You’ve created a robust plan. Your governance processes are all in place. You’ve got a paradigm-shifting solution. You’ve got a competition-slaying commercial offer. You’ve storyboarded every question and your whole team know your story. There’s still one really big thing you’ve got to nail. You’ve got to write the bid.
Last week I wrote about five things that you should do before you start writing a bid. This week, I want to focus on the writing itself and offer up 7 simple, practical steps you can take to write better bid copy today. I’m going to hope that everything I’ve said in the first paragraph is true, but it often isn’t! Either way, these tips should help you write better bid copy.
1. Know the answer before you write the answer
If you don’t know the answer, you can’t write the answer. This sounds so obvious, but you wouldn’t believe the number of bid writers I’ve seen set off without having a clear map of where to go.
Ideally, you’ll have been actively involved in the storyboarding process. You’ll have sat around with the ‘brains trust’ of your organisation and built the structure and agreed the content of each answer. Bid writers, if you’re not invited to these sessions, make sure that you are! Bid directors, If you’re not inviting your bid writers into these sessions, what on earth are you thinking?
Bid writers, Make sure that your contribution is active – ask questions, ask really stupid questions (they are usually the best ones), make suggestions, challenge the status quo where its needs challenging. Bid directors, make sure that you create an atmosphere in which it is safe to challenge. That’s a topic that needs more space than it’s going to get here, but the best teams invite everyone’s contribution to get the right answer.
2. Block out time
Writing takes time. Lots of time. You’re not going to fit it in around the edges of your day. Make sure that you have clear chunks of time blocked out on your calendar to meet each of the deadlines in the bid plan. Make sure those chunks add up to enough time. Make sure that those chunks are non-negotiable and make sure that you use them to write.
Bid writers, make sure that you negotiate with your manager where necessary to remove other priorities and projects from your immediate workload. Bid directors, your writers are there to write, don’t overburden them with other distractions and conflicting work.
One thing that humans are generally lousy at is estimating the amount of time it will take to complete a task. Bid writers are often worse at this than the general population. Be realistic. And make sure your Bid director is being realistic as well. If the turnarounds in the bid plan are too tight, then tell them at the outset. If you’re a people pleaser by nature, catch yourself before you sign up to deliver something that is undeliverable.
So, how much time? With a clear storyboard and all the evidence/data required, an experienced bid writer can turn out 750-1000 draft standard words per hour. On balance, a good rule of thumb would be that a good writer can produce 1,500-2,000 high quality, review standard words per day, allowing for research, etc.
3. Block out distractions
Open plan offices can be a real pain for a Bid writer with a deadline. Ideally, you need a ‘war room’, where you can sit and focus. If that’s not possible, get out of the office. Work from home, sit in a coffee shop, get away from the inevitable taps on the shoulder and general back and forth that the office invites. You might need to negotiate flexibility on where you work with your manager, but good organisations will value getting the work done over presenteeism.
Turn off your email. Set an ‘out of office’ explaining that you are busy and at what times you will be checking and responding to your email. I’d suggest first thing and last thing. Turn off social media. No, seriously, turn it off. Really. You can live without it. Turn off your phone. Turn it all off! (You might need or want to keep a channel of communication open for an emergency – professional or personal – but you really need to shut out all of the distractions). You can keep your web browser open, for research (Google is the Bid writer’s best friend), but don’t even think about logging into Facebook…
Personally, I like some music when I write, as it helps me focus. Get a good pair of headphones. Choose something that gets you in the zone. Personally, anything with lyrics is going to distract me, so I have a variety of instrumental playlists, that take in classical, jazz, ambient and electronic stuff. I used to use focusatwill.com and would still recommend it, but right now my Apple Music subscription is paying for itself!
4. Get started
There’s not a lot else to say here, but get started. Procrastination is your enemy here. White space is a terror. Get something on there. Just write. Practically, it’s easier to start working with something rather than nothing. Emotionally, your stress levels reduce dramatically and your sense of control increases significantly when you see characters flowing onto the screen. If you are really, really struggling then I recommend you read The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield. It’s an amazing breakdown of the creative process and will change your life.
4. Don’t copy and paste
When you’ve written a lot of bids, this is a dangerous trap to fall into. Teams with access to a large, historic bid library are at even greater risk. Firstly, no two bids are ever the same, even if the questions are broadly similar. Secondly, never assume that you can’t improve upon last time. Thirdly, it just makes for lazy writing that doesn’t fit well with the rest of the bid. There’s no better way to end up with a messy patchwork quilt of a bid than by stitching together your ‘greatest hits’ of previous bid answers.
That doesn’t mean to say that you shouldn’t beg, borrow and steal from your best previous work – all great art is theft, right? – but always, always write from scratch. Have a past piece open next to you, but resist the temptation to touch [CMD + C]!
5. Never mind the gaps
When you are getting that first draft down, don’t stop. If there are gaps, mark them and fill them in later. Don’t interrupt your flow. Your first draft copy might contain lots of Xs and Ys. That’s good. What you are looking for here is the shape, structure and direction of the answer. If you don’t have all of the information you need, you can get it later.
Don’t be afraid to write a sentence that looks like this: ‘To ensure our service meets local needs, we met with XXXX from XXXX Council, who told us that there was a high concentration of YYYY groups in YYYY ward. As a result, we have formed a partnership with ZZZZ who will deliver AAAA specialist services to engage and support these residents.’
Your operations and partnership team should be able to fill these gaps. If not, well, that’s a different problem!
5. Polish, polish, polish
Your first draft is not going to be the finished product. Get used to refining and honing your writing up until the very last minute. Bid writing – like any other writing – is 99% perspiration. Polish, polish, polish. Make sure every sentence does something useful. Make sure every word is the right word. Argue it out with your team-mates. Don’t settle with your first or second draft. You’ll never get to perfection, but you should be trying.
6. Get perspective
You can’t polish without perspective. You can give yourself some by taking a break. Go for a walk. Read something. Grab lunch and don’t take the bid with you. You also need other people’s perspective. Get lots of feedback. Share your work with other writers on the team and get feedback.
Ask questions. If you don’t understand something about your solution, talk to the solution lead. If you don’t understand the financial model, speak to the commercial modeller. If you need to get a better understanding of how your organisation handles TUPE (always a thrilling question to be allocated) then talk to your HR Director.
Sit in the bid review meetings. If you’ve got external consultants or associates supporting, get their insight and benefit from their experience. The more input you get, the better your response will be.
7. Lose your ego
And finally, you can’t take any of this personally. Great bids are the result of a team effort. It’s not your work, it’s the whole team’s. It’s not your voice, it’s the organisation’s voice. If you want to express yourself, get on with that novel in your spare time!
Your job as a Bid writer is to channel the best thinking of your Bid director, your solution team, your whole organisation and tell the story. If you can start to think like this, you start to find feedback a whole lot easier. And you’ve got to get good at taking feedback. Under pressure, looking for the best answer, there’s not always time to be gentle. Pink and Red Reviews are tough to go through, but put your hurt feelings to one side and make sure you get all the information you need to make the next draft better.
Which of these tips do you find most helpful?
What can you do today to make sure this bid is your best work?
Do you have any other tips or strategies to be a better bid writer?