Effective Proposal-Writing Style (for History students)

Contributed by B. Zakarin, Office of Fellowships, b-zakarin@northwestern.edu
Posted: 2010
Originally written for History students writing proposals for a senior honors thesis, but applicable to all proposal writing                  

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Personal pronouns

Writers use first person (“I,” “my”) when discussing their own interests and plans.  This is appropriate in a research proposal because you will be admitted to the Senior Thesis Program and/or awarded a summer grant.

Well-organized paragraphs and headings

For the most part, writers use topic sentences to signal a paragraph’s key point.  That point often corresponds to a required element, such as “what I want to learn,” “what scholars have previously studied,” or “where I plan to find sources.”  Writers then add details that explain the topic sentence or argue the point it makes.  Also, paragraphs should not be overly long.

In addition to well-organized paragraphs, writers sometimes use headings to identify key sections.  Such organization is helpful because readers often skim the beginnings of sections and paragraphs to find a proposal’s main argument before they go back for details.  Headings and topic sentences highlight a proposal’s structure.

Action-Oriented sentences

A preponderance of sentences should use active voice.  In other words, sentences emphasize who (or what) performs the action:

  • My project will use…
  • The current literature does not show…
  • I contend…
  • I have prepared for this work by…
  • To answer these questions, I will analyze…
  • This project will allow me to…
  • This study focuses on…
  • Bibliographies mention…
  • I need to visit…

Active voice makes sentences shorter and clearer and makes writers sound confident.  Use passive voice when you have a legitimate reason for doing so, such as when the actor is not important or when passive voice promotes coherence.  Consider these examples from the model proposals:

  • Actor is not important
    • “Several Connecticut newspapers circulated in Windham were known for their extreme zealotry.”  It is not necessary for Alex Jarrell to say that the public knew these newspapers for their zealotry.
    • “In the 18th century, prostitutes were increasingly considered to be outside the sphere of womanhood. In the late 1760s, 2069 women were arrested.”  Who “considered” or “arrested” the women is obvious and unimportant for Arianne Urus’s purposes.
  • Promote coherence
    • “Elisabeth Julie Lacroix, for example, was a 49-year-old woman arrested in 1778, who had been abandoned by her husband, out of work four to five days, and without food for one day. Her story is replicated countless times…”  Arianne’s use of the passive voice allows her to keep the focus on Elisabeth’s story.

Active or passive voice is only an issue with action (transitive) verbs, which have objects.  Some sentences simply use state-of-being (intransitive) verbs, such as “is” or “was”:

  • “The New London Gazette is available at the Northwestern Library on microfilm.” (Alex)
  • “Martin Luther King’s status in the community was under fire.” (Casey Kuklick)

These intransitive verbs are often necessary, but in a well-written proposal, active verbs in the active voice will dominate.


Good proposal writers explain their ideas as succinctly as possible.  Most writers start with a proposal that is a little too long.  Then they solicit help from advisors and peer reviewers to trim the fat.  Along with unnecessary background information, you should be vigilant about clunky phrases and excessive qualifying words.  The following strategies for revision will help.

  • Change passive to active voice (see above) 
  • Eliminate “stretcher” sentence openings
    • Wordy: “It is these three facts that call Jones’s theory into question.”
      Concise: “These three facts call Jones’s theory into question.”
    • Wordy: “There were numerous laws in the 1890s that led to the arrests.”
      Concise: “Numerous laws in the 1890s led to the arrests.”
    • Wordy: “It is my contention in this proposal that…”
      Concise: “In this proposal, I contend that…”
    • Wordy: “It is the belief of most scholars that…”
      Concise: “Most scholars believe that…”
  • Avoid nominalizations (i.e., nouns comprised of “hidden” verbs)
    • Wordy: “This project focuses on the analysis of…”
      Concise: “This project will analyze…”
    • Wordy: “Identification and evaluation of the first problem are necessary for resolution of the second.”
      Concise: “We must identify and evaluate the first problem before we can resolve the second.”
    • Wordy: “Most critics are in agreement with this assessment.”
      Concise: “Most critics agree with this assessment.”
  • Eliminate wordy phrases that represent personal writing ticks
    • Wordy: “at this point in time”
      Concise: “now”
    • Wordy: “due to the fact that”
      Concise: “because”
    • Wordy: “at a later time”
      Concise: “later” or “next” or “then”
    • Wordy: “for the purpose of” (as in “for the purpose of determining”)
      Concise: “for” or “to” (as in “for determining” or “to determine”)
    • Wordy: “a majority of”
      Concise: “most”

Effective use of transitions

Transitional words and phrases show how sentences and ideas are related to each other.  Used correctly, they make it easier for readers to follow your argument.  The following transitions at or near the beginnings of sentences will make your logic come through clearly and coherently to readers. 

  • To show results—“therefore,” “as a result,” “consequently,” “thus,” “hence.”
  • To show addition—“moreover,” “furthermore,” “also,” “too,” “besides,” “in addition.”
  • To show similarity—“likewise,” “also,” “similarly.”
  • To show contrast—“however,” “but,” “yet,” “still,” “conversely,” “nevertheless,” “on the other hand” (if you have used “on the one hand” previously).
  • To show examples—“for example,” “for instance,” “specifically,” “as an illustration.”
  • To show sequence or time—“first,” “second,” “third”; “previously,” “now,” “finally,” “later”; “next,” “then.”
  • To show spatial relations—“on the east,” “on the west”; “left,” “right”; “close up,” “far away.”

Repetition and parallelism

As the model proposals show, it is often effective to repeat key terms and phrases:  “I will pursue research in three areas…; I will travel to X in July in order to…; I will then go to Y so that I can…“  The repetition in these sentences helps readers focus on the student’s proposed actions.