Writing a Good Proposal

27 minutes, 3 links


Updated September 19, 2022

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We are kept from our goal not by obstacles but by a clear path to a lesser goal.Robert Brault

A Sample Proposal

Freelancers find themselves in lots of difficult situations. A client isn’t giving you enough time, your payment is arriving late, you don’t have any leverage to get your money, you’re being coerced into providing more services than you signed up for.

The vast majority of these situations can be prevented by creating an impeccable proposal.

A properly written proposal should be about two pages long. Enough detail to provide clarity and protect you from misunderstanding, but not so long that it’s intimidating. Done well, your proposal can eliminate the majority of nightmare outcomes. Your client will hesitate before asking for extra revisions in the middle of the engagement not just because your proposal outlined how many revisions are included in the price, but also because the proposal will professionally convey the fact that your time and services are in demand and valuable. This is good for them to know. They want to know it. It gives them comfort.

A good proposal sends two messages:

  • The first message is straight-forward. “Here is my understanding of the work you have asked me to do for you, and how much it will cost.” That part is expected.

  • The second message is more subliminal, and comes across in the beauty, language, and specificity of the proposal. That message is, “I have great value and I know how to deliver it on a specific timeline in exchange for precise amounts of money. You will be very happy that you hired me. Indeed, I have done this many times before.”

Depending on how long you’ve been freelancing, you may already have a proposal format you use. It probably contains:

  • Your logo and business name at the top.

  • A summary of the services you plan to provide.

  • A total dollar amount you wish to receive in return.

If you’re a little more advanced, you might do these as well:

  • Name the project, if the client hasn’t already. No need to get creative here. Client name plus two words describing what you’re doing for them. Under the name, in one or two sentences, summarize the needs of the client and what you plan to deliver.

  • List the deliverables. This is everything the client expects you to hand off to them, and everything you need from the client in order to do so.

You can get away with just having the first three, or include all five to show you’re a serious player. But if you want to avoid all of the painful situations listed above, if you really want to wow your clients and build long-term relationships with them, and if you want to stand out in your field as the most professional freelancer imaginable, one who can command high rates because they make everything easier for their clients and leave nothing to doubt, you must add these to your proposal:

  • Touch points—when will you check in with your client?

  • Phases of work

  • Pricing structure

  • Scope of work

  • Fee structure

Let’s go through those now.

Touch Points

As part of your proposal, list the touch points—that is, the moments over the course of the project where you (and/or your team) will engage in a planned conversation with the client (and/or their team). The purpose of these touch points might be to hand off the deliverables, ask questions, or give a general update on the progress. Over-communication is key, because, as James Altucher says, “Most people are 8-year olds.”

This is not an insult to anyone, it’s the reality of dealing with busy, stressed, insecure, distracted human beings, some of whom don’t care a lot about their jobs. You might be dealing with one person, or more likely, a team of people who don’t talk to each other. They are never listening as closely as you think they are, so you need to repeat yourself.

This might sound annoying. Get over that, and quickly. Just master it. It’s not hard, and it will reward you exponentially. Get in touch with the client over the course of the project, rather than waiting for them to get in touch with you. Even if there’s nothing to report, just say a quick “hi” and remind them what you’re bringing to the next touchpoint.

Phases of Work

Break down the phases of work. Even the simplest job can be broken into smaller pieces that are easy for your client to understand and easy for you to deliver.

The objective of breaking the job into phases is to give your client a quick inside look at what goes into this stuff. Let’s say a client asks you to create a logo for her business. For simplicity’s sake, let’s say this client’s business is small, and she’s a bit less experienced when it comes to working with creatives. We’ll call her Tanya.

When Tanya first contacted you, she had a certain idea in her head. You asked her what she was interested in seeing, and she says that she wants something clean and modern but also retro and classic and also a little edgy. When you ask her to show you references (existing logos that she’s attracted to) she says, “It’s in my head. I’ll know it when I see it.”

Then Tanya imagines that you’ll take two hours to churn out 30 various logo options for her to critique, and then you’ll have an ongoing conversation for an undefined number of days while you produce limitless revisions until she sees something she likes, and then she’ll pay you, maybe.

By the end, some quick math will tell you, retrospectively, that your hourly rate for Tanya’s project was six dollars.

The phases of work section of your proposal is your chance to avoid that nightmare by taking a valuable opportunity to educate the client. Chop it up something like this:

  • Phase One: Concept

    • 3 days

    • Client provides references.

    • Artist presents Mood Board and Graphic Concepts.

    • Client agrees on direction within 5 days from start.

  • Phase Two: Creation

    • 5 days

    • Artist presents three possible Graphic Directions.

    • Client chooses one direction.

    • Based on agreed direction, Artist builds out three explorations: Logo, Wordmark, Lockup.

  • Phase Three: Finalization

    • 3 days

    • Client chooses their preferred logo, wordmark, and lockup from the directions presented in Phase 2.

    • Up to 3 revisions are made as Artist refines each.

    • Balance payment is due.

    • Assets are handed off in the preferred format.

This should take up one page of the proposal. For a more complex project, this could take multiple pages, but the bulleted style and concise language keeps it clear and manageable. Don’t overwhelm Tanya with complexity, just include what she needs to know.

Laying out the phases like this achieves a few things: First, your client now has a picture of all the steps involved in creating her logo. “Wow, this takes lots of skilled work, and I play a part in the process!” she says to herself as she realizes that her participation is expected at key moments throughout.

You’ll notice that this appears to be an 11-day project in total, but that no dates are mentioned, and each phase’s timeline is dependent upon the timely execution of the previous phase. And that timely execution depends in part on your client.

This project could take 11 days or 33 days—that’s up to Tanya. The workload for you is the same either way. It’s probably in your (and Tanya’s) best interest to do the project in as few days as possible, so you have the opportunity up front to encourage her to think through her references and provide them to you with urgency, because the clock on her project doesn’t start until she does.

The above is for a pretty straight-forward project, but you can imagine how the steps and details I’m outlining here are even more crucial when you’re dealing with a bigger project, or a larger team of Tanyas.

After the final phase, summarize the total project timeline, again avoiding dates—start and end dates can be added when the agreement is signed. Until then, speak in days or weeks.

Most importantly, at the bottom of the total project timeline, add this: “Work begins when client has sent all references for the work, agreement is executed, and deposit is received.” Perhaps your work doesn’t require references, but include anything you need from the client here, and name it.

Pricing Structure

Generally speaking (and this will vary according to the specific services you offer) it’s best not to present an a la carte menu of options with price tags on each service. If you do, the client will pick and choose in the way that leaves you with the least possible amount of money, and holes in the final outcome. For example, imagine you’re a pattern maker. A client wants to pay you to create and submit patterns, but not approve fit samples. Now you’ve got a final product entering the world, potentially with your name on it, that someone else has likely screwed up.

If you can work on a project basis, do that, and, divide the project into phases, with a cost for each phase:

  • 50% for phase 1

  • 30% for phase 2

  • 20% for phase 3

This front-loaded pricing model encourages the client to stick with the project because they’ve already paid you most of the money. Play with these percentages if you like, but I encourage you to ensure that the smallest payment is correlated with the final phase. The final phase is where clients are most likely to get off track, and if they’ve already invested substantially in the project, they’ll be incentivized to continue being a great partner and finish clean. It also enables you to build a cash cushion and protect your business from risk, without having to demand an arbitrary up-front deposit or “start work fee,” which can be difficult to explain to a client.

If you’re applying a discount, do so as a percentage and highlight it in your proposal. Before sending, call the client and let them know why you are extending this one-time friends and family discount (if you’re doing the project at a discount because you love the brand or want the opportunity, you can still call it a “friends and family” discount—you want to be friends, right?). You have a personal interest in this project and you are willing to invest in this relationship.

The above may seem like a lot, but once the process becomes habit, you will be able to cruise through it pleasantly, quickly, and smoothly without exhausting yourself or your client.

With this in place, the “due date” of each payment will not be left up to the client’s imagination. And, if for any reason the client fails to remit a payment, you hold the power: assets are exchanged at time of payment.

important Important to note: tying a specific payment to a specific phase of work is not applicable to every type of freelancer. You might be a baker. Your client might think of it like the Mitch Hedburg joke: “I give you the money, you give me the donut! End of transaction.” And this is rightfully so. The easier you make it for your client to pay you, the more likely you are to get paid.

The main principle here is that when you are investing up-front time and effort into a client project, it is prudent to require that your client invest up-front as well. Use your judgement to create the system that’s best for you. If you are dealing with a client who has proven troublesome in the past, you’ll want to do your best to tie payment to deliverables, so you can deliver the work after payment has cleared your account.

This all may seem harsh, and yes, if you wait until there’s a problem before sharing these guidelines, they are harsh.

But if they’re part of the proposal, and you review the proposal verbally in a nice “to keep everything clear and easy I’ll just walk you through the process” tone of voice before kicking off the project, your client will appreciate it, and respect you.

Scope Your Work

Often omitted from a proposal, to the detriment of everyone involved, is the scope of work, or SOW.

Sometimes the SOW is present, but lacking. Your SOW should be broken into two sections:

  • Scope In is the list of services that the client is asking for.

  • Scope Out is the list of services that you are capable of, but the client is not currently asking for.

As you likely already know, there’s a 75% chance that the client does not know what services they need at the time of hiring you, and to save money, are erring on the side of “as few as possible.” This is OK with you, because you’re equipped to deal with the panic that will arise a few weeks into the project, when the client realizes they need more of your services. You say: “No problem! Let’s revisit the SOW, and we’ll work this out.”

You can now sit with the client and move the additional services from “Scope Out” to “Scope In,” and kindly explain the cost of each service. That cost, of course, is now a bit higher than it would have been if the client had asked for them as part of the original package. (It’s best to explain this at the beginning, not right now.) The reason for this is that you are now in a rush.

As Seth Godin says, “panic costs extra,” so you need a standard “rush fee” ready to apply whenever a client adds work without adding time. It’s not because we’re mad that the client added work—we love work! But losing sleep in order to deliver your best work should be an exception, not a norm.

The purpose of “Scope In” and “Scope Out” is to give your client the chance to order all the services they need up front, rather than waiting until the end to pile on. You’re doing this to help yourself (to avoid panic, or at least be compensated for it) and to help the client (giving them a fair chance to reduce their cost and their stress).

In many cases, it’s difficult for the client to foresee every single service that they will need, and flexibility on your part is always expected and appropriate. Being clear about this upfront will plant an understanding in the client’s memory that, although they are perfectly welcome to do this, it will cost money, and that’s OK because it’s agreed and understood beforehand.

If the client requesting a late-add of services is a friend or a VIP who, for whatever reason, you feel should get those additional services for free, no problem! Still, you will ceremoniously move the additional services from “Scope Out” to “Scope In,” list the price for each service, cross out the price, and itemize each service at $0 as “complimentary.”

It’s important for your client to know that these services are valuable. It won’t be OK for them to pay you a flat fee and then milk you limitlessly for the term of your contract. They know this deep down, but they need your SOW to show them. They will appreciate the education and they will appreciate being in the hands of a professional.

Final Fees

The very end of the proposal is a short list of the fees we haven’t addressed yet.

Day Rate and Hourly Rate

The likelihood of a client causing this project to go overtime is high, and you do not want to eat that cost. That’s why you have a day rate in your back pocket—the amount of money you require for a full day of dedicated overtime work. (If the work takes the majority of a day, you’ll charge your day rate. If it takes less, you might bill a half day.)

It should read something like: “Any services not outlined in this proposal or required after [end date here] may be commissioned from [your name here] at the rate of [day rate here] per day.”

To calculate your day rate, just divide the project fee by the number of days in the project, then add a small percentage, something like 20%. You don’t want your day rate to be so low that it incentivizes your client to avoid committing to full projects.

Unless you work solely on a day rate basis, your day rate is for special situations only.

Your hourly rate is the same, but take your day rate, divide it by 8, then add 20%. You don’t want your hourly to be so low that it incentivizes your client to avoid committing to full days.

Travel Fees

A day of travel should be billed at your regular day rate, plus expenses. Keep in mind that clients, when they send you on an all-expense paid trip to do a project for them, expect that you’ll be fully dedicated to their project while you’re there on their dime. As such, make sure that the day rate you quote is high enough to accommodate the fact that you likely won’t be able to squeeze in any other client work after-hours. If you’re the type of freelancer who’s constantly working on multiple projects at once, then paid travel days could potentially cost you money, so consider making your “travel day rate” a bit higher than your regular day rate.


To spare you a long list, I’ll just state that any expenditure that the client requires you to make on their behalf (reference samples are a common example in the design world; fill in your own as needed) should be submitted to the client in an expense report, separately from your invoice, so that the money comes back to you as reimbursement, and not as taxable pay. Pick a reasonable dollar amount ($250) and state in the proposal that any expenses over that amount will need pre-approval from the client. The client may have their own dollar amount already established for such situations as this. Go with it.

Client Contact

One last thing that often gets overlooked: name your client contact at the bottom of the proposal. This is the person to whom you report. You don’t take direction from anyone other than this person (like the late fees thing, be reasonably flexible in the spirit of partnership), especially if it’s conflicting direction. Tanya doesn’t get to take off on a 2-week vacation, leaving Brendan in charge, then return from vacation and override everything Brendan said so you can do two extra weeks of free work because of their miscommunication.

Create Your Contract

Design trumps willpower.B.J. Fogg, Stanford psychologist

For smaller, lower-risk jobs, include a section at the end of your proposal that says, “If this proposal is executed, it becomes the agreement,” with a dotted line for both parties to sign. Keep in mind that it may not hold up in court, so this solution is for smaller jobs with known clients, and it is only a viable option if your proposal is impeccable, with a very clear scope of work.

Whichever option you choose, don’t start working until the agreement is signed.

caution If this is a bigger job (meaning that failing to collect the full fee would jeopardize your business), then you need a full contract, and you need legal counsel.

I, your humble author, am not a lawyer, and thus this section does not constitute legal advice. My lawyer’s name is, incredibly, Art. He speaks in facts, and he drives a Porsche 911. His hourly rate is not low, but there are good reasons I’m OK with that:

He’s good at what he does and I learn from him. For every dollar I give him, I get knowledge that saves me two future dollars. He doesn’t waste time. He makes just enough small talk so that you know he’s a real person, and the rest is business. He’s the one who got our money from the nightmare client from the start of the book, and he continues to save the day as needed.

You can pay a lawyer to draft you a contract from scratch, or you can be resourceful and find a great template, personalize it as best you can based on the type of services you provide, and then pay a lawyer to refine as needed.

Stress to your lawyer the importance of making the contract as succinct as possible (long contracts intimidate clients and delay forward progress) without leaving you vulnerable. I failed to do this once with a previous lawyer, and as a result ended up with a ridiculously verbose contract. I had to pay Art a thousand bucks to make it two pages shorter. It was worth it—clients sign quickly now.

The contract overview looks like:

  • A few pages of normal contract content, setting up the basic rules of engagement, trade secrets, intellectual property, term, and termination. This section normally ends with “responsible parties” (you, and the person you’re reporting to) and signatures. The remaining aspects of the contract are addenda.

  • Exhibit A, the work order. This outlines the services and scope, and in some cases can be copied, or summarized, from your proposal and SOW. If you require special things from your client in order to do this job properly, list those things here.

  • Exhibit B, the payment schedule. This is a more detailed version of the payment schedule you outlined in the proposal. It also includes the agreed rules about travel fees and expenses. These travel expenses, along with any other expenses you expect to incur (such as shipping, purchasing materials, reference samples, etc.) don’t need to be pre-calculated, but their existence should be acknowledged up front and they must be reimbursed within a short period, such as 15 days. You are a creative professional, not a bank for your client to borrow from.

  • Lastly, late fees. I recommend applying a 2.5% to 5% fee to late payments, and this late fee should compound monthly. (Recognize the difference between having a late fee policy and actually exercising it. Be careful and use friendly, human judgement. It’s there to signal professionalism and protect you from flagrant abuse—not to sour a partnership with an otherwise great client who accidentally paid four days late.)

If you can, send the contract electronically, giving the client the fewest possible reasons not to sign quickly (“I don’t have a printer handy” is a common one) so you can get started.

Proposal Checklist

  • Quote the Job

    • Start with covering your own costs.

    • Add a margin based on the industry standard retail value of the work.

  • Write the Proposal

    • Include:

      • Scope

      • Phases

      • Key dates

      • Touch points

      • Fee quote

      • Name of contact

    • Create an agreement with your client around timing of payment.

  • Create a Contract

    • Remember: For small jobs, a signed proposal is good. For big jobs, you need a full contract; have your template ready so it’s quick and easy.

Doing The Job14 minutes, 5 links

That which hinders your task, is your task.Sanford Meisner

Clean Up Your Space

Your workspace should be a peaceful place. How that looks is something you can define on your own, based on what makes you feel calm, what type of art you create, and what your needs are. Your workspace doesn’t need to look like mine, but don’t fool yourself into thinking a chaotic environment is working well for you. I’ve never met anyone who functioned well in a messy workspace. On the contrary, most people are anxious and have trouble focusing. Do not miss the connection between mental and spatial chaos. As Steven Pressfield wrote in The War of Art, “The Professional eliminates chaos from his world in order to banish it from his mind.”

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