We live and work in a communication world. In bids, we must ensure our readers stay focused on the benefits to them (and/or their stakeholders) of what they’re reading, not on figuring out its meaning. The writing must be easy to understand. That way, it will be more likely to make an impact.
I use my impact equation as a guide to writing:
Clarity + Brevity + Value = Impact
The three left-side variables are mutually inclusive; weakness in any one reduces impact.
In our quest to influence procurement decisions in our favour, we first make the block of stone look about right by carving it into the basic form we need, after which we chisel it into its final state. We create the story we want our readers to absorb – what the reader needs to know – not every tiny detail about the subject.
It’s best practice to do that succinctly (…+ Brevity +…). This is even more so in our world of short attention spans, time pressures, and word (or, worse, character) restrictions in bids. Give your reader an easy time when your response is on their screen at 4pm on a Friday*.
A definition of best practice
Here’s a definition of best practice I found:
‘…a method or technique that has been generally accepted as superior to other known alternatives because it often produces results that are superior to those achieved by other means or because it has become a standard way of doing things…’
‘…a method generally accepted as superior because it produces results better than from other methods or it has become a standard way of doing things…’
That’s saved 15 words (38%). I’ll bet we can make the statement even leaner if we keep working on it.
What changed and what remains?
- ‘…method or technique…’ We don’t need both. ‘Method’ seems sufficient.
- We don’t need ‘…that has been…’ because we’re merely stating what best practice is.
- ‘generally’ remains, to make the point about widespread acceptance. We’ll come back to that word in item 5.
- ‘…to other known alternatives…’ is tautological. If something’s considered superior, it must be in comparison to alternatives. There’s no need to state that unless the other things are relevant in the moment.
- ‘…it often produces…’ That means it doesn’t always produce superior results, but it does so more frequently than not. The word ‘often’ introduces doubt. We don’t need doubt.
- I replaced the second ‘superior’ to avoid repetition.
There are so many ways writing can be made leaner. Here are seven quick wins:
- Show, don’t tell
In BQ10, I advised showing instead of telling. Showing enables us to write more efficiently.
‘Traffic Manager Jenny Jones brings her extensive experience of traffic management liaison.’
Such empty sentences create reader drag. It’s much better to make sentences work hard by showing relevance. We might envisage something like:
‘Traffic Manager Jenny Jones’ 25-year experience of leading traffic management on the strategic road network includes exceeding stakeholders’ requirements, e.g. KPIs set by the village’s Roads Community Group and by Network Rail.’ (…goes on to provide detail.)
The second version is worth the investment in extra words. It reveals much more without needing an empty setup, so it’s more efficient.
- Vary sentence length to emphasise points and to connect them
Use short sentences to emphasise points and longer ones to connect ideas. In both cases, get to the point.
‘Our logistics strategy reduces traffic movements by 35%. [SHORT: 8 words] The logistics system, managed by [role], co-ordinates site delivery volumes in keeping with local stakeholders’ requirements to avoid bottlenecks. [LONG, but still only 19 words] (…goes on to provide detail.)
Varied sentence lengths contribute to the ebb and flow of writing to avoid monotony.
- Delete unnecessary words
Examples (if they suit the context):
‘…the interactions between systems…’
‘…ensure that the systems to be delivered are specified…’
‘…lifecycle of the project…’ → ‘…project lifecycle…’
- Avoid wordy ways of writing short things
‘prior to’ means ‘before’. Neither indicates precise timing, so you won’t lose meaning by using the one-word version.
‘…prior to the commencement of…’ → ‘…before starting…’
- Remove non-value-adding descriptors
Some words seem appropriate in speech but add no value in writing.
generally, completely, just, basically, really, very, extremely, totally, essentially, practically, literally, actually, and effectively.
‘…is very important…’ What’s the difference between important and very important? If we explain the reasons for the importance, the reader will understand we’re making a point about significant consequences in the event of not taking the stated action.
‘…is essentially a way to…’ So is it a way or not?
Be careful with ‘effectively’:
‘[Role] will effectively manage [task] by…’
That tells me [Role] will sort of manage [task], but not really. Put the adverb after the verb if you want to use it:
‘[Role] will manage [task] effectively by…’
Now I understand [Role] will do a good job. Even better, just explain what [Role] will do, how they’ll do it, why, for whom, by when, and what good will come of it for the reader and their business – thereby completely losing ‘effectively’.
- Use active writing
Bid responses aren’t usually technical reports, so language like ‘…[task] will be undertaken…’ isn’t appropriate. Passive language isn’t even a great idea in technical reports.
Keep the writing active:
‘…[role] will [verb] [task] to achieve [benefit] for [beneficiary]…’
or something along those lines because this format is more efficient.
- Use short words when possible
‘…occurs within Phase 1…’ →‘occurs in Phase 1…’ Let’s assume we’ve explained what occurs and who does it.
‘…utilise…’ → ‘…use…’ Imagine you’re reading out loud. Saying one syllable is easier than saying three. Equally, reading shorter words is easier than reading longer ones.
The surface barely scratched
While this article barely scratches the surface of editing, the over-riding messages are:
Prioritise ease of reading and understanding.
Check if there’s a way to write the same messages using fewer words.
* Or whichever day the weekend starts where your client’s based.
This article was written by Holger Garden .
Holger is a bid manager and writer, and a personal/team performance coach. He spends most of his time supporting construction clients bidding for civil infrastructure and building projects, but his transferable skills have led to his work in the medical, charity and security arenas also. He works with businesses of all sizes to help them win more work.