Cut First, Polish Later!

Cut First, Polish Later!

Judge excess content carefully and cut first, polish later!
By Ken Merwin

Proposal page limits are fixed, or are they? Every Government request for proposal I read has a fixed page limit. If they didn’t, proposals would be hundreds of pages long, filled with useless data. However, the proposal team must allocate the Government’s page limit to sections and subsections. We generally assign the pages based on the evaluation criteria. For example, if the technical approach is 70% of the evaluation points, the technical approach gets 70% of the page count. Subtopics inside the technical approach get non-fixed page sub-allocations in the same way. We also sub-allocate pages based on the complexity of the topic. So far, so good.

There are two schools of thought on the page count allocation and the sub-allocation process. The first is when you give authors a page count, they must hit the page count – no room for margin. The second is the author can come in over the page count, depending on the maturity of the draft. I fall squarely into the latter camp. The first reason for allowing overages is the sub-allocation process is more art than science. Some topics require more page counts than initially planned. I give the Book Boss the flexibility to reallocate the page count within their sections. The second reason is I’ve never met a paragraph that I could not make more concise. Here’s where it gets sticky.

You assign the authors their sections and page counts. Invariably, the authors bring you an ugly rock as a rough draft. Sometimes they bring a pile of big, ugly rocks. It’s a rough draft, so you are not expecting perfection, but 50% over the allocation is a problem. While the subject may require more pages to cover, most of the time the author has gone off-topic. The writing process goes astray if the proposal manager tells the author to fix the ugly rocks before ditching a few rocks. Authors need to cut first, polish later.

Polishing the pages in a subsection where those pages later get cut is an expensive and time-consuming process. Since every proposal has a non-negotiable due date, the schedule always drives the proposal process. It takes time to produce a single page of copy for a given author, the author’s loading, complexity of the topic, and amount of reuse vs. new content. The more pages an author produces, the longer it takes to write compelling content. The fewer pages authors produce, the faster they complete their assignments. The math is simple.

Finally, I don’t mind going into external reviews slightly over page count: rough drafts at 15% and final drafts at 5%. Asking our SMEs to review more than this is an ineffective and inefficient process. It takes them longer to read and assess the material. They comment on content that will not be used and miss focusing on content that can be made more compelling. Asking SMEs to recommend page count cuts is asking them to do our job. Do your cutting job.

Proposal schedules are fixed in time, winning proposals have compelling content, proposal budgets are not infinite, and proposal page counts are set in stone. Polishing excess proposal pages is a counterproductive use of time better used to produce winning content that meets proposal budgets. Judge material that does not tie directly to the evaluation criteria. Take an ax or flamethrower to those extra pages if you need to. And get rid of them early. Remember, successful proposal teams always cut first, polish later!

Kenneth Merwin
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