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How to Summarize a Book Chapter
Happy (?) Wednesday Manuscript Workers!
This week’s newsletter is inspired by a question I received via email from a reader of The Book Proposal Book: A Guide for Scholarly Authors. Here’s the question:
“I am a big fan of your book-proposal book but I have a burning question. Are the chapter-summaries necessary for the prospectus if the book is already completed? What is your recommendation? My book draft is finished but I want the submission to have the best chance possible. Thank you for your consideration.”
And here’s my (brief) answer:
“Yes, definitely write the chapter summaries!! Many of the people looking at your proposal and making decisions about your project will not have time to read the whole manuscript. Your chapter summaries also give you a chance to talk in a meta way about what purpose each chapter serves in the book, and they can show that you’ve been thoughtful about structure. The case for the book can be won or lost in the chapter summaries (in my opinion anyway).”
If you find yourself faced with writing chapter summaries (e.g. your target publisher asks for an annotated table of contents to be included with your prospectus submission, or you’re trying to map out your book in the introduction chapter) and at a loss for how to do them, Chapter 7 of The Book Proposal Book can help.
But if you haven’t gotten your hands on The Book Proposal Book yet, here’s a quick break-down of what I suggest you include in your description of each body chapter within your prospectus:
The working title of the chapter. If you’re at the proposal stage, don’t worry about the title changing later, it’s fine.
The topic of the chapter. You just need a few words to answer the question, “what’s this chapter about?”
The argument you make about the chapter’s topic. If it’s more of a context or history chapter, you might not exactly have an argument but you will still have a main purpose or point you want readers to understand. Don’t assume the chapter topic speaks for itself — people will want to know why they should read the chapter and the argument or purpose tells them why.
The objects you analyze in the chapter and the methods you use. What this looks like will vary by field. It might be the sources you drew on in your analysis, the texts you read, the people you talked to, the sites you observed, the data set you’re using as evidence, etc.
The relationship between your chapter’s main point or argument and your book’s overall purpose or thesis. If you can explain this, it’ll solidify the reader’s sense that the chapter is a necessary component of the book and worth the reader’s time.
The chapter’s relationship to the other chapters or its place in the overall arc of the book. This can be a sentence or less. It might simply be some transitional words at the start of the summary explaining how we’re progressing from the previous chapter or shifting directions in this part of the book, or why we’re starting or ending the book’s narrative in a this specific place.
I know this sounds like a lot, but it can actually be accomplished in one paragraph per chapter with some effort.
If you’re writing a proposal, you do want the book to feel substantial and fleshed out (versus overly speculative), so it’s ok to take more than a paragraph per summary if you need it in order to explain your evidence and analysis. But do try to be concise out of respect for your reader’s time.
If you find that it’s taking you several paragraphs to say what needs to be said about a particular chapter, consider whether maybe that chapter itself needs to be split up into multiple chapters within the book. Remember that each chapter should have one core argument or purpose it’s trying to convey to readers. Secondary arguments and purposes are ok (I’m not against nuance and layers), but you risk muddling the main argument if you’re trying to do too much at once. As a developmental editor, I can also tell you that the chapter will be a hell of a lot harder to write if you’re not clear on the main thing you want readers to take away from it.
I hope this little formula helps if you find yourself wondering whether you really need to write chapter summaries. Even if your publisher tells you that you don’t need the summaries because you have a full manuscript, I think the exercise of writing them (especially those last two bullet points) can be extremely clarifying. It may even save you time and suffering in your book-writing process overall, and heaven knows we could all do with more time and less suffering!
Hang in there, and I’ll see you next week.