How to Write a Book Proposal

18 May 2022 | Hardie Grant Books

Thanks for your interest in the Spark Prize. This guide should help you in putting together a proposal for the prize (or for any book submission). For more information, please refer to the prize guidelines and terms and conditions as well as our frequently asked questions.

Project title

A title is often the first thing writers come up with, but you should treat it as a working document – something you come back over the life of the project to check in on progress. Ask yourself, is this still the best title for the project? Does it reflect what I’ve really ended up doing, or just what I thought I would do? It can be a good exercise to ‘try on’ a different title once in a while, even if you end up going back to the original idea.

Author bio (maximum 300 words)

An author bio tells the reader (or the judges in this case) a little bit about yourself and your background, particularly what makes you the right person to be writing this book. Be clear and simple (no need to try to be funny) and include any additional training or qualifications that might support your approach to your topic. This experience doesn’t have to relate to writing (although you can of course include courses, awards or any prior publication) and can include life and career experience. Remember, it’s the proposal that counts, not the bio or credentials. 

One-page synopsis

A synopsis gives readers an overview of what your book is about, how the idea will unfold and what it will offer the reader. It gives publishers a sense of how you will develop your idea, the feasibility of that development, the potential audience and the commercial prospects. 

A synopsis can be tricky to write, but very valuable. You can treat this as a working document while you’re writing the book too. It will help you keep track of your overarching narrative or argument even as you explore different facets or details of your topic. Think of it as a blueprint to refer to while you build the house. 

There is no one way to write a synopsis, but the below prompts might help you to begin:

  • Include a couple of comparison titles. This is not a sign of unoriginality. It shows that you’ve researched the market and understand the context for your work. ‘In the tradition of Too Afraid to Cry …’ or ‘The Lotus Eaters meets Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil …’ – this is more persuasive to seasoned editors than claiming ‘you have never read anything like my work before’.
  • Tell us what’s most interesting to YOU about the work. Is it driven by suspense, voice, a particular character? Why do you want to write about it in the first place?
  • Plan your synopsis in scenes or ‘key narrative points’. If in doubt, follow a simple three-act structure (screenwriting textbooks are fantastic for non-fiction writers).
  • Remember, the synopsis is not a blurb. Don’t withhold anything from the reader (don’t be afraid to spoil the ending!). Recap where the characters or ideas were at the start of the story, then outline where we leave them. That’s the shape of the story and you should be able to sum up some kind of change or movement.
  • Include people you plan to interview or include in the book. 
  • You might also frame the synopsis through the chronology of the narrative.

Detailed chapter outline (maximum 3000 words)

As this is a developmental prize, there’s no expectation that you will know exactly what happens in your book. There’s a lot you can tell us in a chapter outline even without having finished. It can feel strange to plan this much detail without actually writing it, especially if you want to research an idea and expect your story to change based on interviews. Once you start writing it, you will find that you can write more than you think.

  • For ease of organisation, the chapter outline could include your proposed chapter headings. Sections could be phrased as complete paragraphs or bullet points – whatever is the clearest and simplest way for you to outline your plans.
  • Don’t be afraid to outline your questions: What do you hope to find out in this chapter? What kinds of concerns or questions will you cover?
  • If you’re still stuck, you could find some non-fiction books in this genre, and write dot point summaries of what happens in each of their chapters. This mapping exercise can teach you about structure, and you can even use it as a blueprint for your own work.

Sample (maximum 5000 words)

If in doubt, keep it simple. 5000 words seems like a long sample, but it’s better to do a few things really well than try to squeeze in everything that will be good about your project.
  • Showcase the best of your work to the judges, including important features of your writing and intended structure. If your project alternates between different perspectives/voices, for example, use your writing sample to demonstrate this.
  • You could include one long chapter, or several shorter chapters.
  • The sample chapters you provide don’t have to be consecutive. Just be aware of what the reader knows and doesn’t know. If you’re skipping ahead, or starting midway through the story, for example, you might need to write a short intro to set the reader up.

Some general tips

  • It’s worth making it as easy as possible for judges to read your work. Remember to follow the submission criteria, including formatting guidelines: one A4 PDF or Word document, with 11-point readable typeface (Times New Roman, Arial, Calibri, Cambria, etc.) and 1.5 spacing, with the title of your manuscript included in the header or footer of your document. You can include photos, illustrations, charts, graphs, and whatever else you think is important in your proposal.
  • You might consider listing a few important sources where relevant in your project plan. A long external reference list isn’t needed to enter this prize, even though research is often important for narrative non-fiction. 
  • If you're writing about traumatic experiences, it's good practice to mention it at the top of the proposal, so that any potential readers are prepared for the content. 
  • If what you’re writing about could have some sensitivities from a legal perspective, please make sure you explain this clearly in your proposal.
  • Show your drafts to readers you trust, people who will be honest about your work (a surprising number of people will have great criticisms of your work but won’t want to hurt your feelings. You want good, honest, tough-minded readers). At the very least, get someone else to proofread your work.