Should You Use Plain English in Bids?

‘Is there some sort of rule in [bid] writing that you need to use as many words as possible and as [many] long words as possible to say as little as possible? The use of ridiculously un-plain English in these documents seems to be ubiquitous.’

This question was recently asked in my online Australian Editors and Writers Group.

The responses to the question were varied, but most people, all professional editors and writers, strongly advocated the use of plain English in bids and proposals, as with any other type of document.

Some in the group, while agreeing with the majority opinion, added the caveat that it is necessary to be very careful of not changing the meaning. It’s important to reflect the customer’s/intended audience’s own language, and of being aware of the use of key words and terms, especially in technical documents where misuse or alterations could confuse the meaning.

Setting aside the writer’s question and clear frustration with the language in her bid, as a bid writer and editor of many years’ standing, I pondered to what extent plain English can effectively be used in bids and proposals, especially in highly technical documents that express complex ideas for specialist audiences, and what the barriers might be to its usage.

Bid audiences generally consist of mostly specialist readers and a limited number of more general readers, so careful use of language is important; keeping the wording as straightforward as possible without losing the technical terminology and meaning. Most bid documents contain a number of terms that carry defined meanings and usages, and, in technical areas, the reader is expected to have the professional level of knowledge to understand specific language (i.e. jargon).

There is certainly a risk with rewriting, editing, or paraphrasing technical and/or defined terms in bid and proposal documents. However, in my experience long ungrammatical sentences of technical complexity can be one of the greatest barriers to readability and engagement in the intended meaning, in which even the original writers lose themselves!

There’s another culprit, which is a great barrier to clarity and it’s the use of archaic terms or ‘officialese’. This formal and legalistic language is enshrined in years of tradition with terms such as ‘herewith’ and ‘as a consequence of’, both of which sound weighty and add unnecessary verbiage.

This style obscures meaning, as does more recent, fashionable terminology (e.g. ‘vertical consumption’, ‘moving forward’), which is in favour one year but most likely forgotten the next. Using common language where possible enhances readability by reducing wordiness and helping the reader absorb what you are saying more easily. Plain English, which speaks more directly to the reader, is the most efficient form of communication for this outcome.

Plain language can help even specialist audiences process dense amounts of information more quickly and easily. Too much explanation in writing can be annoying and generally unnecessary. Expert use of plain English will achieve a good balance, where nothing is ‘dumbed down’ but the technical ideas are expressed more clearly. Even the most technical of writing is more readable with the support of good grammar, consistency in language usage and terminology, accuracy in spelling, and clear sentence structure.

After many years’ experience as an editor and writer, working with hundreds of different documents, publications, and writing styles, I believe the best way to achieve readability for your audience and succeed in your purpose (i.e. winning a sale or receiving proposals in response to solicitation documents) is to make sure your ideas are expressed as plainly as possible, while incorporating defined and/or technical language and terms, which clarify meaning for the specialists in your audience, as required.

The Salentis Team are specialists in helping clients produce quality, well-written proposal and other business development documents. At Salentis International, we follow specific style guidelines, while tailoring our practices to align with our customers’ needs and conventions. Our aim is readability, ease of evaluation, and of course, for our clients to be delighted with the end result. If you would like to learn more about bid and proposal support, and how to improve the quality of your tender response documents, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us.

Author – Amanda Morgan

Article published: February 2022

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