Chapter Summaries: Step 6 of How to Write a Compelling Nonfiction Book Proposal in 10 Easy Steps

chapter summaries for nonfiction book proposalWriting a nonfiction book proposal can feel overwhelming. You have a great idea for a book, you’ve written a chapter or two and are excited about shopping it to an agent or publisher, and now it’s time to create your proposal.

Your book proposal includes sections that outline everything your (eventual) publisher needs to know to position your book in the marketplace. In the first five parts of this series, I’ve outlined what you should include in your proposal in the following sections:

I’ve outlined what you should include in the following sections of your proposal:

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m covering these sections in the order I usually read and write proposals, since each section tends to build on those that come before.

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Chapter Summaries for a Nonfiction Book Proposal

Everything you’ve presented in your proposal so far has been about you, your platform, your marketing plans, and the competition for your book. Now the rubber meets the road, so to speak, as you describe your book in enough detail to let an agent or editor understand what it’s about and why it is unique in the market—and why it will be profitable to publish.

Summarize each chapter in a paragraph or two, giving the agent or editor a feel for how your book covers the subject, demonstrating your writing ability and style, and presenting the information each chapter will cover and what questions it will raise and answer.

These summaries are the reason a nonfiction book proposal will sell an idea, even before you’ve written the entire manuscript—they give agents and editors an idea about the arc and flow of your manuscript.

As you write the summaries, think outline or précis—the goal is to be clear, compelling, and concise. Literary agent Jeanne Fredericks suggests, “To make the summaries more appealing, include some intriguing case histories, anecdotes or data, if possible. Communicate how the chapters will build on each other and advance your thesis.” And the Bradford Literary Agency suggests, “The style in which you deliver the description should be informed by the type of non-fiction book you are selling. A how-to book chapter description would necessarily be quite different from a travel narrative chapter description.”

While it’s important to have a topic or overview sentence to begin each chapter summary, this is the place to let your writing shine, so make sure each summary reads like a mini-chapter, not like a drab and boring outline. Don’t start each one with a version of “In this chapter I’ll discuss.”

Instead, do show:

  • what each chapter will cover, especially unique content and concepts
  • each chapter’s purpose or goal
  • the structure of each chapter; for example, if the chapter is divided into two parts, your synopsis should state that and give a mini-summary of each part

Finally, as part of this section of your proposal, you’ll also present your book’s table of contents, which should be placed before the chapter summaries in your final product.

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Chapter Titles

Some authors choose a title and write a chapter around that concept; other authors write a chapter and then choose a title. No matter which method you use, make sure your chapter titles are interesting and convey the content of the chapter. As Bookends Literary Agency writes,

The TOC (table of contents) might seem obvious, but it’s amazing how many people will submit a proposal without one. This is a simple way to give an editor another overview of the book. It’s also the first thing most readers (and editors) will look at when they open a book. . . . It’s important that the title headings clearly describe what the chapter will be about. We shouldn’t have to try to guess. When writing your TOC don’t forget to include any appendices or other supplementary material you intend to include (charts, sample forms, etc.).”

I read hundreds of proposals as an acquisitions editor for a traditional publisher, and I’ve worked with numerous authors to write them, too, so I understand the importance of including the right information in the right way that will grab the attention of an agent or editor. I’ve read more poorly written proposals than I care to remember, as well as a few that knocked my socks off; I speak from experience when I tell you that a great proposal will have an editor picking up the phone and calling the agent before the last page is even read.

Don’t run the risk of rejection because your chapter summaries are snoozers. Ask your critique partners to evaluate them for you, ask for input on chapter titles, and feel free to contact me at cyjohnson5580@gmail.com if you’d like a professional opinion about the strength of your proposal and how you might improve it. I’m here to help!

Happy Writing,

Candace

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Candace Johnson is a professional freelance editor, proofreader, writer, ghostwriter, and writing coach who has worked with traditional publishers, self-published authors, and independent book packagers on nonfiction subjects ranging from memoirs to alternative medical treatments to self-help, and on fiction ranging from romance to paranormal. As an editorial specialist, Candace is passionate about offering her clients the opportunity to take their work to the next level. She believes in maintaining an author’s unique voice while helping him or her create and polish every sentence to make it the best it can be. Learn more here.

2 thoughts on “Chapter Summaries: Step 6 of How to Write a Compelling Nonfiction Book Proposal in 10 Easy Steps”

  1. Curious: Is it understood that the content may shift during the writing and that the ToC might be outdated before it’s done? I’ve never written non-fic, but I’ve edited some, and the content seems to evolve throughout the process.

    1. That’s a great question, Eric! Yes, agents and editors understand that the content will likely evolve (often from their own input) and the TOC will be outdated. The same is true for every part of a nonfiction proposal; new competitive titles may be published between the time the proposal is submitted and the book is published, the author’s speaking schedule will likely expand, or an authority in the subject field may agree to write a foreword. The proposal is a baseline, and the book’s TOC is a map to the contents as the author envisions the book right now.

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