As I've said, proposal formats vary widely. But more than likely, most proposal specifications will ask you to create a document with sections to address the main core questions. Let’s consider some of the common sections you might encounter and how they address questions that you need to answer. Obviously, order and specific headings will vary in each proposal depending on the listed requirements.
Most proposals ask you for a title. Create a vibrant, engaging title with specific, clear articulation of your problem and/or solution to make your audience want to learn more. Think of your title as the hook to get your audience to continue. Two-part titles with a colon allow more space for specificity. Be sure to follow capitalization rules for titles in the desired writing style (APA, MLA, Chicago, etc.).
What is the proposed action or solution? What does the writer want to do?
Here you include a brief overview of the purpose of the proposal. You establish the proposed action or solution in general terms—your goal at the outset. Sometimes, this section doesn’t have an obviously marked header, but is rather the first paragraph(s) to launch the document.
When writing a proposal for a possible research paper (a prospectus, as we discussed earlier), you likely won't know the full nuance of your thesis or conclusions exactly. But you should have questions about your topic that have narrowed your scope of exploration. Announce an aim, goal, and/or scope as a starting point.
Set-up your stylistic voice and tone right away. While you should write appropriately for the circumstance and audience, avoid dull or diluted writing. Be clear, vibrant, and direct. In a competitive proposal process, reviewers may only read the title and introduction before deciding whether to give more consideration to the proposal. Be interesting; don’t let them stop reading.
Why is it proposed? What is the problem, question, need, or goal to address? And how is it important to both the writer and the decision-makers?
This section establishes the need and importance for the proposal—a why for the proposal.
In this section, explain how you recognized a question begging for an answer, a problem itching for a solution. If personal reasons are driving your question or problem, in some proposal circumstances it is appropriate to detail these motives in this first section. Read through sample proposals in similar circumstances to see if personal motives are appropriate to include in yours.
You will also want to use this section to demonstrate your understanding of the conversation surrounding the question, problem, need or goal; show that you've reviewed the literature/research/conversation surrounding your topic. You can do this by incorporating ideas and context from other researchers or thinkers on the issue. As you do, suggest how your project is distinct from others, but how it fits in the context of a larger conversation. If you’ve written a review of literature around a certain question or topic prior to drafting a proposal (which you can read more about in the Literature Review chapters of this book), you would incorporate an overview of your literature review conclusions in this section.
Be aware that proposals might ask you to include more than just an overview of your literature review conclusions in your proposal. Some proposals require a separate, more lengthy literature review discussion as part of your submission to demonstrate a more thorough understanding of context. If so, it is likely to be included earlier or later in the proposal document as a separate section and thus would be less likely to be included here in this section. As always, follow the specific guidelines for each unique proposal opportunity to decide how to include literature review content. Include a reference page in the appropriate citation style as necessary.
And as a final, most important, step in this section, persuade the audience that the question, problem, need, or goal is (or should be) important to them. As with all good writing, a writer is most effective when writing toward the values and concerns of their audience. This is especially important when the audience holds power to determine your (or your project's) fate. In providing your audience with a statement or narrative of the problem, present convincing evidence that the problem matters now and the time to address the problem is now. Make a solid case that the problem is ripe, ready to be addressed—and you are the one for the job.
How will the proposed action/solution effectively solve the problem, answer the question, meet the need, or achieve the goal that the audience now agrees is important?
In this section, identify what you plan to produce, specifically any tangible outcomes you anticipate. Outline the specifics of your end product, contribution, or solution, which might be a publication, presentation, performance, invention, new metric achievement, lecture, physical object, or a paper. For starters, as an undergraduate proposing a research paper, you might anticipate presenting your project at an undergraduate research conference—many universities have them in each department.
If you are writing a proposal for a paper (a prospectus), you will likely outline the thesis, organization, and contents of your eventual project. Some writers incorporate a traditional outline here—roman numerals and all. For a longer project, you might break-down a book chapter-by-chapter with summaries. Or this section simply might be a single paragraph with sentences addressing each sub-topic of your project. Show your audience that the output of your efforts will make an impact in resolving the specified need.
Is the writer capable of planning, managing, and completing the proposed action?
We’ve come to the broadest section—and the most varied in style and requirement across the proposal spectrum. This section asks you to breakdown a plan to generate your end product, using concrete information such as method, timelines, data, steps, cost, equipment or facilities needed, wages or personnel required, feasibility, consequences or expected results. Graphs, charts, bulleted schedules or timeline goals, and budgets are not unusual here. Show how, where, and when the work will be completed.
For a proposal that pitches a large project or paper, you will likely outline a timeline estimating your agenda for completing the phases of research and drafting. As you draft your timeline, consider prior commitments you’ve made in other areas of your life and plan accordingly. Write a month-by-month, week-by-week, or day-by-day schedule with how you plan to complete your project, depending on the scope. The timeline must be a realistic vision of your ability to complete the work in the time. You might consider giving deadlines for the following intermediate steps: beginning research, assembling a preliminary bibliography, taking notes, writing a first draft, gathering feedback, and writing a final draft.
Including a task timeline is especially helpful if your research is complicated with interviews, surveys, data collection, and other primary research methods. In research and statistics classes within your field you will learn various methods for creating quantitative and qualitative data. Outline your specific, statistically-sound plan for generating data within this section. Get down to the nitty-gritty of how you’re going to get the job done.
Does the writer have qualified personnel involved?
You don’t need to be Einstein; you don’t need to be brilliant (well, more than you already are). As a student in your field, you are qualified to address a problem, question, need, or goal in your field. Briefly list your education and directly relevant previous experience. It might be just a sentence or two. This section may or may not be necessary when drafting a proposal for a fairly straightforward project.
If you are engaging in complex statistical research or another project that demands technical skills or specific abilities, you might need to persuade your audience that you are qualified by noting any specific background, training, or expertise you have (or will get) that will help you do your work well.
You will also want to briefly introduce other people who might be involved in your action plan. If you are writing a proposal for a collaborative project, address your colleagues' qualifications and abilities briefly as well. Some undergraduate research grants require the participation of a full-time faculty mentor. You will outline their position, college, department, and research interests here.
Does the writer have the necessary resources, background context, and/or knowledge to begin? Is the cost (if any) of the proposed action reasonable considering potential benefits?
A solid plan and qualified personnel are not the only two ingredients for a successful project. Projects might also demand materials, instruments, travel, equipment, and compensation.
Often, it comes down to money. When discussing resources in a proposal, prepare a proposed resource and cost budget down to the dollars. Budget fairly to show a close estimate of costs you will face and/or resources you will need. Demonstrate good planning by identifying accurately what’s needed, where the resources are available, and what it will cost. Your audience will be looking to see if the costs seem reasonable considering the anticipated results of the project. Often, this section might include a spreadsheet or list showing how resources will be allocated and applied.
Because you likely won’t need more than articles, journals, and books to begin a major research paper, the literature that you annotate, summarize, and incorporate is the primary resource to consider in your proposal for that paper. Thus, you might be asked to include additional literature review (a survey of relevant sources—the “literature”) or a bibliography of sources, which may or may not be annotated with the sources’ argument and your anticipated use. Your review of the literature will also support the Problem/Question section, as detailed above. Literature reviews are discussed at length in a prior chapter.
Outlining your supporting documents in the proposal, wherever your literature review content is included, will demonstrate you have access to the solid, relevant sources, the resources you need to begin. Any sources that you cite in your earlier sections should be included in this review of the literature or annotated bibliography. As with any time you cite sources in a formal document, use a consistent and appropriate citation style which fits the audience’s expectations (APA, MLA, Chicago, Turabian, etc.).
While some proposals won’t ask you for a conclusion, when they do, use your conclusion to summarize your main points and create a final appeal to your audience. Reiterate the established need and your proposed solution. Ask clearly for the desired course of action: dollars to finance a project, skills and resources to boost a venture, or simply permission to proceed. Emotionally emphasize the vision. Make it personal for your audience at your close.