How to write a non-fiction synopsis

Guest author, blogger and publisher Sam Jordison chats how to write a non-fiction synopsis. Sam is founder of Galley Beggar Press, author of five books and writes regularly for The Guardian.

There’s a good chance your book synopsis will be the first thing an agent or editor reads.

If you write it well, you’ve won half the battle. It’s the part of your pitch that allows you to effectively sell your ideas. It’s a place to encapsulate all that is good about your book and set it in the best possible light. It can really count.

The trouble is that there’s also a good chance your synopsis will also be the last thing an agent or editor will read. The things easy to get wrong. It’s hard to know what to write – and hard to know how to write it.

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A quick guide to the non-fiction book proposal

Each book is different and if specific publishers have set guidelines, then of course you need to follow those. Still, as a rough guide, most book proposals will consist of:

  • A concise covering letter. This needs to contain a short description of the book, a short pitch for the book (why the book feels necessary), and a short statement of your authority to write this book, or your platform (your ability to broadcast it online, etc.).
  • A synopsis or summary. This might involve a chapter-by-chapter outline or something a lot briefer. (If in doubt, more is better.)
  • A sample of your material. In most cases, that will involve writing the book’s introduction, effectively a kind of manifesto for what follows, with around three sample chapters. If the total package comes to about 10,000 words, that will be right for most books, most of the time.

If you’re struggling, take comfort you aren’t alone.

I hate writing these, as does nearly every other author I know. Some authors can hammer out hundreds of pages without breaking a sweat, but break down in front of the awful task of filling that single sheet of paper.

The difficulties are twofold.

First, it’s hard to boil down all those hours of work, research and inspiration to the quick, frothy summary required to hold the attention of a time-pressed, likely bored editor (who has already seen dozens of other synopses that morning). Second, selling yourself is awkward. If you’re like me and have a shade too much English reserve, it’s hard not to feel gauche when you’re blowing your own trumpet.

Yet blow it you must.

If you don’t, that carefully crafted first chapter, the exquisite samples of work or the thousand-page masterpiece will count for nothing. They simply won’t get read.

There’s nothing for it but to grit your teeth, try to think about your work as objectively as you can, and set down what you think is important about it and explain why it’s worth reading.

When you can get away with a really short proposal

There are times you can get away with a short proposal. Harry Bingham, for example, sold two books based on proposals containing an outline of the manuscript, but no actual text.

This approach works if:

  • Your book is in a fairly specific, technical area (say “Blog Marketing”);
  • You have obvious qualifications for the task in hand (say if you run the UK’s biggest website on your topic);
  • Your track record shows you know how to string a sentence together (say with any sort of journalism, or any job routinely involving good, clear, professional writing).

If your book is a non-fiction work aimed at the general reader – Dava Sobel’s Longitude, or Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion – then you won’t get away with a short proposal. Sorry!

There are at least a few things you can do (and avoid) to make this task a little easier.

The most important thing to remember that your synopsis isn’t just a summary, it’s a summary that sells.

It’s important to give a clear idea of what’s in the book and what it’s about, but you don’t have to cram in every detail. If you want to give a detailed overview of the nuts and bolts of your book and the way they all fit together, consider including a separate chapter summary.

Your job is to tell a story about why your book is worth reading and why you are the right person to write it. You need to entertain, interest and (if it’s that kind of book) amuse. You should also try to include a beginning, a middle and an end. That’s to say a paragraph that quickly introduces the book and why it might be interesting, a series of further points that explain its value, and who is likely to want to read it (and ideally how many millions of these people there are) – and then a clearly defined conclusion that wraps things up or (better yet) leaves the reader hungry for more.

Book reviews are the best thing to turn to if you’re looking for writing models.

A good review doesn’t tell you everything that’s in the book – it does highlight the things that are likely to make you want to read the book. It passes an opinion, but avoids empty adjectives. Good book reviewers are also very good at cherry-picking the parts of books that give the strongest impression of their value. Try to do a similar thing and include a few of your best facts, best revelations, best jokes and best arguments.

And once you’ve done all that, you’ll probably find that you’ve covered that blank sheet of paper. It’ll take time and rewrites, but if you’ve got what it takes to write commercial non-fiction, you’ll know how to write a non-fiction synopsis.

Oh, and there is one more thing.

Be brief.

Editors and agents are busy. And a crucial rule of writing is knowing how to avoid outstaying your welcome.

Good luck!

The secret to getting an agent

Free submission pack template