Excellent writing can rescue an average proposal. So make sure your sample chapters are as polished as can be. Your prospective agent or editor will assume you’re sending your best work.
As an acquisitions editor, here’s what I look for:
Even before considering your message, an editor wants to know how well you communicate. The sample chapters must attract your target readers and compel them to keep reading.
Compelling nonfiction gets to the point quickly. So I look for economy of language
I also check whether the language matches the target audience. If you’re writing to an average person, your writing should feel at home in their neighborhood, not a seminary classroom.
A great book begins with your passion. Each sample chapter must clearly convey its message. And your proposal’s annotated table of contents should make plain how that chapter fits into the book’s flow and supports its overall message.
This is one of the biggest mistakes I see. Nonfiction chapters need to be guided by an internal structure. And that structure should remain generally consistent through all chapters.
A typical chapter structure:
1. Introduce a need or challenge
2. Explain it in more detail
3. Identify the solution
4. Guide the reader to apply the solution
5. Summarize and conclude
You don’t have to make the structure obvious, but readers will sense when it’s there—and become frustrated when it’s not.
Do your best
If the rest of your proposal serves as the interview before the audition, your sample chapters are the actual audition. So make sure they are as good as you can make them.
But there comes a time you must release them to your prospective agent or editor. You may worry that they’re not perfect; they never are and never will be. But be sure you’ve sent the best work you can do.
Kevin Scott serves as acquisitions editor at Wesleyan Publishing House, where he coaches first-time and experienced authors through the acquisitions and editorial process. Kevin also writes essays about sustainable Christianity at www.kevinscottwrites.com.