Getting Started On Your Proposal

It takes just as much time to write a book proposal as it does to write the book.

Is that what you’re saying?


Yes. It is.

You may be a journalist, an academic, an essayist or a novelist. You may have published your memoir, published books in various literary genres, or written a cookbook.

You may have read books on how to write a book proposal. (The one I’m most partial to is Susan Rabiner’s THINKING LIKE YOUR EDITOR.)

You may have jotted down your overview, dug up your bio, pulled together a chapter outline, or even used a proposal template.

But if you’re like most of the accomplished writers who come to me, you don’t have a three-sentence description of your book. Nor do you have a title.  And this means you don’t really know what your book is about. You are master of your subject matter, but you haven’t yet figured out what the story is.

Writing a book proposal can be daunting. Here’s how to get started:

Look at the nonfiction books on your shelf. Read their introductions. That introduction started its life as a long e-mail addressed to the literary agent. These intros read like a speech to a bunch of college students, don’t they? They open with a wry, personable, chatty story.

So write that e-mail. Go on and on, explain why you came up with this idea. Tell stories, give examples, describe how you gathered your story, describe the structure of your book, set down your credentials. Don’t censor yourself. If you over-edit yourself now, your voice will be strained and awkward. Your work will sound dry and tortuous. Have fun writing it, but don’t send it out.

Then, focus on the title and the subtitle. Look at the titles of books in your area.  See how they often have two or three words. Good hearty nouns. When I look at the title and subtitle of Jane Mayer’s DARK MONEY: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, I am consumed with envy.

You’re probably scared of the chapter outline aren’t you?  Imagine that you’re teaching a thirteen-week course in your subject. Each chapter is an hour long …. . Look at LORDS OF THE SEA: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy by John R. Hale if you’re an historian.

Once you’ve completed these three steps, congratulations! You thought writing the sample chapters was going to be the difficult part, but it’s not nearly as difficult as what you’ve just done.