How to Write a Book Proposal: Writing Chapter Outlines for a How-to Book

book proposal coach lisa tener

Your Book Proposal Coach

Editing a book proposal yesterday I observed a common problem–this author didn’t know what to emphasize in her chapter outlines. I found myself asking, ‘Who cares?” as I read through the first few chapter outlines. In fact, I’d already read chapters of her book and I did care very much–this book has a large potential audience who is desperate for the powerful tools this author has to offer. It just didn’t come across in the book proposal at all.

If you write your chapter outlines with the following perspective in mind, you’ll avoid that problem and come up with a compelling and motivating outline for your book proposal.

As your write about what’s in each chapter, keep in mind your readers’ biggest problems, challenges and goals. What benefits or results are they looking for? You might start your outline with, “The chapter begins with a story about x that illustrates y.” In this single sentence, you can capture some sense of either the problem, the benefits of your solution or both.

Make sure to highlight the takeaways of each chapter:

*  Will your readers reach a new understanding or perspective? Clarify.

*  What new tools will readers have and what results may these tools help them produce in their lives or work?

know your book reader

The more your understand your readers’ needs and who your readers are, the easier it will be to write your chapter outlines. [photo by David Donohue]

*  What stories do you have to illustrate your points and make the material come alive? You can use the above format to simplify rather than trying to summarize the story, unless your book is more narrative in nature (this post assumes a more prescriptive self-help / how-to book rather than something narrative).

* What features are included in the chapter (a sidebar that describes the latest research? a quotation, several exercises?)?

For a prescriptive book, it’s fine to bullet point. You don’t have to capture absolutely everything in the chapter–focus on what’s going to empower your readers and be most important to them. Your chapter also doesn’t need to teach agents and publishers the material. They just want to know that you have enough material, fresh material, that you address the needs of your readers, that it’s well organized, etc.

Are you writing a book proposal? Share your questions about chapter outlines and other book proposal issues below.


  1. says

    Lisa, this is such great advice, in a nutshell. I taught a business writing class at the MBA level and my students were always shocked when I told them to put their message up front, in the first sentence. The question to answer was: what is the bottom line? It’s a real craft to figure it what the core message is and say it. It’s well worth it.

  2. says

    Excellent advice. But writers have to finish their memoirs before trying to find a publisher. Once the manuscript has been rewritten and critique by many knowledgeable readers, how to choose what to include in outlines will be clear. Of course, getting feedback on the outline is also essential.

  3. says

    In writing a chapter summary for my memoir, I can’t seem to find anywhere if it should be written in first person like the memoir or in third person as most chapter outlines are.

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