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?

39 Responses

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  1. I’ve seen one proposal. OK, a proposal for a single book. How many versions? I can’t tell you. I’ve watched it go from bad to better. An agent sees hundreds of proposals: bad, good and great. That experience could transform my proposal from “not bad” to “terrific!” I want to be better than “not bad.” Bring on the help, thank you very much.

  2. This rather overwhelming blog posting hits me with one overarching message – “We know what we’re doing. Trust us.” To me, it seems absurd that you would even need to say this. My message is 180 degrees out from that. I absolutely do not know what I am doing. As I struggle to navigate this unfamiliar landscape, I feel like a drunk man trying to escape from a house of mirrors. I will gladly – no – enthusiastically accept any expert guidance an agent is willing to provide. I may ask for clarification, or persuading reasoning, but only a fool would reject wise counsel outright.

    • Cynthia Ruchti says:

      And one of my reasons for posting this is to encourage those who wonder why it might be taking so long! Thanks, Damon.

  3. Nice overview, Cynthia.
    * Hardest for me is not changing my voice. In the proposal I tend to a dry formality, and thereby become a metaphorical gorilla squeezed into frocked coat and top hat, painfully holding thick pinkie out whilst trying not to either slurp tea, or crush teacup.

  4. Lynn Horton says:

    You have been spying on my M&M addiction? (And my answer to your question is the synopsis. )

  5. Katie Powner says:

    It’s tempting to be discouraged by the thought that no matter how much work I put into it, my proposal will not be good enough…but it’s not. It’s actually freeing. And the most demanding section for me tends to be the MARKETING section.

  6. Jaxon M King says:

    I am currently working on my first proposal. I find the summary part to be most challenging. I fear that even if it does dance and sing, it may dance and sing like me. Not so good! What to mention to be powerful. What to leave out to be concise. Yes, definitely the toughest for me.
    BTW: So you ARE saying I won’t get an interview that airs during Superbowl halftime? 🙂

  7. Cynthia, you made me feel better about proposals. They are hard and nerve-wracking. I’m not sure what’s the hardest part. Thanks for the encouragement. I’m copying your post and placing it in my keeper file.

  8. Summary and synopsis.
    Just those words give me hives.

  9. Wonderful tips for those of us who are attempting to polish those proposals ourselves. Thank you so much!

  10. Angela Mills says:

    Comparables. I always feel like, who am I to compare my book to this superior one?

    Oh, and Sour Patch Kids for the win 🙂

    • Cynthia Ruchti says:

      What helps me is finding books that compare for different reasons. One may be a similar location. Another may have a similar tone. Another may address a similar topic. It’s almost compare and contrast rather than comparables. Yes, that’s a mind trick. 🙂

  11. Cynthia, I loved this information. It actually comforts and encourages me. I do have a proposal out to an agent, and I am thrilled to know they get in there and make it better WHERE EVER there is a need for improvement. I and my writing partner helped each other with our proposals. But, I know both of us love input and help, because we want to become the best we can to deliver our writing to our audience. Our goal is to change and transform lives for better using pur individual writing styles. We are both extroverts, with the gift of mercy and both educated in communications. She wrote grants for six years. I wrote educational presentations and policy and procedures for hospitals and other health care settings. Getting our writing and proposals ready for the Northwestern Christian Writers Conference in St. Paul, Minnesota this last July was something of a miracle, a ton of handwork, skipping events in order to write, a fine tuned schedule in which we set goals at 8:30 Monday mornings, checked in on how we each were doing Thursday evening and emailed what we wrote for that week to each other by Friday or Sat morning. If we needed to we edited over the weekend, but tried not to do anything Sunday. Now we agree that Saturday and Sunday we need to keep for family and church and rest. We are back at it now, but not at such a breakneck pace. I love her input and she loves mine. So I say bring it on! I’m up for it. If it takes two years, at least, I’m not on my own anymore trying to learn on my own. My writing partner and I just got together this past March and boom, it was like putting two chemicals together that caused a writing combustion, because I now had a person with great editing skills for grammar, and I was able to edit her structure. Together it’s a beautiful blessing of God. We call ourselves, the Salty Sisters. Lol. I have other things I can be doing while working on the proposal, and I would LOVE guidance on developing platform because I have so many people who are requesting me to do this and that as I had mentioned in a previous blog comment. Having someone else believe in your book enough to be willing to work that hard and that long on it is not insulting to me and my abilities. No, it is a blessing to my heart and mind that someone would care enough to work with me to make it the best it can be. Besides that, while still being a hard worker, my sense of humor makes for a interesting adventure with memorable moments.

  12. Very good, I’ll keep hold of this! Plus, affirmative on the M&Ms! I have a whole big mug full.

  13. Angie Arndt says:

    Cynthia, you know me so well. You know I need step-by-step instructions for everything and this is exactly what I needed.

    What parts usually need refining? The hook. I spend as much time and paper trying to write a creative, not cutesy, sentence that leaves the reader wanting more. It’s like distilling a thousand pounds of flowers down for one tiny bottle of essential oil. It take time, but it’s worth it.

  14. I like your “sit-ability” section, Cynthia. I haven’t often thought of that aspect. I too welcome an agent’s advice on my proposal. I don’t mind starting from scratch, either, if that brings about better results.