Book Proposals: The Nonfiction Annotated Outline

Since we recently discussed the role of a synopsis in a fiction proposal I thought it important that we address what the nonfiction author needs to provide.

This is one of the main differences between the fiction and the nonfiction book proposal. I’ve seen many authors confuse the two and create extra work for themselves.

Not a Synopsis but an Outline

I intentionally did not use the word “synopsis” in the title of this article. Your nonfiction proposal doesn’t provide a synopsis per se. Instead it is more of an annotated outline.

(A fiction synopsis is two-three pages single spaced which tells the whole story from beginning to end. A “quick and dirty” overview. Do not do that with a nonfiction book.)

Start with the Table of Contents

The nonfiction proposal should include a table of contents (TOC). (A novel proposal does not need a TOC. Yes, I’ve seen fiction TOC’s that are just a list of sequential numbers…)

A simple method would be to write one paragraph about each chapter describing its core message. A chapter-by-chapter analysis.

Sort of like an executive summary. In many businesses the executive manager won’t have time to read all 10 pages of your statistical argument for buying a new machine. But they will read a one paragraph summary.

One benefit of this exercise is that you might realize that you have two chapters that, when boiled down to their essence, are saying the same thing. It means you might be needlessly repeating yourself.

Be Intentional and Brief

This annotated outline is a bit like creating a hook for each chapter. It forces you to think hard about what your book is saying in each part or what the title of your chapter should be. Even if you haven’t written those chapters yet, I hope you’ve thought about what you are planning on writing. It may help guide your eventual composition.

As with the fiction synopsis, there are no shortcuts here. Your book proposal will be scrutinized by everyone in the decision making process at the publisher. This “executive summary” of the whole book could be what helps sell, or not sell, your idea.

In some ways this outline is creating an architectural design of a bridge. A blueprint or a “picture” of the bridge. You aren’t using steel beams or bricks, you are drawing a picture of what the bridge will look like when complete.

How Do I Write a Good Annotated Outline?

Some thoughts to consider:

  1. Avoid starting each annotation with “This chapter will” or “The reader will.”
  2. Use an active voice. Avoid “ing” words. You can’t eliminate them all but at least be careful.
  3. If applicable, include the “big idea” or the key benefit of this chapter.
  4. Keep it to one paragraph…maybe two. You aren’t rewriting the chapter, merely summarizing it.
  5. Think of each chapter as a speech you are giving. If you are asked for a one paragraph pitch for that speech, how would it read? That pitch is an executive summary of the hour long presentation you’ll make later.

Exceptions to the Rule

Please remember these are guidelines, not rules. Not every book fits the above set up. A devotional. A cookbook. A Bible study. Even a memoir. Any number of various projects do not fit the straightforward TOC and annotation.

Too often I’ve seen someone try to create an annotated outline of a 30 day devotional. That doesn’t work very well because that type of writing is already sparse and pointed. To create 30 one sentence summaries is unnecessary.

In the case of a devotional, don’t provide a TOC. Simply rely on the overall concept of the whole book. Discuss the layout and approach. Then let the samples speak for themselves.

If you are writing a memoir remember that it is a genre that falls between fiction and nonfiction. It is a story…but one that is true. Rachelle Gardner wrote a great post on this issue and how to pitch that memoir. (You can find it here.)

If your book does not fit the typical TOC annotation, then don’t worry. Try your best to convey the overall picture (the blueprints of the bridge). Shoehorning the concept of annotation into the wrong type of book will be a struggle and ultimately a waste of time.

Novelists Beware!

All novelists take note.

Do not create an annotated outline of every chapter in your novel. It is a common error because the novelist read a book on writing proposals and didn’t know the book’s advice was for nonfiction.

I recently read a novel that had 90 chapters. I cannot imagine what a chapter-by-chapter annotated outline of that novel would have looked like. I suspect the author correctly used a three page single spaced synopsis to sell his story. Not an unending 90 part annotated outline.

If novelists fail to know the difference they may regret the wasted effort.




27 Responses to Book Proposals: The Nonfiction Annotated Outline

  1. Rebekah Love Dorris June 4, 2018 at 5:00 am #

    Thank you! This is exactly the stage I’m at in my book. Once my platform gets sturdier, I can’t wait to do this!

    By the way, is that the right idea? Pause the book and build the platform?

    • Steve Laube June 4, 2018 at 11:37 am #


      It depends on your situation.

      The platform building is an important part of the process. The bigger the audience you have and the more people clamoring for your writing creates a better opportunity to sell your book once it is ready.

    • Tisha Martin June 4, 2018 at 5:20 pm #

      Congratulations, Andrew!!!!

  2. Norma Brumbaugh June 4, 2018 at 7:44 am #

    This is helpful. Thank you.

  3. Shirlee Abbott June 4, 2018 at 7:45 am #

    For me, this was the easy part. I did the first chapter outline before I started writing the book. I wrote the chapters, revised the outline. Moved a topic from one chapter to another, tweaked the outline. Edited the chapters, edited the outline. Parallel works in progress.

    • Steve Laube June 4, 2018 at 11:35 am #

      I remember in college being asked to create an outline of my research paper to turn in earlier in the semester. So I wrote the paper first and then created an outline. I simply could not create the outline first because I didn’t know how I was going to approach the topic (which was the influence of Nietzsche and Existentialism on 20th century literature).

      The professor marked me down for having too detailed of an outline. Said I was creating to small of a box into which I would write the paper.

      When I revealed that I did it backwards, wrote the paper first, he looked at me like I was an odd specimen. He smiled and changed the mark on the outline to an A+. Then suggested I rethink that strategy.

      Now I am better, when creating a speech or a class, at creating a general outline and adding content to it.

      • Rebekah Love Dorris June 4, 2018 at 12:03 pm #

        Now THAT sounds like an interesting research paper! Pretty cool how your career has been spent negating those ill effects!

      • Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D June 4, 2018 at 12:32 pm #

        Steve, I have run across a lot of students who take the same approach of writing the paper and then the outline. As long as the paper is good and the outline is strong, I don’t care how they approach the assignment.

      • Tisha Martin June 4, 2018 at 5:18 pm #

        That’s how I did it in college, too—wrote the paper first and then the outline. Now I realize that’s not the best foot forward. I learned very fast how to create good outlines in grad school. 🙂

  4. Ann L Coker June 4, 2018 at 8:03 am #

    Thanks for your timely blog as I begin my book proposal. I’ve reviewed your website and researched all posts re: book proposals. All are helpful and encouraging.

  5. Jennifer Henn June 4, 2018 at 8:07 am #

    Thanks Steve, great information.

  6. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser June 4, 2018 at 8:32 am #

    Any chance that the vividly descriptive chapter titles of the Victorian era will ever make a comeback?

    Or am I waiting in vain, my heart slowly rent by the tearing hands of unalterable progress and fell literary circumstance?

    • Steve Laube June 4, 2018 at 11:29 am #


      Ye shall waiteth in vain.

      • Andrew Budek-Schmeisser June 4, 2018 at 11:34 am #

        Fie, I say, upon such pale fortune, wrought by the churls who so vaporously inhabit yon Pub Boards!

        I shall pin my hopes upon the Parfit Knights of Agency, whose scarred arms can well bear the weight of reviving such fine tradition.

        • Steve Laube June 4, 2018 at 11:37 am #

          Ain’t gonna happen dude.

          • Andrew Budek-Schmeisser June 4, 2018 at 11:40 am #

            Ah, well, sic transit gloria literati…

            Still waiting for GM to bring back the Corvair, but probably a ‘no’ on that one, too.

  7. Beth Fortune June 4, 2018 at 9:45 am #

    This is very helpful. Thanks for addressing proposals for the non-fiction Writers.

  8. Joey Rudder June 4, 2018 at 10:49 am #

    I was wondering how a writer would submit an outline for a devotional. Thank you for clearing that up. 🙂

    Should the samples for a devotional consist of three entries (forgive me – is that the correct term?) instead of three sample chapters or would you prefer more since they wouldn’t be as long as book chapters?

    Thanks again, Steve.

    • Steve Laube June 4, 2018 at 11:28 am #

      Three devotionals would be maybe six pages? That is not enough to sample.

      We say “first three chapters or 50 pages.” The reason there is a limit is to feebly try and prevent writers from sending their entire manuscript.

      So if you have 100 devotionals, then send 10 or 15. Enough of a sample for the publisher/agent/editor to consider.

      Remember, these are guidelines, not rules, when it comes to creating a book proposal.


  9. Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D June 4, 2018 at 12:33 pm #

    Thanks for the info, Steve. I appreciate your explanation, since I write both fiction and nonfiction.

    • Tisha Martin June 4, 2018 at 5:14 pm #

      Sheri, this cracks me up every time. We seem to post at the same time most days! 🙂

  10. Tisha Martin June 4, 2018 at 5:13 pm #

    Steve, I wonder what my master’s thesis “Complex Social Issues in Mrs. Gaskell’s Cranford: British Society’s Transition from the Victorian Era to the Industrial Era” would look like as a nonfiction book outline…?

  11. David VanAtter June 5, 2018 at 12:23 pm #

    Thank you for this. I use annotated outlines to prepare for public speaking opportunities. It is a great idea to use this as a planning tool for the book as well.

  12. Judith June 7, 2018 at 9:06 am #

    Thanks for the info re non-fiction. It is very helpful. I wrote a Masters thesis with a very general outline then afterward the complete outline requested. Worked well. For doctoral dissertation I wrote the more complete outline first. Both worked best for each topic, the range of material covered and the requirements required. Also, I don’t write sequential chapters but am very careful not to repeat info and make good transitions. I do check that carefully. Appreciate your help as I will us it for my books.

  13. Robert Hitchman June 9, 2018 at 4:33 pm #

    Thanks for the tips on non-fiction book proposals. It was a blessing. One question. What would you suggest for an author who has already self-published a non-fiction book but is working on a 2nd edition and desires a traditional publisher. Also, working on a possible workbook to go with it. Thanks for any input.

    • Steve Laube June 10, 2018 at 1:25 pm #

      Robert, Just give full disclosure of what you are doing. Unfortunately you’ll have to reveal the sales of the first edition. That could be great if you sold 10,000 copies. But not so helpful if you sold 100.

      The numbers of sales of a independently published book speak to the size of the author’s platform and their ability to sell books. The more successful you are the more attractive those numbers are to a major publisher.

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