Effective Technical Writing in the Information Age



In the working world, you will often be in the position of writing a proposal, usually to try to solve a problem or receive approval or funding for a project. Such proposals must be prepared to exact specifications and must strike an artful balance between your own needs and those of your audience. Recently, I worked closely with a professor as she prepared a proposal for some vital funding for her research, and her revisions during our discussion were effective because they were completely audience-centered and goal-oriented, even to the point that she revised tentative-sounding phrases into positive affirmations, shortened paragraphs and provided more transitions so that her sentences were easier to read and reread, and changed certain past-tense verbs to present tense to establish a stronger sense of immediate relevance.

In your courses, your professor may simply ask you to write a short topic proposal for his or her approval, or you may be asked to write an extensive proposal as a warm-up for a term paper or lengthy writing project. The advice that follows will help you prepare an extensive proposal.

Pitfalls of Proposals

When you are faced with the task of preparing a proposal for a paper, consider your audience’s position first. Believe me, when a professor asks you to write a proposal, what he or she wants to do is read and understand it rapidly, give some feedback, and then grant speedy approval to someone who is clearly prepared to begin writing a paper. Empty phrases, vague detail, apparent self-absorption, cockiness, or a lack of confidence on your part just get in the way of all that. I once reviewed a batch of paper proposals in which the following sentences appeared verbatim:

Another aspect in which I will ultimately show there is some importance here is . . .
Currently I am working hard at gathering more information and reviewing all my present information, maps, and resources that I have etc., etc., etc.
At this point in time my proposed topic that I have chosen is . . .
By the deadline of this paper I will have expected myself to have gone far more into depth about this interesting topic and would have all of the required information.

In the nearly 90 words above, there is nothing of use to the reader of the proposal, who wants specifics, not fluff. Empty phrases merely waste the reader’s time and even breed suspicion that the writer has no real specifics to report. If you complicate what should be simple with such bloated, undigestible, and unswallowable phrases, your poor professor only winds up with a headache and heartburn.

Style for Proposals

As you compose your proposal, follow these stylistic tips:

  • Try out a title, seeing it as a window into your introduction.
  • Include an immediately relevant introduction that briefly and professionally sets the context. Do not bother with such silliness as "Hi!!! Happy to be in your class. My name is Joseph. My social security number is . . . ."
  • Have a premise, objective, or rationale clearly stated. Label it as such.
  • Use brief, logical, concrete section headings to orient yourself and your reader.
  • Take advantage of enumeration or formatting so that your important points stand out. Consider some sort of outline form where appropriate, even if only for one section of the proposal. Make it easy to scan.
  • Do not waste any time at all. No verbal drumrolls.
  • In general, do not hesitate to use "I," but do not overuse it. Sound like a person, even if it means taking a tiny stab at something that feels creative or bold. You may strike just the right humanizing chord and be invited to do so in your paper as well.
  • Pose questions. Actively speculate. Be thinking on the page.
  • Remember that a proposal is not an unbreakable covenant, but a thoughtful plan. Be specific about the work that you have not yet done as well as the work that you have. For example: "I am still speculating about how best to define the general characteristics of particle systems, and I know that I need to find more information on particle interactions, mechanics, and processing." Such a comment might inspire a helpful professor to jot you a concrete note about where to find the needed information.
  • Cite sources in your proposal, using the same citation style that you will use in the paper. You may be expected to give an annotated bibliography, but even if not, consider giving a sentence or so of description about your sources to establish your credibility, show the relevance of your initial research, and begin to spark the thoughts that the sources will help you to generate.
  • Proofread the proposal with care, just as you should the final product.