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  • How To Write a Nonfiction Summary

    Posted on January 24th, 2011 jean 8 comments

    While this is aimed at those nonfiction writers out there, this can also help out fiction writers.

    Before going out on submission (that means before my agent began sending my nonfiction book proposal out to publishing house editors) he asked me to write up a summary of my project. Just something short that he could share with potential foreword authors and the like.

    Sounded simple. And then the panic set in. What the heck was a nonfiction summary? What should I put in it? How long should it be? Ack. Choke. Panic.

    Here’s what the nonfiction book project summary was to me (and passed literary agent approval):

    Basically, this is a short document (500-1000 words) describing the proposed project. (I say “proposed” because in nonfiction you do NOT write the whole book before finding an agent or publisher. Unless it is a memoir–that is treated as fiction in terms of querying and submission.) It is a synopsis, but also so much more. While it is important to give a brief overview of what the reader will get–what the book will be about, including topics and how in-depth their contents will be, the book’s tone, etc., it is also important to include other ‘business’ aspects that is also covered in the proposal. That includes, who the book is aimed at (audience). How they will use it. Why they will find it helpful/amusing/what-have-you. Even in this summary you have to prove that there is a place for your book in the market and why it is important and timely.

    I also included a brief bit about myself, who I was, and why I was suited to write this book. Basically, it is like condensing the highlights of the proposal into 2 pages instead of 50.

    While it was difficult to condense the whole essence and importance of my project into 889 words (including title, etc.), it was well worth the four long days it took me.

    And not just because it managed to woo a foreword author.

    Writing the summary really helped me hone my thoughts on the project as well as focus on what was truly the selling point, what was unique about my project, and what it’s core truly was. I had already written the query and proposal, but in hindsight, I can see that this summary might have helped hone those too. (Had I written it before tackling the other two documents instead of the other way around.) In fact, after writing the summary, I went back and honed my proposal, making it much more specific and direct. Without that short summary, my proposal wouldn’t have been as tight or focused.

    For the nonfiction writers, if you find you are having difficulties in writing your query or proposal, try writing up a summary first. It might help you gain that focus you need. Because let’s face it, dreaming up a whole book and then making a case for it before you’ve even written it can be overwhelming and intimidating!

    Here’s a checklist of things you may want to include in your nonfiction summary:

    • title and author
    • a one sentence description of the book’s core or focus
    • a possible, brief intro into the topic
    • touch on the relevance of the topic in today’s world
    • how there is a market for your proposed book
    • how your proposed book differs from what is out there
    • what your book will contain in terms of topics (you don’t need to mention every little one, just overarching ones that give the foundation of the book)
    • how those topics will be organized (just roughly-you don’t need to get down into chapter specifics–save that for the proposal)
    • you might want to mention format if it is one that will have pictures, diagrams, etc.
    • who your readers will be
    • what readers will gain from reading your book
    • and a sweet little wrap up/summary/conclusion

    How a Nonfiction Summary Can Help Fiction Writers:

    For you fiction writers, writing something like this BEFORE you tackle your query may help you focus on what the unique aspect of your novel is and what that great hook is about it. It might also help you focus in on what the core of your story is and what those key plot points are that you will need to show in your query and even in your synopsis. Challenge yourself and make it shorter than the nonfiction summary as there is a lot in the nonfiction summary that you will not need. A fiction summary needs to focus on the core of the story, its theme, and that sort of thing and less on the market. Although, it can be good practice to think of your audience as it will effect how you write your query or synopsis.

     

    8 responses to “How To Write a Nonfiction Summary” RSS icon

    • Great post, Jean! If nothing else, writing a summary helps demonstrate that a nonfiction writer knows what he or she is doing in the project and up against in the publishing world. There’s a lot of homework that goes into these, and even more work in the book proposal.

    • That is so true, Matt.

      For those who don’t know Matt, he moderates the Nonfiction writers group over on agentqueryconnect.com and is full of great tips and information about nonfiction projects.

    • I’ve been toying with the idea of trying a nonfiction book – but I don’t know where I’d fit in the time! This is a good idea. I’ll have to sit down one day – flesh out a summary and see if I’ve got enough to go with :)

    • The summary is definitely a good place to start and help you focus in on what you might want to write about. But the biggest thing is to ensure there is a market. Which feels a lot like fiction writing in some ways….

    • I’ve been asked to write a synopsis for a small family run publishing company – that is all they are asking for. Would it be wise to make it more like a proposal???

    • If they are asking for a synopsis, then that’s probably all they need at the moment. They might ask for a proposal later on.

    • Thank you so much for your post! I finished my proposal and query and when I found that some agents want a book synopsis, I was stumped! Thanks :)

    • Yay! I’m glad the post helped, Caroline. Good luck with querying agents. :) (And make sure you really beef up your marketing bit in your proposal and demonstrate that you have or are developing a platform–audience already.)


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