Writing proposals using OneNote

In most information based businesses there is a need to write proposals when securing opportunities for your organization. Without proposals there is no easy way to get your client and yourself on the same page when it comes to what you are able to do for them for the ultimate success of your project. There are dozens of tools in the world designed to help you write and manage proposals, some small, some massive, but all with grand promises. I’m going to cut through the promises and focus on using a tool that doesn’t make any claims in this space and yet can be highly effective…OneNote.

When crafting proposals there are six steps most proposals go through: formulation, research, costing, editing, packaging, and delivery. OneNote has the capability to help with all these steps to varying degrees with some planning and forethought. As we walk through this, you’ll hear me referring to notebooks, sections, and pages; three standard features in OneNote that if you’re not familiar with you will want to look into some of the other articles I have posted to help lay the groundwork for putting OneNote in action.


When crafting a proposal, and yes I do mean crafting because anyone who has been in business for a while can easily tell the difference between a proposal written for them and one that has been pulled from a template and re-purposed, it is critical to gather and organize your thinking in the early stages before beginning the writing. In my proposal solution, I create a OneNote notebook for each proposal I am crafting.  At the beginning of the notebook I create a section for each of the six areas (well, I did this once and then use that master notebook as a template for future notebooks to be more productive) and begin capturing the requirements for the proposal in the Formulation section.

By using one page in the section and capturing the requirements and core thinking as individual paragraphs I am able to leverage OneNote’s outlining functionality to not only organize the thoughts structurally but also sequentially. You see, OneNote’s outlining allows you to easily drag and drop paragraphs up and down through the outline structure without having to copy and paste.  I find this makes dynamic re-sequencing of the proposal in the formulation stage extremely simple since I can quickly find the most logical path and relationships between the ideas.

An additional part of the formulation stage is the use of boilerplate content. Now I know I mentioned people can sniff out re-purposed proposals, but the use of boilerplate within a proposal for consistent information and structure can be a huge boon to the efficiency of the process. In my proposal notebooks I have a section called just that, Boilerplate, in which I keep all the paragraphs and sections of reusable content as pages in the section.  When crafting the proposal if there is something I need to reuse, such as a service description, I can make a copy of the page from the Boilerplate section to the Formulation section with just a couple of clicks. By the time I finish the formulation stage I not only have my new content, but my evergreen information, and a logical order all in one place.


Part of the formulation process includes researching supporting information for my proposals. I’ve found this to be invaluable when it comes to backing up recommendations made in the proposals with industry standards, best practices, and cognitive explanations of processes. Rather than copying and pasting all this information into the Formulation pages, I leverage OneNote’s internal linking capability to create links to supporting information at the point of relevance in the proposal. In this way if I need to look up the reference when writing the draft copy the information is only a click away.


Cost planning and projection is one of the linchpins of any proposal because honestly if money weren’t going to change hands the majority of this effort wouldn’t be necessary.  As part of my process I have embedded into the Costing section of the notebook a page with my Excel planning workbook for generating my proposal cost estimates.  The benefit of doing this rather than leaving it out on a share is that the workbook is immediately available and saved in the notebook for reference after the proposal is completed.  If there is any question about the figures and pricing, this can be quickly referenced with a couple of clicks.


Formal proposal writing can be a tedious task at times, with some organizations requiring use of corporately approved proposal templates and others being very loose and free with their structure. I keep several default templates in my Editing section ranging from basic, turnkey service offerings to completely custom and in-depth proposals.

I keep the working copy of the proposal on a page in the Editing section for easy access but also to leverage some of OneNote’s other features. On that same page I place a checklist of tasks needing to be accomplished in the proposal.  Since the proposal is a file that isn’t always open, leveraging the task list on the same page makes quick work of knowing where any proposal stands. I also use the surrounding OneNote page as a scratch pad for the writing process, copying and pasting in screen clippings, working through additional ideas, and making notations on the proposal and the process as a whole.


Proposals usually don’t stand on their own.  I prefer to have the opportunity to not only deliver a written proposal but also a presentation around the proposal content to make sure the concepts contained within are explained clearly and everyone can operate from common ground.  I also found a well crafted presentation can provide compelling anecdotal evidence of capabilities and skills to a potential client. The Packaging section includes the links to presentations, cross references to facts from the Research section relevant to the presentation, and notes for use during the delivery.  Once the proposal is complete, I also place a copy of the finished document in this section as a backup.  A second copy is placed here as a PDF for easy access and as an archival record of the proposal as submitted.


OneNote switches gears when it comes to delivery from a tool used to craft the proposal to one tracking the final stages of the proposal process. In the Delivery section I place copies of email exchanges with the client, notes on discussions and clarifications, and revision updates as needed. Additionally here is a checklist of the remaining steps to reaching what is hopefully a successful proposal.

Putting OneNote to use

OneNote is not the perfect tool for this process (there isn’t one contrary to what the sales people out there will tell you of their representative products) but when it comes to out of the box flexibility I’ve found OneNote to offer a set of adaptable functionality well suited to being a strong proposal solution.


If you or your organization is interested in learning more about how you can put OneNote to work in enhancing your proposal process, drop me a line at art@theideapump.com and lets see what we can do in making your proposal process more productive.