Chapter 17: Proposals

Part 3: Chapter 17

A proposal is essentially a solution to a problem. During the process of writing a proposal, the textbook Rhetoric and Composition explains that it is important to keep your attitude open to change. Like most writing, a proposal evolves and changes because it is a process. If you are too rigid in your thinking processes and goals, you will likely get stuck. Openness to change and a willingness to communicate are key, especially when you are working with an individual or organization you’re directing your proposal.

Preliminary Research

Defining the Problem

Proposals often stem from an individual’s heartfelt wish to address this problem. Although personal conviction and passion can give meaning and drive towards the completion of the proposal, these are not enough. In order to come up with a viable solution, you need to build a solid foundation of research on the problem. You can use online, print, and empirical sources to research the problem (e.g., interviews, field observation, etc.). Gathering this research helps you identify possible solutions and eliminate solutions that will not work. You can also include your research in your proposal to show that you have a working knowledge of the issue, strengthening your credibility.

Writing with the Reader in Mind

As you write your proposal, it is helpful to imagine your real audience. Doing this acts as an anchor because it reminds you that your goal is to explain your ideas to a real person. Once you have your audience in mind, you can begin analyzing what they want by asking a series of questions. The following table demonstrates the importance of moving from vague, general questions to specific questions.

Table 17.1 “From Vague to Specific Questions”
From To
Is my idea any good, anyway? Who will want to buy this idea?
What do I want to say? What does the buyer want to her?
Can I actually write this? How can I target my idea to this specific buyer?
What’s the best way for me to say it? How will that buyer understand it best?
How can I convince anyone to buy this idea? What logic of persuasion or entertainment will attract that buyer?
What do I want to say first? What will this buyer want to know first?
How do I want to organize this proposal? What will the buyer want to know next?
What do I mean to say here? What does this buyer need to hear at this point to be convinced?

By shifting to questions about a real audience, the proposal writer simultaneously reduces their anxiety about their proposal through depersonalization while producing specific answers that will guide the writing process. Although the above chart targets a specific buyer, this kind of analysis can extend to proposals that are not asking for money (although in a sense, anyone who reads your proposal is a “buyer” of your ideas).

Outlining a Solution

In the process of building and organizing ideas, it’s helpful to use a variety of techniques to help you visualize and play with the structure. Mindmaps, sticky notes, and list making are all ways of generating and organizing ideas (you can search Google for free mindmapping software). A mindmap is a visual tool that uses symbols organized spatially to focus on relationships between ideas, usually using arrows.

Proposal sticky note surrounded by point sticky notes

Sticky notes can be made into a mindmap and are convenient because they allow you to easily move ideas around. In addition to using the tools to organize your ideas, you can also do more research to grow your solution. You may find similar projects and determine which aspects make them successful or unsuccessful. Once you have a basic outline of your solution, make a chart of its cost and benefits.

Writing the Proposal


A strong introduction is concise and direct. If you choose to give background information, keep it to a minimum. An introduction should contain the following points in some order or another: topic, purpose, background information, importance of the topic to the readers, and the main point.

Description of the Problem

Follow your introduction with a description of the problem. This should begin by emphasizing why this problem is important and relevant to the reader, followed by its causes and consequences. This section should end with a sense of exigency (creating an urgent need that demands action). Tell the reader what will happen if the problem is not addressed.


The introduction to the main body of your proposal should also be concise (notice a theme here?). State what your proposal is and why it is the best. A short and direct explanation and justification of your proposal establishes credibility early, and prepares the reader to follow the details of your proposal. After this brief overview, you can then provide a detailed, step-by-step explanation of how your plan will be carried out. Your concluding statement should discuss the deliverables of your proposal, that is, the concrete benefits carrying out your proposal.

Costs and Benefits

Prior to your conclusion, you can further support your argument by including a costs and benefits section.


Once again, the conclusion should be short and concise. In it you should restate the thesis, re-stress the importance of the topic, and “look to the future,” which helps the reader visualize how the proposal will result in a brighter future.

Presenting the Proposal

Before you present your proposal, complete a thorough revision and proofread. Your document should be polished, error-free, and represent your best work. Your style should be persuasive and authoritative. Connecting with your audience is important, because you are trying to persuade them to accept your proposal. Rhetorical devices (ethos, pathos, and logos) will enhance your argument. Metaphors and similes can be particularly influential.

At the end of this process, you should be the author of an engaging and thoughtful proposal.

Male Teachers Are Most Likely to Rate Highly in University Student Feedback

Merlin Crossley, Emma Johnston, and Yanan Fan

University students, like many in society, demonstrate bias against women and particularly women from non-English speaking backgrounds.

That’s the take home message from a new and comprehensive analysis of student experience surveys.

The study examined a large dataset consisting of more than 500,000 student responses collected over 2010 to 2016. It involved more than 3,000 teachers and 2,000 courses across five faculties at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), Sydney.

Most bias in science and business

Interestingly, the bias varies.

In parts of science and business the effects are clear. In the science and business faculties, a male teacher from an English-speaking background was more than twice as likely to get a higher score on a student evaluation than a female teacher from a non-English speaking background.

But in other areas, such as arts and social science, the effects are almost marginal. In engineering, effects were only detected for non-English speakers.

When one looks at the probability of scoring very high ratings, and dissects the categories into genders and cultural background, the results are clear. The disparities occur mostly at the very top end: this is where bias creeps in.

Previously the university had looked at just the average (mean) ratings of teachers of different genders, and found that they are more or less indistinguishable (unpublished data). But this new study goes further and provides information that is not evident in superficial analyses.

Should we abandon student feedback?

Student feedback can be a useful mechanism to understand the varied experiences of students. But student feedback is sometimes used inappropriately in staff performance evaluations, and that’s where the existence of bias creates serious problems.

One can make the case for abandoning student feedback – and many have.

But it’s problematic to turn a deaf ear to the student voice, and that is not what national approaches such as the Quality in Learning and Teaching processes (QILT) are doing.

This is because feedback can often be helpful. It can make things better. In addition, it is often positive. Sometimes the feedback is actually the way students say thanks.

However, sometimes it can be very hurtful and damaging, particularly if it is motivated by prejudice. We have to be aware of that and the barriers it can create.

We know that minority groups already suffer from reduced confidence and visibility, so biased teacher evaluations may exaggerate existing inequities.

What do the numbers mean?

It is very important to be cautious when looking at the raw numbers.

Firstly, let’s consider what the numbers mean. Students are not evaluating teaching and learning in these surveys. They are telling us about their experiences – that’s why we call them MyExperience surveys at UNSW. We resist the idea that they are student evaluations of teaching, as are used in some settings.

Peer review can make contributions to evaluating teaching while assessments can help evaluate learning – however they may not be enough to overcome bias. When considering professional performance at UNSW, we do not exclude the feedback that students provide on their experience, but we look at a basket of indicators.

Secondly, one has to be serious about the biases that emerge, acknowledge them and confront the issues. Most universities pride themselves on being diverse and inclusive, and students support this.

But this study reminds us that we have work to do. Biases exist. The message is strong. You are more likely to score top ratings if you come from the category of white male: that is, if you are from the prevailing establishment.

The influence of history

These results may be surprising given the diversity of the student and staff body at Australian universities.

But our cultural milieu has been historically saturated by white males, and continuing biases exist. The important thing is to be aware of them, and when looking at the numbers to realise that the ratings are provided in the context of a particular society at a particular moment in time.

The scores should not be blindly accepted at face value.

Most universities, including ours, are working on being more inclusive. At UNSW a new Deputy Vice-Chancellor Equity, Diversity and Inclusion – Eileen Baldry – was recently appointed, and we are working hard to combat bias and to introduce new strategies aimed at supporting diversity. For example, the university will introduce new training for members of promotion panels, explaining the biases detected in our new study. By understanding the problem, we can begin to address it.

All staff across all of our universities can benefit from becoming more aware of issues around bias – especially those in powerful positions, such as members of promotion committees.

Reducing bias will have great benefits for society as university students represent a large proportion of future leaders in government and industry.

It is clear that negative stereotypes will contribute to the partiality that exists within our student community. Encouraging more women and cultural minorities at all levels in higher education, in leadership positions and in membership of key committees will help shrink these biases.

Training in values

Training students is challenging, especially at large modern universities such as UNSW, which has a cohort of over 50,000 coming from more than 100 countries. But our study found similar levels of bias in local students, as we did in international students.

In training students we have to remember that we provide knowledge, but also communicate values via our words and our behaviours.

If we are to continue to listen to the student experience, we need to be careful with the results. Rigorous statistical analyses such as this study, can help us recognise bias and work to address it. If our students graduate with less bias than when they entered their degree, we will be contributing to creating a more equitable and inclusive society in the future.

It is not easy to uproot prejudices but the data are clear. We expect people will be on board and be pleased to contribute to moving things in the right direction.


Merlin Crossley is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic and Professor of Molecular Biology, University of New South Wales. Emma Johnston is Professor and Dean of Science, UNSW. Yanan Fan is Associate Professor of Statistics, UNSW.

Male Teachers Are Most Likely to Rate Highly in University Student Feedbackby Merlin Crossley, Emma Johnston, and Yanan Fan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Adapted from “Chapter Three” of Rhetoric and Composition, 2013, used under creative commons CC BY-SA 3.0

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