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Boilerplate Alternative - Proposal Cookbooks

People often assume that because the topic of a proposal is similar to an earlier proposal, that earlier proposal can be easily recycled just by "changing a few words." This is hardly ever true.

We call pre-written ready to re-use proposal sections “boilerplate.” Working from boilerplate is supposed to save you time because editing is assumed to be easier than writing. But unfortunately, the level of effort required to transform the focus, goals, win strategies, themes, results, keywords, and points of emphasis into another document can easily exceed what it would have taken to write it the way you need it.

The danger with boilerplate is that the writer won’t bother to review and rewrite everything they should, and will instead just update any numbers or key details. The goal should not be to finish quickly; it should be to win the proposal. Boilerplate that is not edited properly can cost you the bid.

So what do you do when your users are complaining that they have to start from scratch writing something that “must have already been written” before? First, you need to understand the real reasons why people crave boilerplate:

  1. They don’t want to do their proposal assignment
  2. If they have to do it, they’d like to finish quickly
  3. They don’t know what to say

What this really boils down to is a cry for help — “Help me do the proposal faster” and “Help me figure out what to write.” There are better ways to speed things up and inspire proposal writers.

What is a Proposal Cookbook?

Our first alternative is something we call a Proposal Cookbook. A Proposal Cookbook contains topics that proposal writers typically need to write about. For each topic they provide a recipe consisting of:

  • Questions to answer. This is simply a list of questions for the author to answer in their section. It’s the same technique we used in our document, 509 Questions to Answer in Your Proposals.
  • Topics to write about. Sometimes it is easier to give the authors a list, table of contents, or outline than to put everything in the form of a question. Just keep in mind that outlines imply a particular sequence, and a hierarchy that may change from proposal to proposal. A list of topics avoids this problem.
  • Strategies and approaches. The selection of topics and the way that questions are answered depend heavily on your win strategies and themes. For example, when you are the incumbent, you will write about staffing very differently than when you are not. However, you may be able to anticipate strategies to suggest when you are the incumbent (or not the incumbent).
  • Examples. You can give examples for items that are always the same from proposal to proposal, or when you are describing a topic that is difficult to visualize. It can be a page, a paragraph, or even a sentence. Sometimes an example is all the writer needs to get started.

The idea is to help the author without exposing the proposal to the risks that come with using boilerplate. One big advantage to using Proposal Cookbooks is that you don’t have to worry about giving the writers too many topics or addressing contingencies that aren’t relevant. The writer gets to pick and choose from the list of questions and topics to write about, and can select the ones that are most relevant or fit the page limit. However, by providing the Cookbook, you help the writer make sure they don’t overlook any possible topics.

A Proposal Cookbook can adjust to the idiosyncrasies of RFPs in ways that boilerplate can’t. With a Proposal Cookbook, you get a speed boost and a quality boost, without exposing the proposal to the risks of using boilerplate.


By Carl Dickson, Founder of

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