I’ve been working with a nonfiction writer on her book draft for the last month. She has a 73 000 word draft with dozens of case studies, and wants to get it finished in the next few weeks.
I’m going to share how I coach a writer to revise their nonfiction draft without reading the manuscript or providing a manuscript critique. The synopsis is key to this approach, because if you can master your synopsis, you’ve also nailed the structure of your manuscript.
Let me explain.
We started with her sending me her one page synopsis, and she also sent me a page of one of the chapters, much as you would send a sample and a synopsis to an agent or editor – this is all you need to be able to assess the tone of voice and the story. After we worked on the synopsis we moved to the chapter outlines, but that’s for another day!

Why editors, publishers and agents sometimes only ask for a synopsis

In my coaching approach, I can tell you exactly how to polish up your draft, how to revise the way you’re positioning the story, the structure that needs reworking, and identify what’s unclear from the synopsis alone. And this is why agents and editors often only ask for a synopsis (or outline) of your nonfiction book before they even ask for a sample chapter or even a book proposal.
The synopsis says a lot.

If you can figure out how to show certain things in your synopsis, you will also be streets ahead in knowing how to structure your book! So this is why I started coaching this writer on her synopsis, and then we moved to the chapter outlines, and none of this involves / involved a critique on her manuscript draft, yet she’s moving forward with enormous clarity on her revisions and proposal.

What you need to show in the synopsis


If any of these things are unclear, you’ve lost your potential agent or reader.

  1. What is the story about? The basic premise of this book.
  2. Who does it relate to? Ie. who is your audience and what’s the relatable theme.
  3. Why is your version or your  research or your  angle or your experience on this topic unique? The hook.
  4. What does it offer me, e. what is the  promise or the takeaway or the transformation you’re offering a reader for investing their precious attention on this book?  The conflict that will be resolved by this story.
  5. What are the most exciting major experiences, turning points, case studies, revelations, information that I will find in this manuscript? The structure of the story.
  6. And how does that all tie together at the end – fulfilling the promise that was set up in the opening paragraph?


The synopsis opening paragraph – what needs to be shown:

What is this story about?

What category of nonfiction does it sit within?  What sub-category? I need to be able to position this book immediately.

Who are you and what’s your point of view in this story? What is the unique hook to this?  And how does that connect with what you have presented in the manuscript?  Ie. how do you fulfil the promise of the hook – what did you do with this problem that presented itself in the hook?

Things to show in the body of your synopsis:

In the main part of the synopsis,  I want to see the most  important, compelling,  aspects of what you are  showing me  in the story or in the information, the context in which it flows,  and  what that will lead to  as a transformation in my perception of the problem or the hook at the end of it.


Two common mistakes I see in a nonfiction synopsis whether it’s for a memoir, business, psychology, health or self-help:


  1.  The writer has listed a really boring list of sequential ‘things that happen’ in the story. Yes, the synopsis is a summary of the story, but it doesn’t need to be boring (and it shouldn’t!). Some events included in the synopsis are unrelated, or bring the pace down to a grinding halt, or don’t even seem connected to the basic premise. Think “and then X got divorced so she did this. Then X offered to X so she did this. Then after 6 miscarriages I got pregnant. Then I went to Africa on holiday.”

This isn’t storytelling. It’s content. It’s a patchwork of information. Storytelling flows. Storytelling is structured… it’s contextual… it flows from one thing to the next and makes you want to keep reading… like a story!

TIP: You only need to show the high level plot points, or case studies, or information, or revelations  that contribute to this overall story, outcome or transformation as connected to the premise you set up in the opening paragraph. Each paragraph must logically connect to the next… like a story.

Mistake number 2: The events don’t logically connect or flow from one point to the next and the writer’s voice changes throughout.

You might start off really strong in your synopsis, your voice pulls me in, then you go straight into ‘information’ mode where there’s no emotion, no point of view, just a list of events and it’s quite jarring when your voice changes. It makes me wonder if the chapters flow easily or if you jump from personal narrative to facts and stats. You do need to show quite a bit of mastery of the narrative in your synopsis, it’s almost like a micro-cosmic version of the entire manuscript.

The bottom part of your synopsis: the synopsis summary and connecting it to your author bio

With a nonfiction synopsis, we always come back to you as the author  being very much a part of this book pitch, this manuscript angle in the book sales piece, and I want to know,  who you are, what you learnt, how you changed perspective and learned something that gives me a promise or hope that I will, too, and how you are uniquely positioned  to sell and market this book and that you know where it sits in the market – ie. what other books are being sold on this topic or theme, and how yours is similar to some great ones, but how it fills a gap that’s different, too.


So, we went through a quick 1:1 of her version of the synopsis and I asked her a series of questions – just 5 questions – to answer as she went through the re-write.

The next week, she sent me a completely different version of the synopsis that completely flowed. Yes, I could take a few words out or clean up the intro paragraph, or something like that, but it works, now. And I didn’t need to read the whole manuscript!

The best thing about THIS is that now she knows how to approach editing the manuscript itself. Why? Because the synopsis is like a blueprint or a map of how the chapters need to be structured in the nonfiction manuscript. So if you’re clear on the intro hook, how and where it starts, the most logical next part of the story that keeps a reader interested, and then the 3-4 major plot points and how they’re sequenced, as well as the ultimate transformation, there you have a map for how to write your book!

In Summary: Why you need to focus on the synopsis first with your nonfiction project

So, how are you going with your synopsis? I always recommend writing one before you start the first draft and then write another version when you’re preparing to revise.

From there, you can get really granular with your chapter outlines and move forward from there. This is how I’d outline a book and then write it in 90 days. And if you can’t show what’s compelling about your book in the synopsis, then you won’t know what’s compelling in the manuscript itself.

How to write a great synopsis
Writing your chapter outlines