When Writing a Proposal, Don't Be Constrained By Form

by Mark Levy

I was listening to a consultant who was trying to write a book proposal. One of the most attention-grabbing things she said concerned her network.

Not only did her newsletter have tens of thousands of subscribers, but her colleagues had subscriber lists just as large. We figured out that, all told, she had access to 1.3 million people.

“Publishers want to know exactly what you’re going to do to support the sales of your proposed book,” I said. “That you’re able to reach 1.3 million interested people is key. They’ll love that. When you write the proposal, make sure you put that figure right up front.”

A few weeks later, the consultant sent me a draft. Her ideas and prose were good, but after reading ten or so pages, I still hadn’t seen anything about her giant subscriber list. I phoned her.

“I thought you were going to feature that 1.3 million person list up front,” I said.

“I did,” she said. “Turn to page 36. That’s where the ‘Marketing’ section begins. The million person list is a marketing idea, right? So that’s where I feature it: in ‘Marketing. It’s the very first thing in that section.”

I explained to her that, yes, a subscriber list is a marketing idea and it belongs in the marketing section. The trouble is that if that’s the only section it appears in, the reader may never get to it. Perhaps a project will unexpectedly rear up and they’ll ditch the proposal before reaching it. You never know.

When writing a book proposal, then, don’t feel constrained by the form. A proposal is a communication tool: use it that way. Don’t make yourself say the wrong thing just because you think people expect certain kinds of information staged in certain ways.

If you have something important to say — a marketing fact, a counterintuitive idea, a story, a detail from your life – say it up front. Get it onto the first page or two. Be creative and somehow make it fit — even if you have to repeat it later on.

If you want a busy reader to notice you, lead with your strengths.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }


Good point. Use form for structure, but focus on creatively telling one’s message.


Mark Levy

Exactly, Slamdunk. One’s message supersedes the form.

Thanks for commenting.


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