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BY: Guest Author - William Magrino
The professional proposal writing courses at Rutgers University are built around a single concept – that students learn how to write in the business and technical fields through ownership of their ideas. In line with our learner-centered philosophy, these courses are designed to assist students in building a proposal, in a very real way, from the ground up. The development of their proposals is based on a heuristic we constructed, known as the Six P’s. This is a concept that students put into practice very early in the writing process, and carry with them throughout the rest of their course. For each consecutive assignment, leading up to the project proposal, the development of the Six P’s assists each student in understanding the information accumulated up to a given point and, more importantly, where he or she needs to go in the research process. The two distinct courses that follow the Six P model, Writing for Business and the Professions and Scientific and Technical Writing, are our most popular professional writing courses by far – together serving over one thousand undergraduate students each academic year.
The sequence of the Six P’s matches the order in which they will appear in the final project proposal, which is the capstone assignment of the course. The first P, patron, refers to the intended funding source for the proposal. The second P, population, indicates the potential beneficiaries of the proposal. The third P, problem, is the issue that needs to be addressed. The fourth P, known as paradigm, is the researched justification for the plan of action. The fifth P, plan, is the delineated, step-by-step plan of action. Finally, the sixth P, price, represents the final budget for the full proposal. These proposals require research at every step of the way. From selecting a funding source that will represent their patron all the way to justifying the itemized costs for their project in the price, every choice made must be justified.
One of the major hurdles that students face in these courses is striking a balance between originality and working with existing modes of inquiry, which we term as paradigms. Frequently, they will ask, “where is the room for creativity and ingenuity if everything needs to be supported by research into what other people have done?” In responding to this question, and concurrently assist our students in developing project proposals that are both original and rooted in research, we look to Thomas Kuhn’s discussion of paradigms in his seminal 1962 text, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. As Kuhn tells us, “the productive scientist must be a traditionalist who enjoys playing intricate games by pre-established rules in order to be a successful innovator who discovers new rules and new pieces with which to play them” (146). In this way, we train our professional writing students to be conscientious researchers, as well as adept writers, so that they are able to apply paradigms from their various fields of study in unique and inventive ways. As Ralph Wahlstrom points out, in comparison to other types of professional writing assignments, “The proposal insists on student ownership of the project” (81). Our business and technical proposal writing courses at Rutgers are primarily populated by upper-class students, already steeped in their majors and larger career goals. Wahlstrom goes on to tell us, “When students perceive a writing task as relevant to their professional interests, they take a personal interest in the assignment” (82). In light of this, we recommend that our students pursue issues in which they have a stake - either through their respective majors or through previous or current personal or professional familiarity. Wahlstrom focuses on the importance of what he calls “‘real life’ significance” in the mind of the professional writing student and the desire to “want their work to be useful” (82). This type of ownership of one’s ideas helps keep the students engaged with their projects throughout the semester-length sequence of assignments, leading up to the final project proposal. It also helps them see the connections between the work being done in their writing course and the larger context of their subject areas.
Any business executive or grant funder will tell you, "the purpose of a proposal is to solve a specific problem." Without a problem worthy of investigation, one has no reason to write a proposal. The first question that must be asked in the proposal writing process is, “what instigates your project?” This could be a theoretical question (in the case of scientific research), an opportunity not to be missed (in the case of an entrepreneurial endeavor), or a persistent issue that needs remedying (in the narrowest sense of problem, which is the approach that must of our students strive to take). Only when a student has a firm grasp on the problem that needs to be addressed, can he or she begin to identify relevant paradigm research.
In accord with the precepts of our professional writing courses, the success of a given proposal is based upon the strength of their justification for the project. At this point, a student should be asking him or herself, “why is your plan of action the best one available for addressing the problem?” To answer why, one needs a research-based rationale that answers these two questions: “how do you know that your plan will solve the problem?” and “why try to solve the problem this way rather than any number of other ways?” A strong research-based rationale will show a potential funding source that one has a consensus within his or her fields of study that justifies a specific approach. Hopefully, it will also show that the plan one wants to implement has strong precedents to suggest that it will succeed. This is basically what we mean by a paradigm in terms of proposal writing.
A good project always depends on good research. As I inform my students very early in the course, the success of a proposal is dependent upon the quality of the paradigm - not the ambition of the plan. It takes research to lead the way.
Author Bio: William Magrino has served as Director of Business & Technical Writing at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey since 2007 and holds a Ph.D. in English literature. He frequently presents at international conferences on topics concerning literature, pedagogy, and administration. Magrino is the co-author of two professional writing textbooks published by Kendall Hunt, Scientific and Technical Writing Today: From Problem to Proposal and Effective Business and Professional Writing: From Problem to Proposal, now in their third editions. Most recently he co-authored two peer-reviewed articles examining the pedagogical implications of social media, both derived from previous MLA presentations: “Teaching the New Paradigm: Social Media Inside and Outside the Classroom,” published in 2013, and “Professionalizing the Amateur: The Value of the Graduate Assistant in the Professional Writing Classroom,” published at the end of 2014.