Sample Chapters: Step 7 of How to Write a Compelling Nonfiction Book Proposal in 10 Easy Steps

how to write nonfiction book proposal
Sample chapters need to grab the readers imagination.

You’re coming into the home stretch of writing a book proposal. If you’ve been following this series, you’ve already learned about writing your author bio, the information that should go into your chapter summaries, how to handle competitive titles, identifying your target audience and how you’ll market to them, and how to make agents and editors sit up and take notice of your platform. If you’ve missed any of those previous articles, scroll down to the bottom of this post for links to the first six installments.

If you’re like most writers, you’ve probably already drafted a sample chapter or two; when the idea for your book first strikes, it’s difficult not to begin writing it. Now it’s time to take out that draft and polish it up until it sings. As the Bradford Literary Agency writes, “Draft the chapter that ‘puts your best foot forward’ so to speak. Write the section that is the most interesting, the most compelling and the one that you feel most passionate about.”

Tip: If you’re a new author, I strongly suggest you write your entire book before you query agents. Although it’s perfectly acceptable to shop an idea with a proposal and a few sample chapters, you do not want to be in a position where you are asked for an additional sample chapter or two and you have to hurry to write them. In addition, publishers plan their seasonal lists many months in advance, and if there is any doubt about your ability to finish a manuscript in time, your proposal will most likely get a pass.

Remember that in the end, everything boils down to your writing. No matter how original your book idea is, how spectacular your platform and marketing plans are, or how creatively you’ve compared your book to the competition, it’s all a foundation for the real star of the show: your sample chapter(s). As the Strothman Literary Agency recommends, “If you have not published a book, a strong writing sample provides essential evidence to the editors that you have the ability to attract and engage readers.”

Use the minimum number of words to generate the maximum amount of excitement about your manuscript; choose a chapter (or two) that not only conveys the idea of your book but also leaves an agent or editor wanting more. Revise, proofread, and go over your sample with a fine-tooth comb to be sure it’s the best it can be—a misplaced comma won’t get you a rejection, but pages filled with grammar errors and spelling errors might. You’re a professional writer who is an expert in your field, so put your best work out there.

Here are some FAQs I get from writers about sample chapters:

How many chapters should I include with a proposal?

The number of chapters you include will depend on several factors: the length of your book, the length of each chapter, and your platform are important considerations. Yes, we like to think the quality of our writing is the most important thing to a publisher, but it isn’t—the marketability of the book is the most important thing. A publisher will salivate over a short book by a celebrity, but not so much over my personal manifesto (just kidding, I haven’t written that yet!).

Generally speaking, plan to include a minimum of one chapter, and two or three might be appropriate depending on the topic and presentation. If you’ve written a cookbook, you won’t need three chapters of recipes, but if you’re shopping a self-help book, a second or even third chapter might be necessary for an editor to have enough information to really understand the book, especially if your chapter summaries are general or vague. A rule of thumb is to include about 10 percent of your book, and the shorter the chapters, the more an editor will want to read.

Are there specific chapters that agents and editors want to see?

Most authors default to including the Introduction and first chapter—but those might or might not be your best choices. If your Introduction is just a fleshed-out version of your book summary (About the Book), choose a chapter that is more representative of the exciting content you want to share. Many times a first chapter sets up the rest of the book, so consider if a chapter from later in the book will give a better idea of the unique concepts your book presents.

The subject of my book can be confusing, so I use a lot of illustrations and charts. Should I include those?

Yes, include anything you believe will help an editor say yes to your work. I mean this within reason, of course. Include at least one chapter that contains the illustrations, charts, or other non-textual content that shows how you’ll present the information.

Should I have my sample chapters professionally edited?

This is a tough question. As a professional freelance editor, I believe that everyone’s writing can benefit from a critical eye. If you have critique partners, ask them for their input, and at the very least have your proposal and sample chapters proofread to be sure spelling and punctuation errors are removed.

In his book How to Write a Book Proposal, Michael Larsen suggests gathering a community of eight types of readers to give you feedback:

  • Friends and family
  • Writers
  • Critique group
  • Potential buyers
  • Well-read, objective readers
  • Experts in your field
  • A devils advocate
  • A freelance editor

Larsen also suggests enlisting the help of macro and micro readers for both the proposal and the sample chapters. Check out my self-editing checklists of Macro Issues and Micro Issues for more help.

Should I have my sample chapters professionally typeset so they look the way I want the book to look?

Please do NOT do that! And don’t use multiple typefaces and font sizes, either. I’ll cover specifics about how your proposal and sample chapter should look in Step 10, but for now let’s just say that the cleaner and simpler your manuscript, the more professional it looks and the easier it is for an editor to read.

If you’ve written a nonfiction book proposal, I invite you to share in the comments about the chapters you included in your proposal and why you chose them over other chapters. If you’re writing a proposal right now, I know for a fact that there is at least one devil’s advocate and more than a few well-read, objective readers following my blog who might be willing to give you some feedback.

And feel free to contact me at if you’d like a professional opinion about the strength of your proposal and sample chapters and how you might improve them. I’m here to help!

FAQs writers have about sample chapters for nonfiction book proposals #nonfiction #bookproposal #writers Click To Tweet

Happy Writing,


How to Write a Compelling Nonfiction Book Proposal in 10 Easy Steps

Your Author Bio: Step 2 of How to Write a Compelling Nonfiction Book Proposal in 10 Easy Steps

Your Target Audience: Step 3 of How to Write a Compelling Nonfiction Book Proposal in 10 Easy Steps

Your Marketing and Publicity Plan: Step 4 of How to Write a Compelling Nonfiction Book Proposal in 10 Easy Steps

Competitive Titles: Step 5 of How to Write a Compelling Nonfiction Book Proposal in 10 Easy Steps

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

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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.


10 thoughts on “Sample Chapters: Step 7 of How to Write a Compelling Nonfiction Book Proposal in 10 Easy Steps”

    1. I’m glad you’re enjoying the series, Gwen. There is a lot of crossover with fiction proposals, especially with the author bio and marketing sections, so I hope fiction writers will benefit by bookmarking these posts, too.

    1. Thanks for the kudos, Jill. Fiction must be ready to submit–if an agent requests a full manuscript and you say you’re still writing, well, you lost that one. Nonfiction is acquired more often on proposals and samples, but that makes it so important to have strong sample chapters and detailed chapter summaries. Once you’ve outlined your book that way, fleshing out the chapters is easier, too. Agents and editors understand that some content may change, and the acquiring editor might even have specific changes in mind that he/she will ask you to make, but if the book is written when you shop it, you won’t be in the position of having to say “Oops, sorry, that chapter is now about something completely different.”

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