Your sales team just shared a juicy request for proposal (RFP) and you’ve only got three weeks to respond. You have to corral information about pricing, terms and conditions, bios of the delivery team, and descriptions of your products and capabilities from multiple global teams. And you need to deliver a professional-sounding document, although none of your subject matter experts were hired for their writing skills.
So you look for an outside writer or editor to help. I’ve worked on several such projects in recent years, none of which gave the client the bang for the buck they deserved. On each case, both the client and I had the best of intentions but ran afoul of five systematic problems. Here, based on painful personal experience, are tips for doing better.
Decide if you want a copy editor or a copy writer. A copy editor will fix obvious grammar and spelling mistakes and eliminate minor issues that make you look unprofessional, such as distracting capitalization. (“We will meet the Customer’s needs with our Professional resources.”) A copy writer will also try to improve your response with substantive changes, like pointing out when you haven’t clearly answered a question in the RFP, or when a sentence, even if grammatically correct, is confusing or vague.
This is important because a copy editor usually charges half or less of what a professional writer will charge. It’s also important because a copy writer will ask questions that, while important, your team may not have time to answer. If all you have time for is a clean up of the worst errors, save everyone anguish by going for a copy editor. Whoever you hire, agree on timelines up front for what volume of copy will arrive when, what level of edits are needed/desired/acceptable on it, and when the revised copy is due.
Start early – and if you can’t, dial down your expectations. Responses to RFPs can run hundreds of pages, and getting the rough copy in shape for an external writer or editor can eat up most of the pre-deadline time. One external person can only do so much. If you want higher-level editing that makes your bid stand out, start early. If you can’t, “good enough” won’t be so good.
Get the tech stuff out of the way up front. If your external person needs access to your SharePoint account or Google Drive, make sure they can get to the documents, make the needed changes and communicate with the decision makers before you ask them to begin work. Once they finally get copy they need to hit the ground running, not sit around waiting for a call from a help desk.
Set expectations. If you’re trying for a marquee, big-ticket project you’ll probably have a dedicated team of employees working around the clock. Your external person can’t do that, because they have other clients and are not paid a full-time salary with benefits. If you want them available at any hour of the day or night, and to work 12 or 16 hour days, make that clear up front and pay them accordingly.
Create a style guide for bids. Yes, this is about as exciting as it sounds. But I can’t tell you how much time I spend on projects fixing things like improper capitalization, names of business units (it is “life sciences” or “health sciences”) and the like rather than the higher level work they’re paying me for. Publishing and enforcing a style guide will reduce the amount of time your staff spends creating simple errors, and the amount you pay someone to fix them.
If an RFP is important enough for a heroic, “all hands on deck” death march it’s important enough to plan ahead so an outside editor or writer can help you win. Good luck with those bids!