Beware of Three Syntax Sins when Writing Business Proposals

Sometimes the writing voice that speaks with confidence in your mind can trick you. Internally, you sound powerful, in control, and impressive.

On paper, however, it can be a very different story.

Poor syntax takes the confident writing voices in our heads and garbles it into an ineffective, hesitant sounding mush. We might not realize it because, frankly, we are used to seeing poor syntax in business writing. So the weak, timid-voiced writing passes through our proofreading radar unnoticed.

Beware of the following three deadly sins of poor syntax when writing business proposals. If you eliminate these problems, your proposal will shine with confidence.

1. Refine Your Clarity

Don't write with passivity. writing-business-proposals-good-syntax-image

The passive voice likes to place the center of your sentence's action -- the subject that's doing the verb -- at the end of the sentence: i.e. "The sales numbers were calculated by John," which should be "John calculated the sales numbers." Here's a quick fix: if you scan your proposal for any use of the word "by," you will catch many of your passive sentences. 

The passive voice does have its uses, however. Its mild, cool-headed rhythm can be useful for conveying a business-like tone. But do not use it in excess.

Strip your sentences of adverbs -- those little words we like to sprinkle into sentences to amplify our verbs and adjectives.

It's amazing how clean, crisp, and powerful a sentence becomes when you strip the adverbs from it. Good novelists discovered this trick ages ago. However, you don't need a long list of adverbs to do this syntax cleanse. Just scan your manuscript for the most common offenders: the word "very" and any word that ends with "-ly" and remove it from the proposal. Your sentences will drop their excess weight and fly.


Before adverbs removed: Our CEO very happily confirmed that the incredibly effective new product line has attracted amazingly quick responses from very influential investors in a highly competitive market.

After adverbs removed: Our CEO confirmed that the effective new product line has attracted immediate responses from influential investors in a competitive market.

Of course, adverbs do have their purpose. Sometimes they help with tone and the rhythm of a sentence. But use them judiciously.

2. Drop the Jargon

Using jargon creates a sense of insecurity.

It's also annoying and distracting.

What is jargon, exactly?

It's the language of the business cultures we inhabit. Have you ever been asked what the primary takeaway was from the meeting, instead of, "What did you take away from that meeting?"

That's a classic example of jargon turning verbs into nouns.

But jargon also turns nouns into verbs -- called "verbing."

About Education publishing an article about verbing, and it used a dialogue from a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon to make its point:

Calvin: I like to verb words.

Hobbes: What?

Calvin: I take nouns and adjectives and use them as verbs. Remember when "access" was a thing? Now it's something you do. It got verbed. . . . Verbing weirds language.

Hobbes: Maybe we can eventually make language a complete impediment to understanding.

That's exactly what jargon does; it turns language into a barrier for understanding.

The solution is simple: look for unconventional language or insider's terms specific to your work culture and replace them with plain, clear language. Jargon steals some of the professional sheen from your proposal. And, your proposal will be misunderstood if the client doesn't speak the same jargon.

3. Use Correct Terms: Avoid Lazy Proofreading

Triple-proof your text to ensure you used the correct terms specific to your client's work. Incorrect terms, even if from human error, make you appear ignorant. Your reader will not trust you if you're misusing technical language and terminology.

Do the extra work of checking your sources and brushing up on the proper terminology for the subject.

Sometimes simple writing fatigue causes these errors. Try to avoid rush jobs that depend on late night proofreading. If you know the job will require an all night work session, try to schedule time the next day to do more proofreading when you have fresh eyes. When you are very familiar with a document, it's always best to let a day lapse before you proofread. Your eye becomes so accustomed to the document that it becomes very easy to miss an error.

Our online business proposal writing course will help you avoid these three deadly sins of bad syntax and fill your proposals with a powerful, effective, and confident voice. 

 Review Proposal Course Outline

Mary Cullen

About the author

Mary Cullen

Mary founded Instructional Solutions in 1998, and is an internationally recognized business writing trainer and executive writing coach with two decades of experience helping thousands of individuals and businesses master the strategic skill of business writing. She excels at designing customized business writing training programs to maximize productivity, advance business objectives, and convey complex information. She holds a B.A. in English from the University of Rhode Island, an M.A. in English Literature from Boston College, and a C.A.G.S. in Composition and Rhetoric from the University of New Hampshire.

Read Mary Cullen's Full Bio

Want to beacome a professional in Business Writing?

Whatever you write, Instructional Solutions teaches a proven process to synthesize and communicate complex information. For teams and individuals.