Blog Barista: Jessica Davis | June 3, 2020 | Career Hacks | Brew time: 6 min

Are you a technical writer who wants a change, but doesn’t want to abandon the skill set you’ve spent years developing? Do you want more pay? More job security? Would you like to write persuasive content and use more adjectives? If so, proposal writing may be your brass ring. Unbeknownst to me, it was mine.

On the flip side, if you are a recruiter looking for proposal development professionals, this post may shed some light on another pool of talent to consider.

I’ve been a writer since 1994. I was a technical writer for most of my career and worked in a variety of industries. After nearly two decades, I had reached a point where I was no longer receiving raises and felt like the only way to grow was to do something else, but what I did not know.  So, I wanted to share my experience with kindred spirits out there who are wondering, “What’s next?” 

Seven years ago, I was hired by KL&A to be a business/quality analyst and technical writer. After a year or so, KL&A’s leadership decided to give me the opportunity to lead the company’s proposal efforts. The transformation from technical writer to proposal manager was surprisingly easy. 

My experience got me thinking that maybe there are technical writers out there who have hit the glass ceiling—meaning, they have no path for advancement, nor opportunities for pay raises—and are wondering where their careers should go next. Here’s my take on how your technical writing skills can make you a great proposal professional and why this transformation can mean more opportunity and security for you.

Seven Transferable Skills

Writing proposals isn’t all that different from writing instructional guides. After all, a proposal is a narrative that explains what products or services your company will provide and how it will conduct business, which is fairly similar to explaining how a product or service works and how it is implemented (installed, configured, and used). 

To be more concrete, I’ve identified seven technical writing skills that are employed in proposal development and therefore, are transferable skills.

1.  User-Friendly Design Skills

First and foremost, good technical writing involves making the user’s experience as easy as possible with user-friendly design principles, such as:

  • Well-organized, structured content that leads the reader through complex operations in a hierarchical fashion;
  • Relevant cross-references; and
  • Indexes that make it easy to find the right content.

This skillset transfers nicely to proposals, as you want to ease the burden on evaluators who have to comb through hundreds or thousands of pages of proposal content and have to compare your responses to those of your competitors.

2.  Sleuth Skills

The analysis skills that you rely on in technical writing are just as important in proposal writing. The first step in a solicited proposal requires analyzing the solicitation document (RFP, RFQ, etc.) to contribute to the bid/no-bid decision, develop the skeleton of your response, design your compliance matrix, and define your win themes. These activities are very similar to analyzing user interfaces and design documents to develop the skeleton of your manual and determining what will be confusing to the end-users. If you work on custom solution proposals, you also get to put on your business analysis hat, providing input and feedback to the solutioning team, which is fairly similar to the interactions you have with a development/engineering team in a technical writing role.

3.  Chameleon Skills

Quick adaptation is another tech writing skill that transfers well. In technical writing, you often have to quickly learn domain knowledge, technical writing technology, development technology, and the product itself. With solicited proposals, you have to digest hundreds of pages of documentation to gain a clear picture of the buyer’s needs, desires, and pain points, often consuming dozens of workflow diagrams and hundreds of requirements, as well as understanding what they expect in the response. Researching laws, regulations, or industry norms is fairly typical, as is researching available alternatives to your solution and your potential competitors. Even if your team has completed some of this research up front, there is still a great deal of spin up in a very short time period, which brings me to the next point.

4.  Superhero Skills

Working under tight deadlines is something many technical writers are accustomed to, especially in Waterfall projects. When development and testing run long, the technical writing phase is typically compressed so that the delivery date doesn’t slip. Tight deadlines are also a fact of life in proposals, as every solicitation comes with a buyer-specified due date that generally requires a tight turn.

5.  Beautification Skills

Creating an aesthetically-pleasing and easily-consumable proposal can influence evaluators, resulting in higher scores. After all, your proposal is the first deliverable that the prospective client sees and it stands to demonstrate the quality of work that your company delivers.

The document design and illustration skills that many technical writers use everyday, are also put to use in designing proposal templates and writing compelling content that is supported with infographics, mockups, process illustrations, and other figures that help the evaluator understand what you are proposing.  

The tool sets for technical writing and proposal writing are similar, if not the same. Proposal writers often work in Microsoft Word and use tools like Visio, Photoshop, and Illustrator, as well as Acrobat. Even if you use another set of tools, most publishing software offers similar functionality, so migrating from the technical writing stack to the proposal stack is pretty easy.

6.  Cat-Herding Skills

The project management (or cat herding) skills that senior technical writers use to develop the work breakdown structures and schedules of technical writing projects are also used in managing proposal efforts. As a proposal manager, you must determine all the tasks necessary to complete the proposal, how many resources it will take to get it done on time, and how to keep the team moving.

7.  Wordsmith Skills

Finally, writing and editing, the fundamental skills of technical writing, are the same skills needed for proposal writing. Though voice and style differ some, a good writer will have no problem acclimating.

More Perceived Value Changes Everything

I loved being a technical writer, but I reached a point in my career where there was very little room for advancement. Not only did I hit the glass ceiling, but I also experienced several layoffs over the years. I came to realize that despite the enormous value that good documentation provides, many managers see technical writers as a necessary evil, another expense on the bill-of-materials that eats into profit margins. It’s no surprise that technical writers are among the first to be laid off when times get tight.

As a proposal manager, my work helps to win the contracts that earn revenue for the company. That fact alone means proposal staff often have better job security, higher pay, and more opportunities for advancement.

So, if you are looking for a change, but do not want to abandon analysis, writing, and illustration, consider proposal writing. For me, this brass ring has made me feel more valued than ever before.

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