How to Write Tenders with Word, Page or Character Limits

My last post gave a lot of good general advice on answering tender questions. This time we are going to look at how to write tenders where word restrictions, page limits or maximum character levels apply.

How to Write Tenders with Word, Page or Character Limits

How to Write Tenders with Content Restrictions

This is a more recent challenge – limits on pages, words or characters. Once, you rarely saw restrictions. Now most public sector and corporate tenders have some type of limitation e.g.

  • Maximum 500 words
  • No more than 2 sides of A4 using Arial font size 11
  • Response is limited to 5,000 characters (including spaces)

The instruction will be accompanied by something like “anything over the stated limit will be disregarded and not marked”. This means that your tender answers must comply to the restriction to have any chance of getting a good score. Anything over the set limits will not earn you any scores!

The limits often seem a bit harsh when trying to answer complex questions. However, they can help us focus on writing a concise response. Which of course is the idea – no waffle!

I always say to clients that “we are all in the same boat”. Every bidder faces the same challenge; we just have to be better! And we normally are! The following techniques will help you to write tenders with high-scoring answers and observe limitations.

Tender Writing Techniques

Ask for an Increase

It may seem too obvious or too cheeky but you can ask the tendering authority for an increase. I’ve had situations where the tender questions are complex but with severe limits e.g. 250 words. (The questions were around 50 words!) I recommended that my clients ask for an increase. They got the word-restrictions raised to more workable levels.

Procurement officers will often use a template or previous document as the basis of a tender. It is quite possible for questions to be extended without increasing their word-count. Good organisations will understand and revise limits to allow space to provide appropriate answers.

Use Headings and Sub-headings

It is always best practice to respond to each part of a question under its own heading. It tends to be even more useful for restricted answers. For example, if a question asks:

“Please explain your approach to staff selection, training and development. Also explain how you will maintain the required staff certifications at all times.”

You should break it down into the following sections / headers:

  • Staff Selection
  • Staff Training
  • Staff Development
  • Staff Certifications

This not only makes it easy for the tender panel to identify your responses to each key part. It also helps you to answer each point (and keep to the point for each element). NB to save on words, you might not repeat ‘staff’ each time.

Abbreviate Names

Simply put, Tony Zemaitis Associates Ltd could be TZA. One word (3 characters) vs. 4 words (25 characters). You may need to use the full name (with abbreviation in brackets) at the beginning so readers will understand.

Use Hyphens

Hyphens not only help people understand the context, they also join two words and so make them count as one. For example “in house safety testing” becomes “in-house safety-testing”. If you use hyphens correctly, it isn’t cheating – just good grammar.

Write with Brevity

In the same vein as the last two points, trim unnecessary words. Although we don’t want bad grammar, don’t worry about perfect grammar. Remove unnecessary words e.g. “All staff are trained at induction and then receive on the job training” becomes “Staff attend induction then on-the-job training”. 62% reduction in words!

Good examples of writing with brevity are shown in the Lifehacker article by Danny Rubin. More excellent tips on removing unnecessary words are given in Hugh Grigg’s Tricks to Reduce Word Count.

It is much easier to use very terse language in bullet lists, tables and charts.  But don’t be afraid to write tenders with extreme brevity in general prose if you have to.

Use Bullets and Lists

Expanding on that last point, lists are an excellent way of getting information across with less words or characters. You can often take normal prose and condense into lists – especially processes or systems.

For example:

“Upon receipt of an enquiry the contract manager will create a log in the Job File. He will then make contact with the customer to arrange a suitable time to visit the premises in order to undertake a site survey.”

Becomes:

  • Contract Manager logs enquiry
  • Arrange site survey

Saving 74% characters or 78% words!

Bullets are also helpful when explaining key benefits. They are much easier to read than long paragraphs e.g.

This will reduce:

  • Money
  • Lead-time
  • Administration
  • Complaints

A few words of advice on bullet lists when you write tenders:

  • Keep lists short (ideally no more than 5-6 long) – long lists become hard to read
  • Bullets count as one character but also count as one word!
  • Lists take up space – if faced with page limits consider using columns to reduce length of a list
  • Show your most important benefits 1st, 2nd and last – that’s the order we scan lists

Use Charts / Images / Tables / Diagrams

“A picture is worth a thousand words.” This famous phrase still holds true when you write tenders:

  • A good flow chart is much easier to absorb than lots of words
  • A screen-shot will demonstrate a view much quicker than long explanations
  • A graph will show a trend better than words
  • A table is more accessible than tedious prose
  • An organisation chart quickly illustrates a company structure

They also tend to use less words, characters and space. Charts saved as images (e.g. JPEG) have zero words! Just make sure that image file sizes are small enough to avoid upload problems on electronic tenders.

Consider the Intention of Limitations

OK, we know restrictions are there to ensure that our tender responses are concise. But consider the difference between a 200 and 1,000 word-limit question. The requirement for a 100 words is likely to be a summary on the topic. Yet where 1,000 words are allowed, the inference is that the tender panel wants a detailed answer.

This means that you shouldn’t worry about giving chapter and verse on short responses. But higher limits infer that you need to be more expansive – 100 words won’t be enough.

Just remember to check how each question is scored.

Write First Then Edit

You need to consider the limitations when writing. But it is generally better to get your thoughts down in writing first. Once you have an idea of what needs trimming (if any) then condense by editing.

One of my favourite tools for editing is Hemingway. It is free and helps you reduce unnecessary words and write with clarity. It was used on this blog!

What Not to Do When You Write Tenders

Remember, the aim of a character, page or word limit is to get crisp concise responses. The tender procurement team want to receive bids that are easy to mark and not full of waffle. I have seen many people’s attempts at trying to ‘cheat’ the system. They tend to just make their responses difficult to read. Avoid doing any of the following:

  • Expanding the margins to the limits
  • Using very small font
  • No paragraphs

These make the copy far too hard to read and no doubt difficult to score.  I get put off just looking at answers like these (and I get paid to review them!). Goodness knows what people marking them think?

If you are struggling with your tender answers, contact us to discuss our tender editing service.

Summary

My guide on how to answer tender questions makes it clear: write in a way that helps the people marking the tender. If they can find what they want to see, it will help you gain high scores. And hopefully, win the tender.

The techniques shown above will help you write tenders that are succinct and to the point.

Do not cheat the system; work in the spirit of the tender and you will create responses that are easy to read.

Any more tips? Please add your comments…

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