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Proposal Writing

15 Steps to Writing an Impressive Non-Fiction TV Proposal

Your written proposal is possibly your first – maybe your only – shot at impressing a commissioner so it’s important to capture their attention for the right reasons. Take the time to get it right.

But, you say: “I’m a film maker, not a writer, and my idea speaks for itself”.
A commissioner’s response? “If you can’t write a good well-structured and error-free proposal why should I trust you to make a well-structured and error-free documentary?”

The general standard of written proposals is poor, so it’s relatively easy to make a good impression.

Follow these 15 steps to make yours stand out:

1. Use short sentences

Commissioners don’t have time or patience for long, meandering and beautifully crafted sentences. Get straight to the point.

2. Use simple words

Don’t show off. It might be clever but it won’t win you a commission. Advertisers use language that a 12-year-old can understand. Do the same.

3. Use bullet points

Make it easy for your reader to find the important information

4. Use highlighting

Highlighting key words makes it easy for your reader to scan your proposal in seconds (remember, you only have 40 seconds of their attention). If they like what they see on first pass they will go back and read the detail.

5. Use evocative language

Don’t allow your contestants to merely go into the jungle – they should hack their way in.

6. Write with an active voice in the present tense to give your idea energy

“The team dives down to explore the shipwreck,” is much more immediate and energetic than, “the shipwreck will be explored by a dive team”.

7. Be confident and assert what does happen in the show rather that what could happen

“The only survivor of the disaster tells us what happened when the plane went down,” is much stronger than, “we could interview eyewitnesses”. Be careful not to promise the impossible, though – it is prudent to check that the only survivor is willing to be interviewed on camera.

8. Evoke images and emotion

Help the reader imagine what they will see and feel when they watch the programme. “The paramedics have only twelve hours and a sled to get the vaccine to the remote community on the other side of the most dangerous mountain in the world.”

9. Explain who, what, when, where, why

These are the essential elements of every good story.

10. Be specific

Don’t say you’ll use specialist filming techniques; tell them you’ll use a specially developed ‘cat-cam’ to capture what pets get up to when their owners are at work.

11. Use appropriate spellings for the UK /US

If you are a British producer pitching to an American development executive use US spellings. British spellings will distract the reader.

12. Put the most important information at the top

Your reader might only read the first paragraph so make sure they see the most important information first. If they like what they see they will read more, but they won’t go hunting for relevant details.

13. Show don’t tell

Don’t tell your reader how surprising, amazing or shocking your subject is – surprise, amaze or shock them as they are reading your proposal.

14. Print and proofread

Don’t rely on your spellchecker and computer screen – typos leap off the printed page.

15. Practice, practice, practice

The more proposals you write, the easier it will get. Aim to make each one better than the last. Visit Copyblogger for tips.


See also:

How to Write a Proposal a Commissioner Will Actually Read

Get more development and pitching tips in Greenlit: Developing Factual/Reality TV Ideas From Concept to Pitch


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