A Streamlined Outline

A nonfiction proposal is broken down into sections, and one of the most important is the Outline, or Chapter Summaries. In it an author supplies, in paragraph form, a brief synopsis of which topics each chapter covers. This boiling-down process is daunting enough, but you also face what might be called the Three Bears problem. How long should each synopsis be?

You don’t want it to be too short. If you write merely a paragraph, you won’t be able to provide any material beyond the most basic. If the chapter is covering inflation, for instance, you don’t have the space to outline why your view of the Phillips Curve is any different from another author’s.

You don’t want it to be too long, either. The editor who is reading your proposal doesn’t have time to read pages upon pages of an outline. You want to limit each synopsis to roughly a half page, if you have 15 or more chapters, up to a page if you have less. That provides enough space to not only raise a topic but also provide your unique slant on it.

What happens if you have written complicated chapters? Let’s say you have a chapter in which you discuss the four standard views of what caused the Great Depression, why each is wrong, and the three reasons why your argument is more compelling. How could that possibly fit within such tight boundaries?

You can start, during your review of the full chapter, by skipping over all of your examples. Explaining how a theory works practically should not be included in an outline. You’re trying to hit all the high points. In a typical chapter, examples take up about half the space. So if you have a 20-page chapter, now you need to distill from merely 10 pages.

Second, you may have to limit the scope of your review. Out of the four standard views for the Great Depression, to return to that example, how common are one or two of them? Maybe you cover only the Keynesian and monetarist camps. Then you could set up a summary paragraph in which you oppose the liberal and conservative views directly, in effect killing two birds with one stone. That would leave space for two more paragraphs in which you summarize your new contributions. That’s what an editor wants to see, more than one more critique of standard views.

Exercise: A useful trick in creating an outline is picking out topic sentences. Copy and paste them into the chapter summary. Don’t worry during this phase about how the sentences hang together. Just transpose them. Once you have, you’ll have a list of sentences that don’t seem to flow into each other. That’s all right, because now you start phase two—working not with the chapter but just that list.

“If I try to articulate every little detail in a drawing, it would be like missing the forest for the trees, so it's just about getting the outline of the forest.”
—Jeff Koons

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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