“Proposal Writing 101: Ensuring Your Submission is Understood” by Burkhart

  • ©Tom Burkhart




    Proposal Writing 101: Ensuring Your Submission is Understood



    Few things are as frustrating as submitting a proposal to a conference and being turned down because of the ways in which your ideas were presented. Often times, the ideas or projects themselves aren’t the problem. It’s the way the proposals are written that frequently disqualifies a submission. I know the feeling. When I’ve had projects rejected, I wonder, “Why didn’t the reviewers realize how perfectly my work fit with their conference?” or “Gosh, was my idea that bad?”
    After serving on numerous selection committees for major conferences, and playing a role in the SIGGRAPH conference selection process for the past three years, I have some suggestions that will help submitters increase the chance their proposals will be accepted to a conference. Drawing upon many of the concepts I teach in rhetoric courses, this essay describes some practical ways to ensure that your proposal will be considered on the merit of its content for inclusion in a conference such as SIGGRAPH.
    There are two major sections to this paper. First, I’ll describe how you can use the Call for Participation to tailor a proposal to be a “perfect fit” for both the conference and program. Secondly, I’ll highlight some basic writing techniques that will help reviewers quickly grasp your main ideas.
    Using the Call for Participation

    This may sound silly to some, but a key way to make sure your proposal will “fit” within a conference program is to create a checklist of what needs to be included. At SIGGRAPH, the program chairs already create that checklist for you: the Call for Participation (the Call).
    The Call is created to invite proposals and to describe the content the program chair is seeking for the conference. The Call is designed to help streamline the process of reviewing submissions. Contrary to being an arbitrary set of rules that you can ignore,
    the Call is important because it asks for exactly the information the program chair needs in order to make a decision. Contributors to a conference such as SIGGRAPH are asked to adhere to a set of specific guidelines; the Call is the first of these requirements. Your proposal is the first indication of how well you will pay attention to details later in preparation for the conference. Submitting a proposal that is difficult to understand, poorly written, or that fails to include all requested information decreases your chances of being accepted regardless of how good your idea is.
    When writing a conference proposal, perhaps the most important consideration is making sure you complete the requirements put forth in the Call. It’s surprising how many rejected proposals are simply due to a failure to pay attention to the Call. Don’t fight or ignore the Call. Instead, use it to your advantage!
    Perhaps the best way to use the Call to your advantage is to make sure you fulfill all of its requirements. I suggest treating the Call as a strict set to guidelines. Always keep it in front of your eyes, and even commit parts of it to memory.
    Step One: Obtain the Call for Participation

    Make a copy of the Call. Use it as a draft to help you prepare your proposal. Different conferences may ask you to submit your proposal online or to mail a paper copy.
    How can you use the Call to help you prepare? It’s simple: write all over it! Grab a highlighter before you ever start writing, and highlight all of the requirements put forth in the Call. If you’d like, you can even create a checklist and cross each item off the list once you’ve completed it. When I’m writing, I tend to highlight the requirements on a copy of the Call, and make notes to myself about what I think that means.
    Step Two: Identify the Requirements

    Distinguish between the types of requirements. Generally, the requirements for the SIGGRAPH conference fall into two categories: technical requirements and content requirements.
    Meeting Technical Requirements
    The technical requirements have little to do with your ideas, and much more to do with the format in which they are presented. To determine what the technical requirements are for the program to which you are submitting, start by looking at the actual checklist within the Call. These tell you what is required in order for you to have a complete submission. Without a complete submission, it’s highly unlikely that your proposal will be accepted.
    First, and perhaps a bit too obvious, make sure that you provide the complete contact information for yourself and everyone who will participate in your presentation. You’d be surprised how many submissions include incorrect or incomplete information. The more ways you provide for the program chair to contact you, the more interested you seem in having your submission included in the program.
    Second, be sure to include a signed copy of the Submission and Authorization form. Also known as the permission-to-use form (PTU), it gives SIGGRAPH permission to print the information in your proposal in the conference publications. In order for a submission to be included in the program, it must have a signed PTU on file.
    Next, most programs require at least two abstracts, a long and a short version. Be sure that your abstract provides a brief yet complete summary of what you’d like to cover in the presentation. Also (very important), make sure that your abstracts fit within the required word (or page) limits. It’s very difficult for reviewers to sort through abstracts that are too sketchy (they don’t provide enough information to tell what will be talked about) or too detailed (remember that reviewers may be evaluating many proposals so even the long abstract should be clear and concise).The assigned limits should be adhered to pretty strictly. That way you are consistent with what is requested in the Call.
    Fourth, if the program to which you are applying requests supplemental materials, be sure to follow the guidelines within the Call for those materials. If you deviate from the acceptable formats, or don’t provide enough copies, it is likely that your wonderful supplements won’t even reach the reviewers. Also, since the timeline for reviewing is often very tight, if you would like to have your “extras” included in the review process, you should make sure that they arrive at the address in the Call on or before the due date. Otherwise, once again, it is likely that the reviewers won’t see those materials.
    Meeting Content Requirements
    Meeting the technical requirements is only one part of using the Call to your advantage. Once you are sure that you’ve made a checklist for what is required, now it’s important to make a list of how things are required: the content requirements.
    What I mean by content requirements is this: program chairs have certain things they are looking for in a proposal. Generally, this information can be found within the part of the Call that describes the program itself. Often, the types of content are directly stated when the program is described. For example, the 1999 Electronic Schoolhouse Call asks potential contributors to “share how you teach computer graphics and/or use computer graphics to teach at all levels and across all disciplines. “This tells us directly that in this program, proposals must at least deal with computer graphics and their relation to education. Make a note to include a discussion of that relationship. While it sounds obvious, a number of submissions to the Electronic Schoolhouse did not include a reference to one (computer graphics) or the other (education).
    Beyond making note of the obvious clues within the Call, you can also look for particular words within the description of the program that seem to stick out when you read them. For example, you might notice that the authors use words like “innovative” or “cutting-edge. “These words give you clues as to what types of submissions will be chosen. Add these words to your list of things to include in your proposal. We’ll come back to them later when we begin the actual writing of the proposal.
    Step Three: Post your Lists

    Before you begin writing, I suggest completing one more task. Take the lists you’ve made of technical and content requirements and put them somewhere so you can see them while you’re writing. I actually put the Call (or list) on the wall over my desk so that every time I look up from my computer, I see the requirements. That serves as an effective reminder that I have to work within the guidelines that are constantly in front of my face.
    Step Four: Write the Proposal

    At this point, all the necessary leg-work to write is complete. We’ve completed lists for both technical and content requirements for the program, so we know what types of information we should include, some key words or phrases to use, and how much space (or how many words) we have to work with while writing the proposal. Now let’s work on style.
    Develop a Clear Thesis
    One of the most common complaints I’ve heard from reviewers over the past several years is: “From this proposal, I can’t tell what this person wants to do.” In spite of telling submitters what they wanted to hear in the Call, reviewers and program chairs still don’t receive the types of proposals they need in order to make decisions. I believe this complaint is due to the writing style of the submitters, perhaps even more than the specific content. This final section suggests some stylistic approaches to proposal writing that will immediately answer the “what does this person want to do” question.
    The most important part of your entire proposal is a short statement (the thesis statement) that summarizes what you would like to present. The shorter and clearer you can make this statement, the more effective its impact will be. Often times, the “I can’t tell what this person is saying” proposals either lack a thesis statement, or state it in a very complex or convoluted manner. Developing one short, clear statement that tells the reader what to expect avoids any confusion. Generally, I will spend up to an hour working on a thesis statement that will work for the given essay. Time spent developing a clear thesis will always pay off.
    Write Deductively
    Related to developing a clear and concise thesis, the order in which you present your ideas is also very important. Since proposals are usually read very quickly, it’s really important that they be written deductively, and not inductively. This means that you place the main point of each paragraph in the first sentence. Writing deductively allows the reader to quickly glance at your paper and still “get the gist” of what you’re trying to say even if she or he does not have much time to devote to your proposal. After the main point of the paragraph there should be an explanation of why that point is important: expand the statement you made in the first sentence. Next, provide support or examples that “prove” to the reader why what you’ve said is true. Finally, after the examples, re-state the main point and link it to the next point you’d like to make. As a general rule, here’s the formula for deductive writing: Make a statement. Explain what it means. Support it with examples. Summarize and move to the next statement.
    Use the Appropriate Vocabulary
    Another frequent problem in proposal writing is that an author tries to write using a particular type of jargon. Of course there is nothing wrong with using technical words in a proposal, and a conference like SIGGRAPH needs to include certain jargon. But it is important to realize that the more technical your word choices, the more likely a reviewer may not understand your topic. So if you decide that you need to use technical words, be sure to explain what a given word means immediately following the first time you use it. Only then can you be sure that your audience will understand your words.
    The most important thing to focus on when making specific word choices is clarity. Can someone understand what you “want to do?” If the words you choose to use don’t help make your proposal clearer, then you’re using the incorrect vocabulary.
    Step Five: Using Your Checklist

    After you’ve completed your writing, making sure that you have a clear thesis, you’ve written deductively, and you’ve chosen an appropriate vocabulary, it’s time to revisit the checklist you created when you first read the Call for Participation. Double check to make sure that you’ve included each point on the list. If you haven’t, you need to re-work your proposal so that the missing item is included. Once an item has been accounted for, cross it off your list. You know that the proposal is completed when you have no more un-crossed items. The advantage of this system is that you can constantly see where you are in the process of developing your project.
    Once you’ve completed these steps, the proposal will be complete, and hopefully easily read. At the very least, by following these guidelines you can be confident that your submission contains all the necessary content and technical elements, and that the reviewers will at least take your proposal seriously enough to read it. Then you know that you have given the proposal your best effort. By following a systematic approach to proposal writing, the chances of reviewers being able to quickly and easily under-
    stand your proposal dramatically increase. Now your proposal can be measured on the strength of your ideas. Hopefully that means I’ll see you at SIGGRAPH 2000!