Why are some proposals better than others?

By: Jeff Herman

I could tell you about how proposals are supposed to be structured and the importance of each section, but you can discover a wealth of good information about that elsewhere. Instead I’m going to tell you what doesn’t usually get said.

I’ve been doing my job for 20 years and have perused thousands of proposals. Does that mean I know what I’m talking about? Yes. Am I always right? I doubt it. But even when wrong I tend to have useful insights. An agent’s many functions includes saving writers from pitching proposals to publishers that will probably be rejected.

The more I have to consciously think about what the writer is saying, the less inclined I’ll be to like the proposal. Clear writing should resemble good digestion. I don’t want to feel my brain working any more than I want to feel my stomach working. I shouldn’t have to ask myself or the writer, “What’s this about?” It means the proposal has failed and is likely to be rejected. Clear writing is good enough. Writers shouldn’t lose their genuine voice in a misguided attempt to be exceptionally profound. Sentences that are consistently and abundantly understandable are the foundation for exceptional writing.

A clear concept is the most important part of the proposal and should be crystallized at the outset. A murky idea is unlikely to be rescued by other parts of the proposal. The more energy it takes to explain the concept, the less ready it is. When agents and editors don’t “get it,” they are reflecting how consumers would likely respond. Confusion negates connection, and without connection books won’t get bought.

Who will want or need your book? You are the only person who gets to decide that you’re a bona-fide writer, but the market gets to decide whether or not anyone cares. Know your customers. Don’t just know what they need, know what they want. There’s no shortage of needed books that fail because no one wants them. Conversely, there’s no shortage of un-needed books that succeed because they deliver what people desire.

Every season certain concepts and styles become hot, followed by too many eager writers trying to replicate and exploit a trend that may have already peaked. Don’t chase the herd; try to sense where the herd might be heading and get there first. The marketplace is a moving target. Create something that will bring the market to you.

No writer should ever feel unqualified to write about what they genuinely know and believe. A big mistake is to draw attention to missing credentials with excuses or apologies. Your entire focus should be on what makes you able and suitable to write the material in question. True, you may be disqualified for lacking expected credentials or experiences, but don’t make your rejection even more likely by expressing your own anxiety. Don’t deceive, but be confident about what you offer.

You’re wonderful. Tell yourself that each time you start writing, and repeat it each time you get discouraged. It may not help, but it will never hurt, especially if you avoid telling yourself the opposite. You can always find people who will tell you what you don’t want to hear, even if it’s true and valuable. But your best function when writing is to give yourself unconditional mercy, gentleness and patience.

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