Are You Good Company?

I’ve spent the last several weeks in this newsletter talking about the elements of an effective scholarly book proposal and what purpose it all serves when an acquiring editor decides whether to pursue a project or not. If you’ve been following along, you know that you need to demonstrate that you’re offering a manuscript with a strong argument, a significant intellectual contribution, and a clearly articulated audience. But that doesn’t cover all the bases quite yet, because editors and peer reviewers will be judging your proposal not just for its content but also for its style.

Editors look for authors who write with a strong, distinctive voice that readers will want to connect with. As Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato put it on page 85 of Thinking Like Your Editor (a useful book for proposal writers to keep on hand), editors look for proposals that demonstrate that the author will be “good company” for the duration of the book. In writing, as in life, being good company sometimes means being a little more fun or sharp or outgoing than you might normally be. It doesn’t mean being fake, but it might mean pulling out your most entertaining stories and really paying attention to whether you could be boring your companions.

There’s no one correct style in which to write up your book proposal. My blanket advice here is to write in the style that best conveys your voice so that it feels like you, personally, are showing up on the page. This can be a smart, formal version of yourself, but it should still be yourself. You want to make the implicit case that, even if someone else were to write a book about your exact subject matter, your book would still be unique and appealing because of the way the information is presented. This will help to assure an editor that you are the only one who could and should write the book you’re proposing.

After working with a lot of clients to line edit their book proposals, I’ve noticed some recurring stylistic issues that interfere with an author’s voice coming through as strongly as it might. Some of these stylistic issues also happen to be common in dissertation writing, which is probably why acquisitions editors are so quick to emphasize that their presses do not publish unrevised dissertations. Ensuring that these quirks are absent from your proposal (whether you’re working from a dissertation or not) will save you from setting off alarm bells in the ears of editors. What are the top five stylistic problems that I encounter in book proposal drafts? I’ll tell you in the next edition of this newsletter, this weekend. See you then!