There is a lot of great literature out there on proposal writing. I defer to these, as I think they are excellent resources to learn from.

What is a proposal?

A proposal is a document that you write, and is given to decision makers. Their job is to make a decision about the work you are describing in the proposal, for instance: (a) whether the project should (continue to) live or die, (b) whether you should be given a scholarship, or (c) whether your company/group should be awarded a contract.

Who is a proposal for?

A proposal is a document that has at least two different audiences: (a) yourself, and (b) your recipient.

Yourself. You're asking yourself: "Yourself/myself? Is Tony off his rocker?" I might be off my rocker, but that's a separate issue than why I'm suggesting that it is very much for you. A proposal is for the author because: (i) it helps to focus your own work and thinking, and (ii) when you forget what you are doing, the proposal gives you a roadmap that you can use to guide yourself back onto the track.

Your Recipient. Of course, you are likely writing a proposal to be read by someone else -- depending on the venue that you are writing this for, the reader may have domain knowledge, but usually, it is unlikely for the reader to know the specifics of what you are writing about. Who the recipient is is important, and should play a factor in how much detail/jargon you choose to use in your proposal.

What does a reader care about in a proposal?


  • Usually, your reader is making a decision between your proposal, and (likely) a set of other proposals (e.g. there are only X scholarships, but Y applications.)
  • Usually, your reader will likely have some domain knowledge, but may not be an expert in exactly what you plan to do.

As a consequence, the reader wants to know:

  • What is the problem you're trying to solve? Why is the problem important?
  • What are you going to do about the problem?
  • Why should you be the one that is tackling the problem?

The biggest thing to take away here though, is the following: if the reader doesn't understand your answers to any of these questions, then you haven't answered that question.

What are you trying to do in a proposal?

You are trying to convince the reader of three things:

  1. That have an interesting problem that is important to solve, and that it is something that is going to have impact;
  2. You have a good way of solving this problem (that makes sense, and is better than other approaches);
  3. You are worthy of being given the resources to solve this problem -- that is, that you are intelligent, and know what you are doing/talking about, and are actually capable of carrying out the plan as you've articulated.

What sections should be in a proposal, and what is each section actually doing?

  • Abstract: providing a quick summary of the proposal (problem, motivation, approach, evaluation, contribution)
  • Introduction (identify problem, motivation, and briefly articulate your approach, the benefits of your approach, and what the expected contributions of this work will be)
  • Related Work (explore the problem space of what others have done: those that have tackled a similar problem, and those that have used a similar approach; prepare the reader) - doing well in this demonstrates to the reader that you know what you're talking about
  • Proposed Approach (actually describe what you will actually do, describing what the problem is; provide rationale for your approach; provide an evaluation plan -- that is, how do you know your approach is a good one)
    • Problem definition?
    • Assumptions?
    • Method
    • Experiments?
  • Timeline
  • Conclusion/Summary
    • Expected Results
  • References

Sheelagh Carpendale's 4-step Approach

My colleague Sheelagh Carpendale outlined a "6-steps" proposal writing approach.

  1. Step 1: First, write two sentences that address each of these six points:
    1. Provide a problem statement
    2. Motivation (why should anyone care)
    3. Why you (what are your thoughts on this)
    4. Method (what is the way you will address the problem)
    5. Impact (after you have done what you have done, why will it be a good thing?)
    6. Background
  2. Step 2: Next, print these sentences out onto individual strips of paper.
  3. Step 3: Take these strips of paper and reorder them until it feels like you have a coherent story.
  4. Step 4: Finally, using that story as an outline, write your proposal.