June 8, 2010

Outline Or Synopsis?

Before you write a book, you need to prepare either an outline or a synopsis, but which should you do and why? For most writers this can be confusing, especially since all sorts of misinformation abounds or goes round and round! So to understand the very real differences, let’s back up a bit and look at what the outline and synopsis are meant to do.

For both, the first purpose is to help you keep your book on track as you write. Later, the same tool helps a potential editor or literary agent get an idea of what you had in mind without having to read the whole manuscript.

Besides having those traits in common, the outline and the synopsis run about the same length – usually a couple of pages. Otherwise they’re as different as a book of fiction and a nonfiction book can be.

If you’re writing a nonfiction book, you’ll develop an outline by simply listing the main points you want to include. Once you’ve written down the points you want to remember, group them into whatever categories they have in common. Each group then needs an appropriate heading under which you’ll arrange the points in a logical order or sequence.

As you write, this outline of well-organized thoughts will remind you what’s next – sort of like using an in-depth checklist to be sure you don’t forget something you want to include. Later, when you’re ready to send a nonfiction book proposal to an editor or agent, this same outline will go with your query letter and a chapter of two of the actual manuscript.

Similarly, a synopsis guides you, first as you write your novel then later as you try to give the editor or agent an overall feeling for your story. The synopsis is not the full story, nor is it a little paragraph or “blurb” like the one you’ll find on the back of a book jacket. It does not outline points nor list anything. Instead, the synopsis tells about a main highlight in each chapter of your novel – not giving the full story but telling about it in the present tense as though your very interesting story is happening right now.

When you complete your manuscript, add a query letter, the same synopsis you just used for writing, and a chapter or two of the novel. Then presto! You now have the fiction book proposal you’ll send to an agent or editor.

Besides this standard book proposal, literary agencies and book publishing companies sometimes have additional preferences they want you to include. To find out, locate the website then follow the writers' guidelines on the Submissions page of the company you think will be the very “best fit” for your book.

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(c) 2010, Mary Harwell Sayler, all rights reserved.

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