In tendering, purchasing authorities will usually set word, character or page limits to ensure relevant, concise and practicable responses. This also manages administrative burden on the buyer’s resources during the evaluation process, allowing a faster notification of the tender outcome and contract award.
Writers should treat any word/character counts or page limits within an ITT as absolute. Although phrasing within tenders may include language such as ‘content beyond the word limits may not be considered’, failure to comply with the authority’s guidelines often leads to a penalty percentage (such as 10% of available marks deducted), or even an automatic disqualification of the relevant response. Consequently, word limits are one of the most challenging aspects of bid and tender writing, as the writer must include all the relevant information to comprehensively address the question, in addition to integrating benefits and persuasive content.
Variances in word limits
Limitations to responses will also vary depending on the requirements of the authority or overall scope of the contract. To illustrate this, the table below includes several mobilisation questions that our team of writers have worked on over the past month:
|Industry||Question and word count|
|Asbestos removal||‘… Please provide a proposed mobilisation plan, as an attachment, to illustrate how your company plans to implement the contract. You should outline the necessary key tasks and milestones, processes and steps involved […] to enable an effective mobilisation and subsequent delivery of service.’ (500 words)|
|Facilities management||‘… Describe the approach taken to plan a contract such as this. This should include […] initial research, milestones, lead times, stage management, risk analysis and communication.’ (750 words)|
|Health and social care||‘… Please outline how you would ensure a smooth mobilisation process [including] mobilisation plan with timeframes, risk management and mitigation, staff consultation/recruitment and key milestones.’ (1,000 words)|
|Security||‘… Provide a detailed method statement clearly outlining how each stage of the service will be delivered in accordance with the specification.’ (2,500 words)|
As evidenced above, question wording is also varied in addition to the stipulated word limits, meaning authorities will expect different content and approaches relevant to their requirement. It is important to note that the longest response also gives the least guidance, whereas shorter responses include more explicit expectations, such as specified lead times, key milestones and risks/mitigations to contract delivery. The challenges will therefore be different – the writer must use their own initiative and experience when planning and drafting a 2,500-word response, while responses of 500, 750 and 1,000 words will require concise, targeted writing to address all of the authority’s expectations and receive high marks from evaluators.
Writing to word limits
On occasion, writers may feel that word counts for a response are too high and it is not necessary to write ‘to the limit’. This is incorrect – the wording of questions and related limitations are carefully chosen by the purchasing authority, in accordance with the importance they place on a particular aspect of the contract or framework delivery. For example, if a response on mobilisation is 1,500 words, a brief overview of internal processes will not suffice.
If you are struggling to hit the word count of a particular question, stop and consider the following:
- Ensure you are addressing all aspects of the question: To use the mobilisation example, ensure there are no missing aspects of a response, such as a skills gap analysis to guarantee sufficient training for all contract staff. Valuable information for responses can also be found within the tender pack – for instance, if works/services are being delivered at a housing association with vulnerable residents, assigning additional safeguarding/mental health training will add significant value to mobilisation procedures.
- Expand your answers to provide as much detail and persuasiveness as possible: As a starting point, tender responses should not be a mere list or description of policies, processes and procedures to address the question. Detail is crucial to providing context and persuasiveness to a response. Returning to the mobilisation example, it would be insufficient to simply state that operatives working around asbestos would be fitted for appropriate PPE prior to the contract ‘go live’ date. Instead, list the relevant PPE required to carry out works safely and compliantly, e.g. fit-tested FFP3 masks, Cat 3 Type 5 overalls and disposable boot covers.
- Allocate equal space to each part of the question: After breaking down the question into subheadings, verify that you have given due weighting to each part and are not missing an opportunity to demonstrate your organisation’s features and benefits. For a mobilisation response, this could include descriptions of procedures for monitoring and reviewing contract-specific RAMS and who will hold responsibility, rather than simply stating that they will be created.
It is equally important to ensure that you are not simply writing for the sake of filling the word limit. Irrelevant or ‘padded’ content will make it more difficult for the authorities to see your proposed features and benefits, potentially leading to reduced marks for the response in question.
Editing responses which exceed the word limit
Much more commonly, writers will draft a compliant and sufficiently persuasive response which has exceeded the allotted word count. The balance between describing features and outlining benefits or cost savings to the buyer and its residents/service users – all within tight word limits – is an indispensable element of a bid writer’s unique skillset, and takes time and experience to develop.
The following bullet points outline a broad, sequential process for ensuring final drafts of responses fit within the allocated word limits.
- Utilise tables and bullet points: As a proactive measure during the initial answer planning/drafting stage, incorporating bullet points and tables can save valuable words, particularly when describing a particular process or the contract personnel’s areas of responsibility. In addition to avoiding link words or repetitive phrasing, tables and bullet points have the added bonus of breaking up content, making it clearer and easier for the evaluator to read.
- Remove any repetition within the response: During the initial drafting period, it is possible that you may have included repetitive content – for example, you may have made two separate references to a key team member’s qualifications, or your team’s experience delivering contracts of a similar size and scope. This is the easiest target for cutting down word counts, as you do not risk omitting key features or benefits which could score marks with evaluators.
- Employ a selective approach to removing content: Every sentence within a tender response should be directly relevant to a feature or benefit. If you discover any ‘floating sentences’ or content which is irrelevant to requirements, deleting them is a good approach to reduce word count. By targeting the least relevant aspects of responses, you ensure that all core features are preserved, with the additional benefit of concise and clear content.
- Use ‘shortcuts’ once within striking distance of the limit: If your response is only 2–5% from complying with the limitations set by the buyer, several tips can aid in efficiently reaching the stipulated word count without sacrificing content. This includes deleting unnecessary adjectives, searching and removing the word ‘that’ which is typically redundant in sentence structures, and employing an active voice, such as using ‘audit’ in place of ‘carry out an audit’.
Adhering to the above will ensure you can meet challenging word counts without sacrificing content, benefits or added value which are crucial to the tender, maximising your overall chances of success.
Absence of word limits
Occasionally, tender responses may have no word, character or page limits, preferring to let the bidder organisations define them for what they deem a sufficient response. This can be both beneficial as well as challenging – while it may save time altering language or sentence structure to fit tight word counts, an absence of limitations could also encourage writers to include irrelevant content, obscuring key points or features.
Simple steps to mitigate this include:
- Ensuring each point is directly relevant to what the purchasing authority requires, prioritising clear, concise content over a ‘kitchen sink’ approach to drafting responses
- Drawing on experience from bidding with the same buyer or on a similar contract, using the word limit on a previous tender as a rough guide for the length of a response
- Answer planning responses by breaking down the wording of the question and reading the contract requirements to determine what exactly needs to be addressed.
A lack of limitations should be viewed as an opportunity to integrate additional features (such as diagrams or images), benefits and persuasiveness without concern over whether it will fit into predetermined word limits. However, this is not free licence to write anything and everything about the topic – remember that evaluators are human, and may end up missing key elements if a response is excessive or unfocused.
With 14 years of experience, 7,000 SQ and ITT submissions, and a fully auditable 85% success rate, our team of writers are highly experienced in writing persuasive, evidence-based responses which align with a buyer’s word limits. To find out more on our comprehensive bid and tender services, our sales and marketing team are contactable at 0800 612 5563, or alternatively via email email@example.com.
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