Writing Success: A 3-Pronged Approach

Mary Keeley

Blogger: Mary Keeley

Let your heart not grow weary from the increasing volume of proposals competing for fewer publishing slots. If you are patient, you’ll continue to have opportunity with traditional publishers as long as they are still acquiring. I say that tongue in cheek because of course they have to acquire new books to stay in business. The question for you the writer is, will you and your work be ready when opportunity knocks?

Sooner or later publishers will respond to the trend of declining revenue numbers by recognizing that, while readers remain loyal to bestselling authors, they also want new voices and inspirational approaches. Will you be ready? Approach the following three components of your career to be ready for the attention of an agent first, and then editors.


The Approach

Personally, I find it more time efficient to receive a formal proposal at the outset rather than the two-step process of reviewing a query and then a proposal, if I’ve requested it. A scan through a proposal provides more information for an initial impression. It tells me if the writer has done his or her homework. by researching the Books & Such website and following our agency’s posted submission guidelines for content and delivery.

TIP: This is my preference, but other agents might prefer to receive queries first. Follow the unique set of guidelines for each agency you approach. Don’t assume they are the same for all. Agents review many proposals and can spot a lazy shortcut.

Agents can also tell if you have invested time in your writing career by following professional and author blogs, have attended writers conferences, and/or have read how-to books to learn what is involved in creating a professional book proposal.

How can we know these things? Because your proposal will show an understanding of the industry and the type of information that is important for us to know. You will have picked up publishing language and presentation terminology and used it accurately in your proposal. In other words, you’ll exhibit an understanding of the business aspect of the industry.

The Contents

The business portion of your proposal is often the first section an agent looks at, especially if you are a nonfiction writer. Agents receive many proposals, and time constraints force us to go to these quick indicators of your readiness for representation:

  • A memorable title
  • A hook that makes me sit up straight and forget what I was doing a minute ago
  • A well-organized format free of typos, grammar and punctuation errors, written in business language, except for the novel’s synopsis, which should reflect your author voice in the manuscript
  • A short overview and annotated chapter list for nonfiction; a synopsis for fiction
  • A marketing plan that shows you have done the pre-submission work to grow relationships with your reader audience for your novel or a broad platform for your nonfiction book and have prepared for creative ways to promote your book.
  • Several comparable titles, listing similarities and differences


Agents look for writers who are wordsmiths. Every word is perfectly chosen and necessary. The language and characters’ voices fit the setting of the novel or your approach to your nonfiction topic. It’s obvious you have practiced your craft by the way your story flows and keeps readers absorbed in the action and emotional tension. Your nonfiction book comes to a convincing conclusion.

There are no shortcuts to approach this perfection. But it will be worth your time because this precise blend is what transports readers into the center of your story. Or to the heart of your message.

TIP: Don’t give yourself a self-inflicted timetable to achieve publishing success. It will take you longer than you’d hoped to achieve your publishing dream. Bestselling authors will tell you they are still learning the craft. Submit only when you are convinced, through editor or critique feedback, that your manuscript is ready for an agent’s eyes.


Writers have several ways of making initial connection with agents: through blog communities such as our Books & Such blog community, impressing an agent at a writers conference, or submitting a professional looking proposal and polished manuscript according to the agency’s submission guidelines.

Speaking for myself, I’ll go on to schedule an initial phone call to consider representation if:

  • the writer demonstrates teachability, commitment to his or her writing career long-term, and a professional presence
  • the nonfiction writer has a competitive platform or the novelist has already grown an audience for the story
  • I sense we would work well together and I have a passion for the writer’s work.

Your writing career isn’t a race; it’s a journey. You might groan at the application of this over-used adage, but it’s true. So enjoy it and celebrate every step of growth.

Which of these areas needs your immediate attention? Which one is is most problematic for you? How do you divide your time between the three? 


Writers, be prepared for opportunity in these three important areas. Click to Tweet.