Writing the Proposal: Step by Step

After you have identified your possible funding source and read their guidelines carefully, the next step is to write a proposal. Because competition is stiff, you need to produce a proposal that closely matches the interests of the funding agency and is written in a confident and professional fashion.

Producing a good proposal is really an exercise in effective persuasive writing. No matter how often you may have written successful proposals for support of some kind, whether internal or external, it is always good to review what a proposal is, what goes into it, and what it is expected to accomplish.

What Is a Proposal?

A proposal is a statement of purpose that is presented for someone's acceptance. It intends to persuade that person to fund your project.

Another way of looking at what goes into a proposal is the five fingers plus one method. Every proposal should somewhere answer who, what, when, where, why, and how about the project which is being attempted. You can tick these interrogatives off on your fingers; that's why this is called the five fingers plus one method for effective persuasive writing. Some people refer to it as the 5 w's and an h process. Whatever you call it, use it. It works.

Proposal Stages

A proposal may develop in three main stages, depending upon the sponsor’s inclinations. Some prefer concept papers in advance. These are very short, succinct descriptions, which give some idea of where the project is headed. The concept paper may be followed by a preliminary proposal (or “preproposal”) before the full-blown one is developed and submitted.

In any event, when one considers the process of getting good ideas refined and down on paper, these three stages define every kind of persuasive writing. It is well for you as a potential project director/investigator to set down in brief form what you have in mind to do and how you expect to do it before embarking on the larger enterprise of writing the full proposal. At the early stages, you might want to pass along what you have written to a colleague for review and comments. The full proposal is the one that you send to the sponsor. You might want colleagues to look that one over, too. That’s the one that you expect to produce success, and you want it to be as good as you can possibly make it.

Anatomy of a Typical Proposal

After the title or cover page comes the narrative that describes the problem and how you intend to solve it. This narrative makes up the bulk of the proposal. You should also include a statement demonstrating the ability of Eastern Michigan University and your department, college, or division to provide the support that will insure success once the project is funded. A budget is necessary, and letters of support, vitas, and the like conclude the document. If the proposal consists of many pages, a table of contents may help reviewers find specific sections more easily.

Elements of a Typical Proposal

The sponsor's guidelines always provide detailed information about what should go into the proposal. Typically, however, proposals contain the elements described below. If the proposal is relatively simple, some of the sections may be subsumed under others.

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  • Title (Cover, Application) Page
  • Table of Contents
  • Abstract (Summary)
  • Introduction
  • Problem Statement (Needs Statement)
  • Literature Review
  • Goals (General Objectives)
  • Objectives (Hypotheses)
  • Research Design and Prcedures (Methodology)
  • Evaluation (Assessment)
  • Future Funding (Institutionalizationk Continuation)
  • Dissemination of Results
  • The Timeline
  • Personnel
  • Facilities and Resources
  • Budget (Projection of Costs, Itemized Costs)
  • Appendices (Attachments)

Sequence for Proposal Development

The section above, “Elements of a Typical Proposal,” describes what goes into the usual proposal, taking the aspects as they normally appear in the finished product. Usually, however, project directors compose the elements in a different order, one that more naturally follows the thinking process. Here is the general sequence in which the elements are typically prepared:


Deadlines are of two types, internal and external. These are of necessity interrelated.

The internal deadline requires that proposals be delivered to ORD at least three working days in advance of the external deadline. This allows time for securing signatures of approval, preparing the required forms, final checking, and duplication. Meeting this deadline is very important, because meeting the external deadline hinges on it.

It is vital to meet the external deadline, a date which is not negotiable. Be sure to note whether the agency deadline is by postmark or by actual receipt of materials. Budget your time accordingly.

Give Yourself a Final Exam

Here are some questions you can ask yourself after you’ve finished writing your proposal, a kind of test for determining how effective you’ve been. It asks you to stand back and look at your project from the perspective of the agency or the reviewers at the agency who will be appraising your proposal. More “checklists” appear in the appendix, and another chapter makes suggestions for writing: “Persuading a Prospective Funder to See Things Your Way: Writing Tips.”

A Final Word

All this may seem a lot to keep in mind. It is a lot, but don’t be discouraged. If others can do it, you can, too. Remember, ORD officers are ready to help with suggestions, practical advice, and, perhaps most important of all, ongoing encouragement, lots of it.

You, too, can be successful. Just give proposal development the best you've got. We all know that with EMU people your best is very good indeed. So--go for it!

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