PM will distribute the notes.
The meeting space will be reserved by the coordinator. The coordinator will reserve meeting space.

 

Look for statements in your proposals that are missing who will do the work and re-write them with an active construction to cut out several sentences worth of words. As a bonus, active sentences are easier for readers to remember, which increases the likelihood evaluators will remember key features of your proposal.

3. Eliminate paragraph “danglers.” Look for paragraphs whose last line takes up 1/3 or less of the width of the page. Eliminating a few words anywhere in the paragraph will have a ripple effect that reduces the whole paragraph by one line. See the photo below for an example.

Using this technique throughout the document will not only save you several lines of page count, but it can provide just enough space to put a table or graphic on a page where it couldn’t previously fit, which multiplies the space-saving effect.

For example, if you have a table that extends to a second page, you’ll waste page space because of the header repeating on the second page. If you eliminate a line or two of text earlier on the page, then the table fits on one page and there’s no wasted space for the repeated header.

When applying these three principles in your editing process, edit at the sentence-level before looking for paragraph danglers or adjusting graphics and tables. Otherwise, the small reductions in words throughout the document will disrupt all the progress you made in desktop publishing.

Adding these techniques to your editing checklist will help you make room in your document and improve the quality of the writing you subject your evaluators to.


Julia Quigley
 has worked on a variety of Federal Health IT task orders and large federal proposals. With a Master’s in Rhetoric and Composition, she has created proposal writing strategies and conducted training to help technical subject matter experts (SMEs) understand how to respond clearly and compellingly to solicitation requirements. Prior to joining Lohfeld Consulting Group, Julia managed proposals for small and mid-sized federal contractors and taught introductory writing and persuasive writing classes at Texas State University. She applies the lessons she taught as well as lessons learned to all her writing and training projects.