Project Proposal

9 Project Proposal Mistakes Freelancers Make

Lauren Bonk

No matter what industry you’re in, whether you’re self-employed or someone-else-employed, in order to thrive professionally, you’re going to develop what I call a “trade toolbox” This toolbox is likely going to be a mix of figurative (skills, knowledge, connections) and literal (hammers, product management software, measuring cups), and improves with each year you’re in the business.

Here are a few examples of items you’d find in my trade toolbox:

Trello and Slack
-Ability to speak publicly without throwing up
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-Internal entrepreneurial BS detector
-USB-powered hand warmers

I’ve left out quite a few other key players in my toolbox, including “coffee” about 16 more times. There’s one specific tool I want to focus on today, though, and that’s the ability to write a kickass freelance project proposal.

The need for a project proposal can crop up in a couple different freelance situations. You could be competing against other freelancers for the same project, or you might have a potential client on the line who’s ready to work with you, but isn’t quite ready to agree to your terms. In any of these situations, however, your goal is the same: to craft a project proposal that both snags a client, and is as lucrative for you as humanly possible.

If you’re looking for an actual “how to” on building a project proposal, you’re in luck: we’ve already got a post on that in our archives. Today, however, I want to take it a few steps past the building phase and focus on refining the proposal you’ve already built.

1. Second-guessing Your Expertise

Freelancing, what with all its incredible, freedom-based perks, comes with a very real (but manageable) emotional price: isolation.

One of the many ways social isolation can affect a freelancer is in the area of self-confidence. Working for yourself, without having any institutionalized feedback, can cause you to question your abilities. This is a natural reaction, but it’s important to keep it in check.

Potential clients are looking for an expert in their field who is experienced and confident. If you’re questioning your expertise as you write your proposal, it’s going to come through to the reader. Whether it’s looking through your portfolio, digging through your email for positive client feedback, or simply putting on the Rocky soundtrack while pep-talking yourself in the mirror, you’ve got to get confident in yourself and the work you do.

How to Brand Yourself and Get Your Freelancing Business out of the Garage

2. Putting Too Much Emphasis on Cost

Now, believe me, I know that cost and payment is important. It’s important to you, it’s important to the client, and it’s tempting to want to get straight down to the money business. The problem with that is that it strips you of your uniqueness, and turns you into a simple dollar amount.

Your project proposal format needs to set you up for success. Use the bulk of your proposal to highlight the value that you’ll bring to your client, so that when it comes time to talk about cost, they’ll be ready to hand you a briefcase of cash.

(I’m exaggerating here. Briefcases of cash are hard to report when it comes time for taxes.)

Highlighting things like the quality of your work, previous positive results, and time saved for the client as you outline your services and project scope will keep your value at the forefront of your client’s mind, rather than your cost.

3. Leaving Room for Interpretation

A proposal, of course, should be pleasing to read. You want to give the reader a glimpse of what it’s like to work with you. A bare-boned, generic project proposal format can come off as cold and boring, so it’s important to focus on the reception it might receive.

In your quest for a pleasing proposal, however, you can’t forget the basics. Anything you leave out of the document is left up to interpretation. Milestones, progress reports, deadlines, revisions, communication in any form, expenses, meetings, payment, and any payment terms must be outlined in the proposal.

4. Turning the Proposal into a Pitch

The word “proposal” can be a tricky one. It suggests that you’re going to be proposing things for approval, which you are, but it’s the types of things you’re proposing that need to be examined.

When you get to the point in your client relationship in which guidelines and terms need to be set, it’s time to create a proposal. Note that I’m saying “guidelines” and not “big ideas.” If you’re using this proposal to sell your potential client on some creative plots you’ve been working on, you’re opening yourself up to the risk of misinterpretation and wasted time. If you’ve got some solid, relevant ideas, pitch them in your pre-proposal discussion.


The project proposal is the foundation on which a contract is built; it’s not a brainstorming session.

5. Leaving Out the Call to Action

You don’t want to leave any room for excuses when it comes to moving forward with a project. Be sure to include any steps the client needs to complete to get the ball rolling. You can include a link to an estimate or invoice, your official contract, and list all of the payment options available. You want to make it official with this client, and you want to make it as easy as possible.

Once you’ve sent out the proposal, be sure to follow up after a day or so of waiting; things come up and lives get hectic, so your client might have forgotten about it.

6. Making Payment Difficult

Payment is another tricky area, especially when small businesses and freelancers are involved. Not everyone can afford the monthly fees associated with credit card and online payments, but that doesn’t mean you have to live in the stone-age just to get paid.

Whether you accept checks, direct bank deposits, credit cards, or use services like Paypal, you’ve got to include those payment specifics in the proposal. If you only take checks (not ideal, but still an option), make sure your payment address is easy to find in your invoice. Send an invoice with the proposal so that it’s easy for the client to move on to the next step.

7. Forgetting About Expenses

I mentioned being as explicit as possible earlier, and I want to get a little more specific in regards to an oft-forgotten project facet: expenses.

If this project requires you to purchase materials or special equipment, or requires travel in order to complete it, you need to include those expenses in your invoices… but you need to make sure the clients are notified of this in your project proposal and contract before you send them the bill.

8. Being Generic

Even if you’ve been discussing a project with a potential client for an extended period of time, you’re not locked in until a contract is signed. A project proposal is still an audition, and should be treated as such. If you decide to use a project proposal template or program (such as nusii or Proposable) you need to infuse the document with your personality, highlight your unique talents and expertise, and make sure it doesn’t look like a boring, run-of-the-mill proposal.

9. Dragging It Out

Just like crafting an elevator pitch, you want to get to the meat of your project proposal in as little time as possible. Your proposal should:

-Cater to the clients needs and values
-Highlight the unique talent and value you will provide
-Explicitly outline the work scope and payment details of your agreement
-Provide the client with actionable steps to put the agreement into action

If you’ve written your proposal and find that you’ve got extra details, lengthy anecdotes, or other information not entirely relevant to the project, axe ‘em. A proposal that is too long will have your client scanning down to the price tag at the end and skipping over the part where they see how awesome you are.

Don’t wait until it’s go-time.

Now is the perfect time to start working on your project proposal. While the client is ever-changing, certain portions of a proposal can be pre-crafted, such as your payment details and calls to action. Think of it as one of those wrenches that have different attachments… you use the same base each time but adjust it to fit your needs in the moment.

(Did I do okay with that wrench analogy? I sure hope so. And I also hope you’ll go out and start working on your new project proposal; you’ll be glad you did.)

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