How To Get Your Proposal Style Guide Off the Ground

If your team doesn’t use a style guide when writing and proofing proposals, make 2022 the year you change that.

Style Guides and Why We Use Them

First thing’s first: What is a style guide? It’s not a dictionary, which defines words. Rather, it’s a book that tells you how to treat words. It tells you how to format a.m. and p.m. when you write the time of day (capitalized or lowercase? Periods or no periods?). It tells you where to place the apostrophe in a possessive noun. If there are two ways to spell a word (canceled and cancelled), your style guide tells you which one to use.

Two very popular style guides are the Associated Press Stylebook, which is often used in journalism, and The Chicago Manual of Style, which is often used in book publishing. Both are available in online versions, which include searchable questions from users and answers from editors, a feature you miss out on with the print editions. There are other style guides, too, which you can read about in the Dragonfly Guide to Style Guides.

It’s important to note that, when we’re talking about style guides, we’re not necessarily talking about right versus wrong. The goal of using a style guide is consistency. If you hyphenate a term at the top of the page but don’t hyphenate the same term at the bottom of the page, you’re being inconsistent. This is something your readers might notice, and it might affect their opinion of you and your work.

Proposals can range from a few pages to a few thousand pages. A proposal we recently copyedited at Dragonfly was approximately 700 pages. If you were publishing a book of that length, you’d follow a style guide, right? A proposal of that length is no different.

Internal Style Guide

A well-prepared proposal team doesn’t just follow a style guide—they create their own internal style guide to include customized direction. (Your organization might have brand guidelines, but those won’t cover everything that comes up in proposals.)

The first step in developing an internal style guide is to choose an existing style guide as a starting point. Again, AP and Chicago are the two big ones. Whichever one you choose, make sure everyone on the team has access to it. Also, choose a dictionary. Merriam-Webster is a good one. Other options include American Heritage and Oxford American. (These are all U.S. English dictionaries.) They all differ slightly, but if you pick one and stick to it, you’ll remain consistent.

The next step is to figure out any deviations you want to make from your chosen style guide. For example, maybe you start with the AP Stylebook, which spells health care as two words. Your organization has always spelled healthcare as one word, and you’d prefer to keep it that way. That’s fine—Merriam-Webster lists both spellings. As long as you document preferences like this in your internal style guide, your proposals will remain consistent. Other style guide deviations to consider include when to use the Oxford comma and how to handle numbers (spelled-out words versus numerals).

From there, add guidance for specialized industry terms that you use often but aren’t covered in your chosen style guide. Write guidance that your team members agree on and that best fits industry standards. Think about terms that are sometimes capitalized in your industry or organization that aren’t capitalized elsewhere, and come to a consensus on how to handle those terms. Add common jargon along with guidance on when it’s OK to use that jargon. (Pro tip: Use it minimally.)

Once your internal style guide is up and running, that’s the document your team should follow first when writing and proofing proposals. If something isn’t covered in the internal style guide, check your chosen dictionary or the style guide on which you based yours. Again, the goal is consistency.

Update Your Style Guide

Your style guide is a living document. There’s no way you thought of everything when you created it, so revisit it consistently to add or revise entries. Also, as language changes, so do style guides. The AP Stylebook updates its entries regularly, and so should you with yours. Within the last few years, for example, AP switched from spelling percent to using the percent symbol and removed the hyphen from Asian American. AP is also continually updating guidance on COVID-related terms. Toss that 2006 hard copy of the AP Stylebook and subscribe to the online version to stay current.

Keep your internal style guide in shared online space (Google Drive, Microsoft Teams) so that everyone can collaborate and add notes. Then, meet quarterly to discuss and agree on revisions.

Consistency + Professionalism = More Wins

Everyone needs a style guide. Start slow by adopting an existing style guide. Then, begin the process of building and revising your own internal style guide. The result will be an increase in the consistency and professionalism of your proposals, which in turn can improve the opinions your current and prospective clients have of your organization and its capabilities. And we all know what that can translate to: more wins.

Written by Proposal Writer Dave Nelsen and edited by Ali Foley Shenk.

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