2 Tips for Outstanding Chapter Summaries

If you’ve been following this newsletter for the past 6 weeks, you know that I’ve been sharing some tips for writing an effective scholarly book proposal (roughly keeping pace with this summer’s session of the Manuscript Works book proposal accelerator). This week in the accelerator we’re talking about chapter summaries. In a book proposal, these show up in the section that is sometimes called an annotated table of contents. Whatever your press’s template names it, you’ll definitely need to provide an outline of your proposed book’s structure, and that means listing the chapters you plan to include and what readers will find in them.

You’ll already have given an acquiring editor a broad overview of your book’s argument, methods, scope, and research objects in the project description. The chapter summaries give you an opportunity to show in more detail how the component parts of the manuscript will work together to build the book’s overall thesis and its narrative arc. You might be surprised to hear that many authors don’t take advantage of this opportunity. By this I mean that it’s common for me to read chapter summaries that are simply descriptions of topics. Each summary tells me what the chapter is about but it doesn’t tell me what the chapter does. Knowing that a lot of authors write chapter summaries in this way, you can do two things to really make your own summaries stand out in the eyes of acquiring editors and reviewers.

First, make sure you present an argument for each chapter. Much like your book as a whole needs a strong thesis in order to pull readers in and leave them with something they can take away from your research, each chapter should have its own compelling reason to exist and takeaway to offer. It might help to think of each chapter as having its own mini-argument that fits underneath the umbrella of the book’s overarching argument.

When a reader encounters a chapter summary that doesn’t contain a clear argument, their first question is, “what is the purpose of this chapter?” After that, further thoughts arise: “Does this chapter really need to exist in this book? Hm, I’m not sure what the purpose of any of these chapters are. Maybe this book idea isn’t fully baked yet. Maybe this book shouldn’t even be published.” Instead of letting your readers wander down that slippery slope, just come right out and state each chapter’s argument. And if it’s not obvious how the chapter’s argument plugs back into the book’s main thesis, spell that connection out too.

If you find yourself struggling to articulate an argument for each chapter, that may indicate that you need to take a harder look at the chapter drafts or rethink the structure of your book. Don’t feel bad if that’s the case. Just know that putting in this work at the proposal stage will help you feel more confident when making your pitch and will ultimately make your book much stronger.

The second thing you can do to make your chapter summaries outstanding is give some care to describing the narrative arc of the book across the chapters. Use transitional language to explain how Chapter 2 builds on Chapter 1, how Chapter 3 takes the thesis in a new direction, and how Chapter 4 resolves a tension raised earlier in the book. These are hypothetical examples of course, but if you can show why your chapters appear in the order they do and how the carefully considered structure of your book will pull readers through the book from start to finish, you’ll give the impression that you really understand the significance of your research and how to communicate it effectively. This will score you major points with an acquisitions editor. And, of course, it will help you write a better book for your readers.


Need more help crafting a book proposal that will connect with editors and reviewers? You can now sign up for the fall session of the book proposal accelerator. It runs 8 weeks and offers a structured program for going from book idea to pitchable proposal draft with a few hours of work each week. The accelerator is self-paced but interactive, meaning that I’m available to answer questions and give feedback as you work on each component of your proposal. There will also be guest appearances by publishing staff who’ll tell you what they’re really looking for in a scholarly book project. Link to enroll or get more info: http://manuscriptworks.com/accelerator.