RFP Responses: Not Victorian Scientific Monographs

Brevity is not just the soul of wit, it is a key target in all RFP response writing. And where one cannot be brief, one must use layout techniques, like bullets, that help evaluators see your content at a glance. Long sentences and paragraphs work against your objective: getting good marks for your content. We can all take a lesson from Charles Darwin in this regard . . .

“If, during the long course of ages and under varying conditions of life, organic beings vary at all in the several parts of their organisation, and I think this cannot be disputed; if there be, owing to the high geometrical powers of increase of each species, at some age, season, or year, a severe struggle for life, and this certainly cannot be disputed; then, considering the infinite complexity of the relations of all organic beings to each other and to their conditions of existence, causing an infinite diversity in structure, constitution and habits, to be advantageous to them, I think it would be a most extraordinary fact if no variation had occurred useful to each being’s own welfare, in the same way as so many variations have occurred useful to man.  But if variations useful to any organic being do occur, assuredly individuals thus characterised will have the best chance of being preserved in the struggle for life; and from the strong principle of inheritance, they will tend to produce offspring similarly characterised.  This principle of preservation, I have called, for the sake of brevity, Natural Selection.” (Darwin, 1859)

In the context of a book on natural selection published in 1859, such a passage evidently did not require editorial intervention.  Presumably, Victorian readers were prepared to read such a passage.

In the context of a book on the Galapagos published in 1993 (Galapagos, A Natural History, Michael H. Jackson) within a section on evolutionary pressures on resident flora and fauna, such a quoted passage does not require editorial comment.  Presumably, modern readers interested in the topic are prepared to wade through it.

In the context of an RFP response, such a passage does not necessarily require editorial comment (although it’s likely to get it), but it does require editorial intervention.  For a certainty, evaluators will not sit still for writing like this.  Moreover, unlike Darwin, most of us lack the capacity to keep track of such a lengthy train of thought within one sentence.  This is why the proposal gods gave us bullets.

On a side note, the definition of, or standard for, “brevity” has changed a tad during th elong course of decades since 1859.  I think this cannot be disputed.

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6 Comments

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6 Responses to RFP Responses: Not Victorian Scientific Monographs

  1. Jim Taylor

    It’s one of the things I teach in Eight-Step Editing (ahem, plug!). In Chaucer’s time, typical sentences averaged around 80 words; in Shakespeare’s time, around 40; in Dickens’ time, around 30 (but that would be fairly short). Today, unless you’re trying to show off, the average sentence needs to be somewhere under 20 words. The great thing about that length is that — assuming a line of text is 10-12 words — you don’t even have to fathom the sentence to see if it needs shortening; if it runs more than two lines, it’s too long.
    Jim

    • Isabel Gibson

      Jim T – I hadn’t heard of that rule of thumb, but it makes sense. Of course, being an iconoclast I am loath to be governed absolutely by any rule, but it’s usually better to err on the side of “too short.” On the other hand, I’ve worked with many technical experts who write like Dick and Jane: “The house is green. The house has three bedrooms. The house is at the corner.” The refusal to link ideas that should be linked for concision and for clarity drives me nuts.

  2. Jim Robertson

    Yes Isabel, I remember that book (Michael Jackson that is). Let me ask a question of you and Jim Taylor. I agree re the 20 plus/minus words per sentence; anything longer and I start to lose my train of thought. But is that not partly a function of the words used in the sentence? But I guess that also fits into the reader’s education level one is aiming at in one’s writing?

    • Isabel Gibson

      Jim R – As you’ll see by now, I’ve never used the “20-word rule” but can see its point and would largely concur. The grade level of the vocabulary matters too – or, perhaps more to the point in technical writing, the degree of jargon. But sentence structure is also crucial. Some folks separate the subject and the verb with all manner of asides, which makes it tough to get the main point.

  3. Jim Taylor

    The under-20-word “rule” — or guideline, or something — is an average. So I will allow a longer sentence (sometimes much longer, especially if I’ve written it!) provided the sentence before and the sentence after are kept really short. In setting up Eight-Step Editing, I tried to focus on flaws that could be easily identified and easily fixed. With long sentences, once you recognize that they’re too long, it’s just a matter of popping in a few periods. Extended subordinate clauses become sentences on their own. The same principle applies to seven other markers– easily identified, relatively easily fixed.
    JimT

    • Isabel Gibson

      Jim T – Yes, my own longer sentences are models of clarity. Sometimes, anyway! Now, I admit, you have me curious about the other seven markers . . .