Proposal Writing: How an Unexpected Freelance Gig Paid $12,000

The lucrative land of proposal writing. Makealivingwriting.com

When I got a random phone call from a prospect about a proposal writing gig, I was curious.

“I need help writing an RFP [request for proposal] for a multi-year, multi-million dollar cyber security contract for a government agency,” the person said. “The deadline is in 30 days. Can you help me?”

You can make a lot of money doing this kind of work, right? That’s what I thought. But I had my doubts.

Months before this unexpected phone call, I did a lot of leg work to try and land proposal writing gigs and government contract work. And nothing happened.

I navigated clunky government websites and studied the jargon. I registered my writing business on sites like the System for Award Management and FedBizOpps where you can find contracts. I tried to land big contracts, then smaller ones without success.

It seemed like a lost cause. And then this prospect found me on one of those government sites for contractors.

I bid $12,000 for the work, and the client accepted. Here’s what the proposal writing process looked like:

Proposal writing basics

When a business or government agency needs goods or services, they often send out an RFP [request for proposal] to an approved list of vendors (writing is a service, you can be a vendor.) It’s why I spent so much time getting listed on those government contracting sites.

What is an RFP? It’s a document that describes in great detail what an organization needs and wants to purchase. For example: a website redesign, a remodel project, chairs and desks, computers, or in this case cybersecurity services. These are some common RFP requests.

Why an RFP? The primary reason businesses and government agencies use RFPs is to collect competitive bids for goods or services.

What’s in an RFP? A lot of writing. Besides quoting a price, RFPs also have to make a compelling case to help the contractor win the project and may require information such as:

  • Corporate history and information
  • Financial reports
  • Technical capabilities
  • Inventory availability
  • Case studies of similar projects
  • Customer service/support
  • Education, background, and experience of employees
  • Ability to meet project deadline
  • Warranty information

Fee factors for proposal writing

There wasn’t any time to waste when my prospect called. I was thrilled to learn the company had already won millions of dollars in contracts, and that my forgotten government profiles are still floating around out there, and still categorize me as a writer. I quoted $12,000 and the client accepted. There was no negotiation process.

Why such a high fee? It was a lot of work to complete this RFP and meet the deadline (4,000-plus words for eight pieces of the proposal, writing and editing a lot of technical content, and of course the drop-everything short time frame) The factors I considered were:

  • Level of effort: Took two writers, one editor to get the job done
  • Knowledge required: Government proposals for the cybersecurity industry
  • Time frame: Had to rearrange my schedule to accommodate the job on short notice. We had a couple of rounds of edits to tighten up the drafts. Some of the revisions were required in less than 24 hours, and the price reflected that deadlines were non-negotiable.

Steps to success

I knew that this job might segue to a great relationship with a new client that might offer future corporate writing opportunities at great rates. I had one shot, on a tight schedule, to provide outstanding service. Here’s what made the job a success:

Experience
The help this client needed was right in line with my past experience.

Teamwork
I maintain a wide network of writers and often collaborate, and so should you. Bigger opportunities depend on it. I reached out to a writer I met a couple of years ago in the Freelance Writers Den. I also enlisted my longtime editor, who has a strong government background.

Dependability
The three of us completed eight pieces of work for the RFP that the client was very happy with. And of course we met the deadline.

Value
The price I quoted reflected the expected effort and our expertise, but also the rather intense schedule shuffling we’d have to do to accommodate a very short timeline with virtually no advance notice.

If you want to land proposal writing gigs…

Get your name out there. Sign up on your neighborhood small business directory. Join professional organizations. Sign up on sam.gov and fbo.gov. Beef up your online professional presence on your website, LinkedIn, etc., to be more visible and generate inbound leads.

Get it done. When opportunity presents itself, be 110 percent reliable. Answer the phone. Return emails. Pay attention. Read the materials your client sends to you. Put the effort in to do a great job.

Be fair. Don’t shortchange yourself. If a potential client asks you to do a rush job, let your price reflect that. At the same time, don’t take advantage. Remember, the end goal is to land a great client that you can work with for a long time.

When this proposal writing assignment was complete, the client immediately asked if we were available to help on the next one. That is all the assurance I need to know that the job went well.

Have questions about proposal writing? Let’s discuss in the comments below.

Kimberly Rotter is a freelance writer, blogger, and editor based in San Diego, Calif., who doesn’t watch TV. She also runs the website An Army of Writers.

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50 comments on “Proposal Writing: How an Unexpected Freelance Gig Paid $12,000
  1. Kimberly, congrats on landing this gig!

    I was wondering how does the pay structure work for the sub-contractors? What’s considered a fair rate?

    I know that you need an EIN and Dunn & Bradstreet numbers, both relatively easy to obtain but do you have to have a business license to pursue government contract work?

    I move around every three to four years – my spouse is military – and paying for a business license each time could become costly. TIA

    Janet

    • Hi Janet,
      That’s a really great question. Pay structure for subs is something I have to evaluate job by job. My quote to the client includes a fee that covers my time managing the job, client meetings, all the research and recruiting I’ve done and continue to do to establish a network and bring on writers who have exactly the right qualifications, and so on. For this job all the writers had at least a Master’s degree and most of us had previous technical writing experience. This job also included high level editorial work before the client ever saw a draft. For a job like this the base pay should come out to at least $100/hr, and with the rush aspect, $140 is totally realistic. That said, it’s on each writer to focus focus focus and get the job done efficiently. If the person is a perfect fit and can get the job done quickly, they could potentially make more per hour. The price I quote is in the $2-$3 range per word, depending on the job. For $3 per word you better be able to show outstanding results. 🙂 The writer is going to get a minimum of $1.25 per word and the editor generally gets at least $0.50.

      As for a business license for govt contracts — I honestly can’t tell you the answer because I have never actually won a government contract. I have only been hired as the writer to help companies that are bidding. I would assume that you should have one.

      In San Diego it’s $55 each year whether you’re new to the area or not. In many cities it’s cheaper. I don’t think moving around will substantially increase the cost of remaining licensed, except that you might have to pay for a new license more than once in a 12 month period. For that price, I encourage you to always have a current license. Some clients require that you maintain insurance, and you can’t get insurance without the license.

      I guess I just like to have all paperwork in order. Doing business unlicensed is illegal pretty much everywhere in the US, and leaves you open to legal issues. I don’t want to do anything that might attract attention I don’t want, like an audit.

      • Thanks for the response, I have a better understanding. I wasn’t sure if a flat rate scenario worked best in this type of situation. But $1.25 per word rate isn’t bad as the sub-contractor.

        I’m looking into insurance and licensing – just was curious about this before I have my consultation with an attorney to discuss my unique situation. Since I’m a military spouse, I’ve learned of some unique opportunities and just wanted to be prepared to ask the right questions.

        Janet

        • Carol Tice says:

          My contract with a transit agency, I did have to show them proof I had a business owner’s insurance policy. And of course state licensing, especially if you’re dealing with a state agency, is going to be a must.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Janet, you renew your license annually anyway, so it shouldn’t make a huge difference as you move, though you can get socked in the transition year, that just happened to me. ;-( But hey, it’s a write-off. And yes, you’ll likely need it for government contract work. I don’t know how you get a DUNS without being registered with your state.

      • Carol, you are right I’d need the license to get the DUNS number. I watched some videos at the sba.gov website regarding contracting it’s an excellent overview of how the process works. It seems time-consuming but worth the effort in the long run.

  2. William Schietroma says:

    Interesting article Carol, could writing for a historical society or composing
    a newsletter in the area where I am living be possible. I live in Blairsville Pa the birth of the underground Railroad. This is a area with a lot of Historical land sites such as the French and Indian War and the Civil war at Gettysburg Pa and the Colonial Settlers who had to deal and relate with the locale Indian tribes. Although with could be another concept or finding inroads into these sites such as Gettysburg PA there it probably would need some sort of research process into these Historical events.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Kind of off the topic of this post about proposal writing, William. But…writing a newsletter, on your own or for a historical society, is certainly doable…the question is whether it would be lucrative. My guess is not very.

      I’d try to connect with the local tourism bureau and see if they’d like writing help, as they’ve got the pooled money of all the local businesses to work with for marketing.

      • William Schietroma says:

        Thank you Carol great idea, although most Historical site may be fund by Non profit locale Governments for Travel or public relation thanks again for your advice

    • Bob Hazlett says:

      The area you live in is overflowing with material for every kind of writing. I agree that newsletters probably would not be profitable, but they might be a good source for picking up By Lines. There are many websites that focus on history “Travel Thru History” is one of my favorites. Also consider the Historical Fiction genre as well as Creative non-fiction. It would take three lifetimes to use up all the possibilities in your location.
      Bob Hazlett recently posted…Why?My Profile

      • William Schietroma says:

        Thank you Bob I will check it out or Alternative history could be another topic

  3. On a related topic that was touched on in the comments:

    Any course, web site, association, etc., that would be a good place to learn how to write a grant? Sounds very similar to a proposal, but different funding source. And does anyone know, do you need to be a non-profit to get any sort of grant? Or just certain types of grants?

    Thanks!

    • Carol Tice says:

      Sharon, my experience is most freelance grantwriters come into it with a track record of grantwriting from a day job. You can always break in by finding a small nonprofit and writing a grant for them as a volunteer.

      I personally got into this by writing 3 proposals when I edited a small alternative paper — and 2 of them were funded. Got me an intern with one of them! I found slavishly following their directions on what they wanted to hear, plus studying past winners, was the winning formula.

      Believe there are professional grantwriting associations — they might be a good place to start if you want to learn academically about it, but my experience is simply getting out and doing proposals is a better way to learn. And yes, nonprofits get grants, generally speaking, not businesses.

    • One thing I’ve seen people do is volunteer to help write grants for their favorite nonprofits. That gets you some experience and possibly even some mentoring.

  4. kareen says:

    Proposal Writing is new for me. Your sharing about its basics, Fee factors, Steps to success is really helpfull. I think I need a long time to study one by one. Hope we can discuss details in near future 🙂

    • If you can do corporate marketing, you can probably do RFP responses. Just be prepared to work fast! Check out the other comments on the post. There are some helpful suggestions from Carol and others.

  5. Great post! I’ve never considered RFP writing in my freelance work but this post breaks things down very well. This looks like a larger project since it required two writers and an editor. Have you come across many RFP projects that are fit for one writer or are they mostly large projects like this one?

    • There are plenty of RFPs that can be answered by one writer, especially if you can work one-on-one with the company insiders who have the info that you need. It really depends on the size of the required response, which can be anywhere from a few pages to hundreds, and the time frame given to respond. It’s probably not a hard and fast rule, but I imagine the bigger the value of the contract at stake, the more work will probably be involved.

    • Bob Hazlett says:

      Be clear: The government writes the Request for Proposal (RFP); contractors respond with proposals (P). Your writing opportunities are most likely with companies writing proposals. So seek opportunities as a ‘proposal’ writer not as an ‘RFP’ writer.

      I guess it is possible for a government agency to hire someone to help write the RFP, but I have never heard of that.
      Bob Hazlett recently posted…A Red DressMy Profile

  6. Maria Veres says:

    So most of the work is in writing RFPs, not writing the proposals themselves? This is a little confusing to someone who knows nothing about government writing. Professor Google tells me that RFPs are usually written by buyers or procurement organizations (would these be government agencies??), and proposals are prepared by vendors (or by sales and marketing agencies contracted by vendors). Correct?

    • Bob Hazlett says:

      Yes. Right on both counts. Both the RFP and the P are usually very big technical writing jobs. Government writes the RFP specifying what they want. Contractors write proposals specifying how they will do it, on what schedule, and at what cost. The Government then does a “Source Selection” to pick the winner based on the Proposals submitted.
      Bob Hazlett recently posted…A Red DressMy Profile

    • Bob Hazlett says:

      For both parties this is high pressure writing with a lot riding on the outcome. If you ever get a chance to participate, clear your calendar, and fasten your seatbelt.
      Bob Hazlett recently posted…A Red DressMy Profile

    • Maria,
      Yes, you are correct that the issuing organization creates the RFP (Request for Proposals, or sometimes called a solicitation) and what the writer works on is actually a response to it, or the proposal. Each proposal is usually made up of several parts, for example an executive summary, a technical description and a case study. Sometimes there are several subsections within the RFP, and each subsection requires its own set of documents in the response. So one full response could amount to hundreds of pages.

  7. Chanoa Tarle says:

    So that’s another way to collaborate with my network of writers – huge, last minute projects! Excellent.

  8. Bob Hazlett says:

    During the first half of my career I worked for the Defense Department and I wrote several RFPs. During the second half, I worked for two defense contractors and I wrote the Ps to respond to the RFPs. This is high stakes, big bucks, no nonsense writing. Imagine writing either the RFP or the P to develop and build the B-2 Bomber.

    Growing up in that world, I had to relearn how to write when I switched to creative writing. If you grew up in creative writing, you will go mad trying to learn how to write in governmentize.

  9. christine champ says:

    What if you have no experience in proposal writing? Do you know a good way to gain that experience? I see a lot of proposal writer jobs out there and they also seem to offer steady remote work which I’m currently looking for. Thanks!

    • Carol Tice says:

      I think there are plenty of opportunities to do one of these pro bono — though you’d want to pick something small to volunteer on! It’s similar to grantwriting, which is easy to find volunteer gigs on for small nonprofits, in that there are usually public instructions you can follow on exactly what they’re looking for in the grant.

      The other way to go is to upsell existing clients, if you find you have any that are going after government or large-corporate RFP bids. Start letting them know you’re available for RFP work and would appreciate their referrals — and as Kimberley said, network network network.

      • christine champ says:

        So you think it makes more sense to do some pro bono grant writing and then leverage that experience to get a proposal gig? Thanks for the great info Carol!

        • Carol Tice says:

          Or ideally find some small business that’s just entering the world of bidding on RFPs — and you know where you could find those? Your local SBDC.

          Ask your local SBA or Small Business Development office about it — they teach classes on how to get into government contracting, and if you could network in there, you’d probably meet some small business owners who’d be THRILLED to get the help, and probably would be starting small with simpler RFPs. That could give you a leg up.

          Likewise, if you’re near a major multinational that puts out RFP requests, you might try to network with them and see if you could sit in on their new vendor day and offer your services there to companies that are new to the bidding process.

          • christine champ says:

            Thanks! I have been looking into proposal writing for a while because of the higher pay and remote option. Also medical writing. But I have experience in neither so was stumped. Your article and comments are super helpful!

        • Carol’s suggestions are great. And the truth is, I didn’t get this job because I had RFP experience. I got the job because (A) they found me (super important!!) and (B) I had technical writing experience, and more specifically, for government contractors, so it was a good fit for my skills. The final piece of the puzzle was for me to grab confidence by the reins and say, yes, I can do this. Big government forms can be intimidating, but corporate marketing is corporate marketing, and that’s what a proposal is, essentially. It’s just on a document instead of a company’s home page. I knew I would succeed because one of my strongest professional skills is to know when to ask for help and how to get the right kind.

          I hope you can get two takeaways from this post. One, that together we can do much more than the sum of what we can do individually, and two, think outside the box for new places to apply your existing skills.

    • Sue Chehrenegar says:

      I took an extension course on grant writing. I was doing lab research at that time, and the head of our lab urged the research associates to learn how to write a grant proposal.

  10. Elaine Porteous says:

    There are lots of similar freelance opportunities to do this type of work in the private sector as well. One of my areas of work is the drafting of the RFPs that corporate clients send out and then evaluating the bidders’ responses to them. The quality of the responses that come in varies a lot; it is dependent on the level of experience and technical ability of the bid writers. I would encourage anyone wishing to enter this niche to join the Association of Procurement Management Professionals (APMP) and do the short Foundation Course. This accreditation carries real weight with potential clients in both the private and government sectors in the US.

    • Great suggestion. I will definitely look into that. This was an unusual opportunity that showed me that I would love to do more.

    • Carol Tice says:

      I’d never heard of this organization — thanks for sharing that info, Elaine! But it’s a good point that large corporations do also put contracts out for bid. If you’re targeting one of those, ask them about ‘new vendor day’ type activities, where you might be able to come to a meet and greet and learn about their bidding requirements.

  11. Sue Chehrenegar says:

    I once learned about a request for RFPs when I was a reporter at a meeting of our local City Council. The city was planning to put a restaurant inside one of its public buildings. I knew a restaurant owner in the neighborhood that might want to respond to that request. I spoke with that same restaurant owner the next day, and he paid me to write and submit the proposal.

  12. Another great example of why it’s so important to get your name out there. Thank you sharing your experience, Kimberly. And congrats on landing the gig!
    Caitlyn Andrews recently posted…3 Simple Tips to Help Content Writers Overcome Writer’s BlockMy Profile

    • Thank you! Yes, networking networking networking, year after year, widened the job net and also helped me develop a really superb group of professionals with whom I love working.

  13. Maria says:

    Any way to see a sample RFP?
    Maria recently posted…New Release: Throwing The Light by KA ServianMy Profile

    • Sure. You can see the RFP we worked on. It’s public information. I can’t get comment submitted when I include the URL so just visit rotterwrites.com and then type /sample-rfp at the end of the URL.

      You’ll see the instructions beginning on page 14 of the PDF. I worked on answering two of the seven “lots.” Each lot has specific requirements.

      It looks a little more complicated than it is. To respond to an RFP, you need to explain to the issuing agency exactly why you are the perfect contractor for the job. It’s marketing, to a large extent, and they give you a leg up by telling you in the RFP exactly what they want to see in your answer.

      There are very strict page limits, so that helps the bidding company and writers prioritize what content to include.

      So, the skills are in the technical writing and the ability to parse out what they are looking for in the RFP.

      • Carol Tice says:

        Beyond that, all winning RFP bids are public records, Maria, so you can readily find many online to read. If you’re stumped, call any agency you’re interested in and ask them where they publish their winning bid information.

    • Maria says:

      Thank you so much. This is really informative.
      Maria recently posted…New Release: Throwing The Light by KA ServianMy Profile

  14. Kyle says:

    Great to hear there are truly lucrative opportunities out there for writers like us … thanks for the inspiration!