Writing a Strong Proposal Takes How Many Drafts?

After you decide to respond to a funding opportunity and have your team of writers, reviewers, and support people in place, you'll need to organize and launch the writing process. It takes multiple drafts to get a proposal ready for submission. Before you begin the writing process, you'll want to create a proposal calendar to plot out how many drafts you'll create on your way to the final draft.

How many drafts you'll need depends on the type of proposal. For the average grant proposal, plan on at least three drafts. For most proposals, three drafts (with a formal review process in between each) will be a reasonable number to strive for if you have 4-6 weeks to prepare your proposal. If you have more than six weeks, begin with a six-week process built around three drafts and use the extra weeks as a buffer.  

Extending the proposal process longer than six weeks doesn't always lead to a more finely crafted proposal.  If the second draft is still pretty rough, or if you've only been able to produce a partial draft in that time, consider adjusting your proposal calendar to add a fourth draft.

For lots of reasons, primarily burn-out of the proposal team, it makes sense to produce the proposal as quickly as you can without compromising on quality.  Schedule the proposal process for a reasonable number of weeks and don't automatically go to the maximum number of weeks by default.

If you do decide to extend the proposal development period, pause the proposal writing for a day or two to evaluate your process. It's possible the proposal isn't coming together because the team configuration is not quite right. Maybe you need to engage new writers who can articulate the project goals more clearly. Or perhaps you need to recruit external reviewers who can bring greater objectivity and redirect the proposal to bring out its strengths. On the other hand, maybe the proposal development process is fine and the team members are in the right roles, but the project strategy is flawed and doesn't work on a fundamental level. Adding more drafts will not fix a proposal built around a poorly conceived idea.

And of course, adding more drafts and changing your proposal team configuration will not help if you are writing a proposal that isn't a good fit for the funding opportunity. If you are struggling to produce a proposal responsive to the funder's interests, it may be an indication that there is not a good fit between your project and the funding mechanism. If this is the case, consider halting the process and looking for another grant opportunity.

What You'll See with Each Draft If You Follow a Three-Draft Process

  • First Draft: The first draft takes the longest to create. You are starting from a blank slate and coming up with the initial content can be a slow and arduous process. Expect the first draft to come together slowly. Budget at least a week for its development Subsequent drafts, unless you need to do a major rewrite, should not take as long. The first draft will also probably be choppy—particularly if there are several writers—and have major formatting issues and grammatical errors. All of this is okay. The purpose of the first draft is to start the process and develop the framework for the proposal, so treat it almost as a brainstorming exercise. Ideally, your first draft will be a complete draft of the proposal narrative, minus any supporting materials for the appendix.

  • Second Draft: The second draft is about refining your ideas. By the second draft, you'll want to start fixing the formatting. When the proposal is formatted correctly, you'll be able to evaluate more accurately how you stand relative to the page limits. If you hold off on the formatting too long, you may find that once you adjust the margins and font size, you'll be scrambling to cut text at the last minute. Additionally, by the time the second draft is assembled and goes out for review, you should have all of the supplementary materials identified, if not included, in the draft. Supplementary materials may include proof of nonprofit status and letters of support, or copies of an organization's recent newsletter. As with formatting, you don't want to wait too long before you pull together the supporting materials. Some of the materials—a staffing plan, for example—will need to be part of the formal review process. Other materials, like an organizational newsletter, can be tacked on at the end with no additional review needed.

  • Third Draft: The third draft is where the polishing occurs. Now is the time to start worrying about grammar. Your proposal should be within the page limits by this point and you should have your supporting materials ready. When reviewers look at the third draft, they should see a complete version of what will be submitted. By the third draft of the technical (narrative) proposal, the budget for the proposal should be ready and in the process of being reviewed as well. Depending on the size and complexity of the proposal, the technical proposal and budget may be developed and reviewed by different sets of people. You'll need to coordinate the process so that the budget and narrative pieces are ready at the same time for the final packaging and submission.

  • Final: The final draft should be submitted several days before the official due date. You'll want to leave as wide a margin as possible around the final due date to accommodate last-minute glitches that will come up. These could include technical problems with the submission process or mail delivery delays because of inclement weather. The final draft will be your best effort on all fronts. The proposal will be correctly formatted, all glaring (and many not-so-glaring) grammatical errors will be resolved, and all pieces of the proposal package will be labeled appropriately. In addition to finalizing the proposal, while the final draft is being assembled, you'll need to spend some time creating a cover letter to accompany the submission. If you work with a larger organization, you may need to factor in several layers of institutional review; these reviews may require further edits before the proposal can be submitted. You'll want to budget a generous amount of time to go through all the formal review processes, which can take a couple of days to complete. However, when you are within 24 hours of a due date (preferably 48–72 hours before), the review process needs to be wrapped up and the proposal submitted.

As you develop your proposal calendar and think through your draft process, here are five tips to keep in mind:

Five Tips for a Better Proposal

  1. Know your limits: When you decide to respond to a funding opportunity, an essential first step is to complete a resource assessment.

    • Time: Realistically, given everything else you and your team have going on, how much time can you afford to spend on the proposal? If you are already stretched and working toward meeting several project deadlines, you'll need to factor in how many hours it will take to meet your other obligations. You may discover that you can only dedicate two hours a day during the work week to the proposal. Ten hours a week is not a lot of time. Are you willing and able to work on the weekends during the proposal period? If not, can someone else on the team increase their efforts to fill any gaps?

    • Money: How much money is in the budget for proposal development? Proposals cost money to prepare. There are material costs such as paper, ink, binders, and postage that must factored in. If you need to submit multiple hard copies of a proposal, it may be necessary to use the services of a professional copy center, so you'll want to add these costs as well. Overall, the cost of materials should be relatively low. Much of proposal development process and often the proposal submission itself can be done electronically. However, material and equipment costs are still important to note, especially if you have a tight budget.

    • Human Resources: One of the most important assessments will be of human resources. Ideally, you will have evaluated whether you have the necessary people to write the proposal during the opportunity evaluation phase. Still, you'll want to follow-up with team members to find out their weekly schedules and when each person on the team can work on the proposal. If you learn that one of the reviewers can complete her review only on a handful of dates during the proposal period, if her review is considered crucial, you'll need to ensure that the proposal draft is ready in time for her review. If you miss the window in which she can review the draft, what will you do? Is there someone else who can take on the review and do, maybe not as good a job as your planned reviewer, but an adequate job? If you have a team member who is essential to the review process and cannot be replaced (such as the executive director), what can you do to guarantee that the proposal draft will be ready on time for her review? Before you begin the proposal, you need to identify any "hard stop" deadlines that you must meet and commit to making sure that the proposal stays on schedule.

  2. Anticipate delays: The proposal calendar you create at the beginning of the proposal process is your ideal schedule. In all likelihood, it will not be the final one. Some of the dates will slip. There will be a few non-negotiable deadlines that you'll plan around, such as the submission deadline, and dates that are fixed because of team members' schedules, as discussed above. You're also likely to experience missed deadlines. Anticipate that there will be a lot of adjustments throughout the proposal process. To accommodate missed deadlines, add buffers throughout the proposal development process. For example, if you think it will take five days to create a first draft, schedule the first draft for five days on the "official" proposal calendar that gets circulated to team members. Next, create a "shadow" calendar that only you can see that has a Plan B schedule with extra days built in for each stage. With a Plan B ready, when the inevitable slippage occurs, you'll know you'll still be okay and able to meet the submission deadline. Another way to add flexibility to the proposal calendar is to plan on having the final draft of the proposal ready a week before the submission deadline. If you don't end up needing the extra week, there's no downside; you'll just submit the proposal early. If you do experience delays during the proposal's development, you'll be grateful that you have the extra time.

  3. Expect unanticipated problems: In addition to missed deadlines and team member schedules playing havoc with your proposal process, there will be other problems. Although you won't know in advance what kinds of problems will come your way, expect problems at each stage of the process. These unexpected problems are another reason you need to create a proposal schedule that allows for delays. Anticipated problems that can affect your schedule include writers who fail to submit their sections on time or a budget that's behind schedule because of delays getting salary figures from HR. Unanticipated problems come in many forms. They include tech issues (computers crashing, corrupted files), weather issues (tornadoes, hurricanes, blizzards—anything that can result in power outages and office closings), and personal calamities (illness of a key team member). Something is going to happen that will shake things up. While you may not be able to plan for everything, you can do a few things to ward off potential interruptions. You can save your proposal drafts in the Cloud instead of on a drive on your computer to protect the proposal in case your computer dies. You can email yourself the latest proposal draft as a back-up in case something happens with your Cloud storage. You can save drafts of the proposal on a regular schedule under new file names as a security against corrupted files (i.e., instead of clicking "save," do a "save as" with a new file name, which might be the name of the draft, the date, and the time [hour and date] of the save). Weather and personal issues can be a little harder to prepare for, but simple things like taking your work computer home with you every night can be helpful in that event that you should find yourself unexpectedly out of the office.

  4. Prepare for conflict: As you move through the proposal process, you may find there is confusion within the proposal team about who is doing what. Or maybe there is no confusion, but there are team members who are not doing what they need (and agreed) to do. Proposal writing is not fun for most people. Particularly with a high-stake proposal on which the survival of an organization may depend, emotions can run high. Expect unhappiness and stress. Expect that the long hours and lost weekends will make team members irritable. However, there are some things you do to help prevent conflicts from brewing. Having flexibility in your proposal calendar will again be key. If you can give someone an extra two days to submit their piece because you've built in extra time into the process, you'll be able to reduce their stress and keep the proposal on track. Another thing that can reduce conflict as you move through the proposal process is understanding your boundaries around what you will and will not do and making sure each member of the team does the same. If you know in advance that a team member cannot work on weekends, you can build that into the process from the start. As part of the team-building process, articulate your work style and boundaries and encourage others to do the same so that everyone knows, and can be respectful of, each other's limits.

  5. Be clear on your goal: One of the things that can cause a proposal to derail is the pursuit of perfection. The proposal does not need to be perfect. Your goal should be to submit a proposal that is responsive to the funder's needs and compliant with all submission requirements. It needs to be clearly written. It doesn't need to be perfectly written. During the early stages of the proposal process, when the proposal is in its roughest shape, there can be a tendency on the part of some reviewers to spend time correcting grammar mistakes. Grammar is certainly important, and egregious grammatical errors must be corrected before the proposal is submitted. However, at the stage of the first and second draft, grammar issues should not be the focus. The focus initially should be on crystallizing ideas and reaching a clarity of thinking about the proposed project or research idea. Grammatical errors, formatting problems—these things can be resolved later. Spend the early days of the proposal working through the bigger issues, and you'll find that the writing naturally becomes clearer, with many of the grammar issues resolving with the growing clarity.

Each proposal you work on will be a little different. Some proposals will have a very short turnaround and you'll need to condense the process into two stages: a rough draft and a final draft. Others are going to be more layered with the proposal coming together in stages with a complete draft assembled only at the final stage. What is a certainty is that there will be multiple drafts, and there will be problems, so plan for what you can and add lots of buffer to your proposal schedule to accommodate the unexpected!