Refining a Proposal

blogger: Cynthia Ruchti

Writers spend innumerable hours, bags of M&Ms (or baby carrots, but let’s be real), and cups of coffee/tea refining proposals before they’re sent to an agent to send to an editor. refine proposals

Later that afternoon, the agent sends the perfectly polished proposal to hundreds of editors at publishing houses. Right? Isn’t that what usually happens?


But how is that possible? It was refined like “gold to airy thinness beat”–one of my favorite expressions from English 107 in college, a line from John Donne’s (1573-1631) “Valediction, Forbidding Mourning.”

Oh, okay. I’ll share the whole stanza:

Our two souls therefore, which are one,

Though I must go, endure not yet

A breach, but an expansion,

Like gold to airy thinness beat.

The author spell-checked. Grammar-checked. Conducted three rounds of typo-searches. Added another comparable. Tweaked the title. What more needs to be done?

refining NourishedIn a recent news article reporting the success of a Books & Such client’s food memoir–Nourished by Lia Huber–these two paragraphs were embedded deep in the article:

Her agent, Janet Grant with Books & Such Literary Management in Santa Rosa, spent two years refining the book proposal. When they finally put the book proposal out, there were five offers within 10 days.

“I’d been writing book proposals for 15 or 20 years,” Huber said. “I persevered. When you have a calling, you gotta keep going after it.”

Two years. Is that the phrase that jumped out at you, too?

How could it possibly take two years to refine an already good proposal? What is there to refine?

Agents–to a person–will likely say that virtually no proposal arrives ready. The best and most experienced authors’ proposals need the refinement a good agent brings to the task.

What is there to refine? Every element.


It’s a good title. Is it the best title? Will it instantly grab an editor’s attention? Will the editor and sales/marketing teams be convinced it’s a title readers will find intriguing, appealing, need-answering, compelling? The agent approaches the refining process from multiple angles, always with one intention in mind–to make it the best it can be, with the greatest chance of engendering a contract in a world of more closed doors than open.


Is it concise but complete? Does it lie on the page like a literary couch potato, or does it dance and sing?


Similar to the one-sentence summary, does the uniqueness expressed in the hook make the book irresistible?


Does the writer’s expression of the proposed target audience show that the writer understands who’s buying and reading a book like this? Target audience–Everyone who reads. Your agent will likely suggest a change, since no book ever has appealed universally to every reader, including–sadly–the Bible.


If the takeaway is missing, no real point for the reader, an agent will work with the client until the takeaway is clear both in the content of the book and in this section of the proposal. That may take months to refine. If it is good, but shy of compelling–there’s that word again–agent and writer will discuss, think, pray, and ponder until it is.


Who can write an author bio better than the author? Practically anyone else. An author can supply the facts. An agent helps hone how the facts interact, and which elements of the proposed bio may be true but irrelevant for this document and purpose. Authors usually create a bio out of what’s true about them. An agent helps trim and strengthen it, even teasing out of the author elements the author didn’t think mattered.


Which would a writer prefer–having an agent send out the proposal with an “as is” disclaimer tag? Or allowing time–in some cases–to build platform numbers so the proposal isn’t an automatic no? Together, you and your agent will discover the best approach for your particular book. And it may involve the gift of time.


How strong is the comparable titles section? Is it clear how this book is different from the listed comps, still necessary even though those books are already in print? Are there better comparables to suggest? Does the agent need to send the author back to the drawing board to search for relevant, recent reads? It’s not uncommon for an author to say, “I couldn’t find any comparables. My book is so different from anything I’ve read.” At the agent’s urging, the author may be directed to new places to look, new angles to consider. That, too, takes time.


A marketing plan doesn’t include what you’re willing to do, but what you will do. It isn’t a list of lofties–Available to appear on Good Morning America. Hope to speak to a stadium full of people on this topic. Will try to get an interview that airs during halftime at the SuperBowl. It is a practical plan that shows the publisher that the author can be as creative and invested in promoting the book as he or she is in writing it. This is a section that often needs an agent’s guidance.


refine polishedEven a factually accurate synopsis may need significant refining. Agents help remove the boring factor, point out unresolved issues, clarify, clarify, clarify.


If an agent pushes back to ask for changes or improvements in the sample chapters, please know this. It’s for a reason. It’s not to add to their workload. It isn’t a ploy to keep the author guessing, a literary version of Whack-a-Mole. The agent makes these kinds of requests to make sure the chapters are as strong as possible, that the story starts in the right place, that the chapters have the tone and result the author intended. And when that glorious moment comes–THIS! This is IT!–the sample chapters not only shine but set the author up for a better experience while writing the rest of the book. And a higher expectation of publisher acceptance.


In the refining process, an agent sometimes sits on a proposal to see how it sits, much like a customer shopping for a new couch. The fact that it is a couch–or a book–isn’t enough. We sit in it. Test it out. Is it comfortable long-term, not just initially? Does it work for my 5’3″ self and my 6’3″ husband? How will it look in the family room? How will the book stand out on the bookshelves? Is it just about right, which means continuing the search? Or is it just right? Ask Goldilocks. There’s a difference.refining proposals

Every book proposal needs refining. As authors mature in their careers, their proposals may need less refining. But even a wonderful proposal invites the polishing that brings out its full luster and turns it from wonderful to spectacular. And irresistible.

What section(s) of your book proposals do you find usually demands the most refining?