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How High School English Class Ruined Your Proposals (mimiran.com)
48 points by reubenswartz on Oct 30, 2012 | hide | past | favorite | 28 comments

The post talks about how a page minimum had the effect of rewarding useless verbiage. I've found that page maximums in proposal writing have helped me to sharpen my writing considerably. I had to write a 5 page proposal for $100k in a very competitive program earlier this year, and it was really a challenge to get all the ideas in.

Another thing I learned along the way is inverted storytelling. Tell it once in a sentence at a high level, again in a paragraph later on, and then again at greater length in the body of the document. Put the key stuff first and the supporting details later, even if (because?) the supporting details are technical, intricate, and show off your mastery. If you can't put the idea in a sentence, you're doing something wrong.

Great points. And unlike your high school papers, which hopefully your teacher at least read through until the end, your prospect may not even read through the whole proposal if you don't start with something compelling. (I wrote a whole other post about this: http://www.mimiran.com/proposals/why-your-prospect-doesnt-wa...)

Keep it short, sweet, and interesting. (If you've ever been on the other side, having to read some of this crap, you can really appreciate it.) ;-)

Yep, being on the other side is the best way to prepare for actually writing a proposal. It's easier to write a document when you know the mindset of the person reading it.

Interestingly enough, that's also the same length as a typical high-school essay assignment (5 pages). I think the critical difference might be that high-school students don't actually have much to say, so struggle to fill that, while when you have something to say, it's actually quite a challengingly short length.

"I am sorry I have had to write you such a long letter, but I did not have time to write you a short one" -- Blaise Pascal

My writing was also ruined by highschool English rewarding large word counts and overblown language. Twitter has completely broken me of the habit, and my writing is far clearer and punchier as a result.

Eschew excess verbiage and all that.

Why is "excess" needed there? "Eschew verbiage" seems a better fit to its own guideline. "Verbiage" means "speech or writing that uses too many words or excessively technical expressions" so the original is something like "avoid an excess of too many words."

I think the phrasing was purposefully self-ironic, but in the sense of excessively technical expressions rather than having too many words.

It's a Mark Twain quote where Twain was making the point ironically.

verbiage (plural verbiages) 1. Overabundance of words 2. (US) The manner in which something is expressed in words

Using the second definition, this quote makes sense only with the inclusion of "excess".

[1] http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/verbiage

"Be brief."

The most eye-opening thing I've did in that regard is participate in a "microfiction" contest related to an online game, that had you tell complete stories in exactly 55 words, with a (vague) predetermined theme.

It's truly amazing what you can do with so few words.

I'd love to read some of these, got a link?


The rounds of contest stories are linked in the first post. The contest was inspired by this: http://www.wunderland.com/WTS/Andy/Nanofiction.html

Great stuff. Reminds me of Hemmingway's shortest story, just 6 words: "For sale: baby shoes, never used."

I've recently noticed the same problem in my writing: I spend too many words saying too little. I also repeat myself. Repeatedly. I'm hoping that being aware of this, coupled with some practice, will help me improve.

Coincidentally, one of the people whose writing I've grown to respect the most is Stallman. Whether or not I agree with some particular essay, his points are always really clear and accessible.

In early high school, I would have dismissed his writing--it doesn't feel sophisticated or fancy. Now I realize that clear and concise writing is both harder to come by and more effective than it seems. It's certainly more impressive--in a subtle sort of way--than most essays with complicated sentences and large words.

Even if you disagree with his core tenets, his essays are worth reading simply because they are so readable. It should also give you a better idea of his core philosophies: in my experience, many people have rather inaccurate views of what free software is actually about and why it matters.

I try to refer to Ogilvy on writing, even when not writing copy:


Yes-- that's a great one.

On Writing Well, by William Zinsser is a classic that you may find useful.


I have a friend in Marketing that often asks me to verify her translations of press releases from French to English. I flatly refuse to translate directly some of the fluff, and make her write more directly - she hasn't been fired... yet!

Best exercise in AP English: respond to a reading for class. Turn that in, randomly pass them around, and have students respond to the responses SOLELY in the context of the responses themselves. And they had to be as long if not longer than the initial response.

It wasn't enough to bullshit. It could only take you so far. You only did well if you could surgically read into what was written and explore it prosaically and pragmatically.

>Using big words not only improved your grade, it also took up space, getting you closer to the critical 5 page minimum.

I have to disagree with this point. Using "big words" (or "fancy vocabulary words"), often makes it difficult to reach the minimum word or page count. "plant that emerges from its seed with a singular leaf" for example, is 40 characters (9 words) longer than "monocotyledon".

The trick is to include both the big word and then the explanation of said word into the essay.

Good points. Science and business writing often includes very precise words and/or acronyms that can make writing very dense, in a way that's good for experts to communicate effectively.

However, this can be a trap when trying to engage executives who may not have the expertise or the patience. (I've put myself in this trap many times, unfortunately.)

True, but there are plenty of 1:1 replacements out there, at least if you don't care about the quality of your writing: use -> utilize, do -> implement, and so forth.

Good thing I didn't pay much attention in high school English class.

to the OP: can we get a real example of a sales proposal you've written recently that was effective and fits into what you're ...erm, proposing?

Wasn't trying to push my stuff, but here are a couple of resources that may be helpful.

You can sign up for a free Mimiran account (http://www.mimiran.com/pricing-signup/), which includes a couple of sample proposals which are based on real winning proposals.

You can also check out the http://www.mimiran.com/proposals/ section of the website, which has a number of posts on writing compelling proposals.

Check them out and see if you agree with the ideas we are, ummm, proposing. ;-)

Good thing I didn't go to an English high school.

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