Writers Workshop: The Nonfiction Proposal

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There are lots of different ways to construct a nonfiction proposal. It’s easy to search the Internet and come up with some very good advice (and examples) about this subject. Anyone who writes and publishes nonfiction certainly understands that the proposal is the key to generating interest in your writing project. It’s critical to the entire process.

In the nonfiction world of publishing, it isn’t always necessary to have your project completely written before you step into the proposal end of the business. This is especially true if you’ve already established yourself in an appropriate genre. However, even if this is your fist foray into nonfiction, the proposal may be enough to get that critical attention and, hopefully, a writing contract.

Over the years, I’ve found a simple technique that works for me. Agents and publishers seem to like it, and it manages to get their attention as effectively as any other method. There is nothing special or secret about the way I construct a proposal. It’s just an amalgamation of the knowledge of others and a lot of experimentation with what works and what does not.

My technique is based upon two concepts: simplicity and compactness. I understand that agents, publishers, editors and their kin will not spend much time studying any proposal. Rather, they will give it a moment’s attention and either pass it over or delve a bit further. So, your proposal must be tight and manageable yet provide enough information and appeal to demand a deeper look.

My nonfiction proposals look like this:

A few sentences of introduction (or overview). This must be brief and need only state the nature of your proposal and a few words about yourself. The key is brevity. I never let this go beyond 5 or so sentences. This is certainly not the place to gush, sell, or bore your reader.

A list of chapter titles. Now, this is just a list and nothing more. In nonfiction, the chapter titles had better convey what is to follow or you’re lost. If, for some reason, you use less informative (perhaps more “leading” titles), you can follow each chapter title with one descriptive sentence. It’s important to keep this to a single, tight, interesting sentence. It should immediately follow the chapter title and clearly be associated with it.

The complete Introduction. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I don’t believe in long Introductions. You can see some examples on this blog. I think it’s important to be very careful when writing your Introduction. It should really shine and strongly carry your reader onward. I usually put this in front of the chapter list, but not always. I’m not sure which is the best method and I’ve changed-up on this part over the years. In fact, it may not even matter.

That’s it. I know it seems short and, perhaps, simplistic. However, it’s worked well for me over the years. It gives the reader a less overwhelming feeling, which often happens with proposals. It also provides enough information to both point clearly at your topic (chapter titles) and display your writing talent (Introduction).

If you’ve found a nice way of creating nonfiction proposals, won’t you share it?


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