Your organization has successfully identified a grant funding opportunity prospect in a timely fashion, allowing your team the full four weeks to pull together a competitive grant proposal before the submission deadline. An in-house style guide can help ensure your proposal's success.

How a proposal team can effectively write with one voice

The lead writer, and proposal manager, has pulled together the team of contributors to this complex federal grant application, and you’ve had a kick-off meeting to review writing assignments and the timeline with due dates for application section drafts. The lead writer is working on the Needs Statement of the project narrative and subject matter experts (SMEs) have been assigned other sections of the project narrative (e.g., Approach, Evaluation, Organizational Background, and Qualifications) and required attachments (e.g., staffing plan, logic model).

Before the submission deadline, the lead writer has been tasked with pulling together all components of the project narrative into a single document and doing the final review and edits on the required attachments. This is when a style guide can support the lead writer and all contributing writers/SMEs in pulling together an application that is consistent in voice and brand.

What is a style guide?

A style guide or style sheet is defined in the book "Writing Business Bids & Proposals for Dummies" as “Writing guidelines for authors so they can work separately from others and still deliver content that meets a single standard. Saves time and effort for lone proposal writers working because it reminds them of issues easily forgotten, such as word usage, formatting, grammar, and spelling.”

Style guides help ensure consistency, and that consistency gives your grant proposal a polish that can set it apart from others.

Key benefits of a style guide

As outlined by Ashley Kayes, CP APMP, in “Why You Should Always Establish a Proposal-Specific Style Guide,” there are at least four key benefits of a style guide:

  • Promote proposal consistency
  • Streamline the editing process
  • Make your process more efficient
  • Save you time later in the process

As a former proposal writer for managed care companies pursuing competitive RFP opportunities for Medicaid, Medicare, Medicare/Medicaid dual-eligible, and Marketplace contracts, I recall the importance of consistency and branding of a corporation’s naming conventions for affiliates as well as products and maintaining compliance with trademark law. Similarly, for mission-driven direct services grant applicants, consistency in naming of service delivery sites, program names, service lines, etc., is particularly important especially because external grant reviewers will likely not know your market, service area geography, etc.

For example, one of three area agencies on aging in metropolitan Detroit may be called by several names, including their service area name, Area Agency on Aging 1-A, their organizational name, Detroit Area Agency on Aging, or the acronym DAAA. However, a style guide would give a consistent naming convention so proposal reviewers would not be confused about the applicant organization’s identity.

Another key benefit of style guides is guidance on the use of punctuation, spacing, and acronyms as a means of strategizing around application mandatory space limitations (e.g., character or word count or page limitations). Examples of typical guidance on the use of punctuation include directions on when to use the “common dash,” or “em dash” (a dash the length of a capital M, —) versus when to use the “en” dash (a dash the length of a capital N, –). Another common example of punctuation guidance is on how to punctuate bulleted lists.

Tips on what to include In your organization’s proposal style guide

Most instructions on developing your organization’s internal style guide recommend that you start first by deciding on an existing style guide that you would use as the basis (with a few modifications as appropriate that are relevant to your industry and/or your organization). Commonly the Chicago Manual of Style or the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook are recommended among others.

Style guides typically will include a “general section” regarding style. Often, whether writing grant proposals or corporate proposal responses to competitive RFPs for contracts, it is suggested that applicants write in an active rather than passive voice. As defined by Merriam-Webster, in “active” voice, “the subject of the sentence is the one doing the action expressed by the verb.” For example, as stated in “active voice” on NCOA’s website, “NCOA provides resources that help older adults maintain their well-being and independence.” Contrast this to the “passive voice” statement, “Resources to help older adults maintain their well-being and independence are provided by NCOA.” Active voice statements are shorter, clearer, and more powerful than passive voice statements.

In addition to general writing guidance, items in a proposal or grant writing style guide might include:

  • Brand and company-specific guidelines
  • Punctuation conventions
  • Unique organizational brand words or phrases as well as words or phrases specific to your industry
  • Acronyms
  • Numbering rules
  • List styles, including bulleted and numbered lists with specified levels and indentations.


To learn more about the rationale, development, and benefits of style guides, visit:

This project was supported, in part by grant number 90CSSG0048 and 90FPSG0051 from the U.S. Administration for Community Living, Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C. 20201. Grantees undertaking projects under government sponsorship are encouraged to express freely their findings and conclusions. Points of view or opinions do not, therefore, necessarily represent official Administration for Community Living policy.