Writing a non-fiction synopsis by Sam Jordison

A Guest Blog from Sam Jordison. Sam has been earning a living as a writer since the year 2000. He is the author of five books (including the best-selling Crap Towns and Sod That! : 103 Things Not To Do Before You Die ). He also writes features and articles regularly for the Guardian – and has written for most other national papers in the UK.

There’s a good chance that your 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 really get down to the business of pitching and where you can most effectively sell your ideas. It’s a place where you can 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 that 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.

A quick guide to the non-fiction book proposal
Every book is different and if specific publishers have set guidelines then of course you need to follow those. But as a rough guide, most book proposals will consist of:

  • A covering letter, that contains
    • a short description of the book
    • a short pitch for the book (ie: why the book feels necessary), and
    • a short statement of your authority [your qualifications to write this book] and/or platform [your ability to broadcast news of the book via your online platforms, etc]
  • A synopsis, or summary, of the whole MS. Depending on the kind of work involved, that might involve a chapter-by-chapter outline or something a lot briefer. (But if in doubt, more is better.)
  • Some sample material. In most cases that will involve writing the book’s introduction – effectively a kind of manifesto for what follows – plus about 3 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 some compensation from the knowledge that you aren’t alone.  I hate writing the things. So does nearly every other author I know. And we nearly always leave the synopsis until the last minute – not because we don’t think it’s worth writing, but because we hate writing it so much. 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 very hard to boil down all those hours of work, research and inspiration to the kind quick frothy summary required to hold the attention of a time-pressed and quite likely bored editor (who has already read dozens of other synopses that morning). Second, selling yourself is awkward. If you’re like me and have rather a shade too much English reserve it’s hard not to feel gauche when you’re blowing your own trumpet.

But 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 grip 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.

I know. I know. It hurts.

When you can get away with a really short proposal
There are times when you can get away with a very short proposal – Harry Bingham, for example (see his smiling face to the right), has sold two books on the basis of proposals that contained a detailed outline of the MS, but no actual text. This approach works if:

  • your book is in a fairly specific, technical area (eg: “Blog Marketing: a practical guide”);
  • you have obvious qualifications for the task in hand (eg: if you run the UK’s biggest website on Blog marketing); and
  • your track record proves you know how to string a sentence together – any sort of journalism, any other publications, or indeed any job that routinely involves good, clear, professional writing.

If your book is a non-fiction work aimed at the general reader – Dava Sobel’s Longitude; Dawkins’s 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 doing – 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.

For now 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 have 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 it’s 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 – even better – 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. (Saying your book is “brilliant” doesn’t mean much compared to saying – for instance – that it provides new insights into a subject the public simply has to know about – and here’s why…) 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. Easy? Well no. Doing a good job will take considerable effort and skill. It will also probably take quite a lot of time and a number of rewrites. But if you’ve got what it takes to write a book, you should also have what it takes to write a synopsis… Eventually…

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… See?

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8 Responses to Writing a non-fiction synopsis by Sam Jordison

  1. Wow! If I wasn’t scared before, I’m petrified now!

    In my research on how to create a good book proposal, the term ‘synopsis’ screams the loudest and if I’m honest? Has me shaking at the thought that I could get it so very wrong and in an instant lose that virtual chance.

    I’m new to writing, but only in the sense that I have never allowed anyone to read what I have written before, but have taken the plunge to share on paper what I’ve been sharing with friends, family and colleagues for the longest time, only with a more interesting twist and directed at one type of reader, but which can be taken on board by all.

    Are there example synopsis’s where I can gauge what’s expected?

  2. PS I’ve only just noticed how of this post is!!!

  3. Baruch Okpulor says:

    I am working on getting my book published overseas and a publisher asked for a synopsis of the whole book when I thought all things are ready.
    Thanks for this information. It definitely helped me.

  4. Cecile says:

    Hi,

    These are great tips, however, I have been looking for a sample synopsis or information that leads to a solid understanding of the CREATIVE NON FICTION synopsis. My MS covers a lot of ground, of which, cannot be shoved into a small box. Help?

  5. Cecile says:

    Another question, if the CREATIVE NONFICTION MS is written in 1st person, is the synopsis written in 1st person?

    One woman’s journey: my story begins………etc….

    Anyone out there writing CNF?

    Thanks!

  6. Cecile says:

    I found it!

    For Creative Nonfiction writers, please go to this site for tips:
    http://laeditorsandwritersgroup.com/writing-creative-nonfiction-that-editors-cant-refuse/

  7. Diana Mercedes Howell says:

    This was a very informative synopsis on what a synopsis is and how to write one.

  8. Hi Sam,
    All good advice, but when I hate a task that I must do then I grit my teeth and get on with it. I don’t trip my teeth as you do. But none the less here I am responding to what after all is mistake of no consequence instead of getting on with writing my synopsis.
    Thanks for the good advice.

    Cheers
    Brian

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