The Happy Medium

The most difficult task I have when helping authors put together a chapter outline section for a nonfiction proposal is trying to tell them how it works. A proposal is an unusual beast, designed only for publishing insiders. They know what they want to see, but how is the poor author supposed to know? On every proposal I edit, I spend the most time on the summaries of what each chapter is going to contain. So what is the magic secret here? How do you write an effective chapter summary that will help sell the book?

A good way to start the explanation is by marking extremes. On the one end, you can draw up a bulleted list of the main points the chapter is going to cover. The problem with such a brief format is that, when stated so baldly, a bulleted-list entry can seem like a point that is featured in a dozen other books. You need to provide more information about your unique approach to that topic, and that usually requires several more sentences, if not a paragraph, to support it.

On the other end is the full chapter itself. That also is not wanted, because the very word “summary” demands brevity. You need to distill 20-30 pages into a single page or two. Faced with such a task, many authors tend to clutch up. They feel they cannot write in their usual style, which many times is conversational. So they write out stilted points that are only a mawkish rendition of the chapter, no more attractive than a shrunken head.

Try for something in the middle. You take the entries on your bulleted list and then add a few sentences from the chapter to support each one, defining how it is your own. In other words, you are employing the same rhythm when you were writing the chapter, only picking out snippets that are the chapter’s main selling points. For example, the bulleted list reads: “The five food groups for the plant-based body.” So you expand on that and make it: “To help you see how you can eat more healthy food, I provide the 5 Food Groups of a plant-based diet.  Whole foods deliver whole nutrition, unlike their processed food counterparts, and that includes antioxidants and phytochemicals—critical to good health.”

The bulleted-list entry is flat, somewhat annoying because the reader has no idea what the five groups are. In the second version, we still don’t know what the groups are, but we do connect with the author’s obvious expertise and caring about the readers’ health. In this format, an author’s style is not compromised by the need to make a point quickly and move on.

Exercise: If you have already written the book, review it only for your main points. You’ll usually have 4–5 lead topics per chapter. Isolate the paragraphs in which these points are first brought up. This usually is the topic sentence for the paragraph it governs. Then review the sentences that immediately follow that sentence. You’ll find that, taken as a small group, these few sentences outline everything else that follows in the next section. Copy those sentences and paste them in your outline file. If you do this 4–5 times, you have a solid foundation for that chapter’s summary.

“There's no such thing as writer's block. That was invented by people in California who couldn't write.”
—Terry Pratchett

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.