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Put your book to the “lying eyes” test.


You can't hide your lyin' eyes

And your smile is a thin disguise

I thought by now you'd realize

There ain't no way to hide your lyin' eyes…

—“Lyin’ Eyes” by The Eagles

You know that moment when you’re telling an acquaintance about your new book, and they give you their brightest, frostiest, polite smile? Their lips turn up at the corners, they nod a little, but their eyes stay cool.

That’s the moment you know—they just don’t get it.

So is it them, or you?

In my last blog post I described the four questions agents and editors want your book proposal to answer, starting with “So what?”. There is one more do-or-die question you need to answer for your nonfiction book: “What’s your point?”

Most likely, no one will come straight out and ask you that in so many words. It sounds a little rude, after all. Instead, an editor might ask you, what’s your central argument in the book? Your thesis, your proposition for your readers?

Here’s an example. Let’s say your book is about the impact of personal relationships in the workplace on a company’s business outcomes. Great, that’s your subject. But it doesn’t tell me what your position is, or what point you’re making.

Your central argument for that book may be something like this: The failure to deal honestly with our colleagues’ emotions is the root cause of strategic failure for most businesses today.

A statement like this tells me exactly what your position is, the business problem you are addressing, and what you want me to believe.

Most book proposals and nonfiction manuscripts do not suffer from any lack of interesting points and arguments. Far from it. Most have too many: the chapters are littered with dozens of smaller concepts, not one of which provides an overarching proposition for the book as a whole.

Here are two “tells” that demonstrate you haven’t yet landed on a sound central argument for your book.

1. Your reviewers can’t explain your central argument. Tap some early reviewers to read the introduction to your book (or the overview for your book proposal, if you haven’t completed a full draft of the introduction). If you have a solid argument, it will be in there. Ask them to explain the core thesis of the book in their own words by finishing this sentence: “This book argues that…”

If their response doesn’t match with the message you think you’re conveying, it’s a sign you need to hone your structure and your language to express it much more clearly. Do make sure to select early reviewers who are aligned with your audience for your book. A college math professor might not be the ideal reviewer for a book aimed at classic car enthusiasts, unless that happens to be their weekend hobby.

2. Your introduction and conclusion tell different stories. Pull out your introduction and conclusion and read them together, in isolation from the rest of your manuscript. If you haven’t yet written the full manuscript, you should be able to do this exercise with the chapter summaries you have written for your book proposal. Do the introduction and the conclusion both bring home the same message? You may very well have three or four ancillary claims in there, but they should come under the umbrella of a single core proposition.

As Theresa McPhail writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education, your overarching argument is “…the bright red thread that connects all the various pieces into a beautifully interwoven text. It’s what you keep looping back to, and what allows the reader to follow your argument all the way through.”

Get this right, and there will be no more lying eyes and polite smiles, just honest enthusiasm for your brilliant proposition.

PS If you’re still deciding what your book is about, who it’s for, and what you want it to achieve, click here for a free email course to help you on your way.

Photo by Tadeusz Lakota on Unsplash

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© 2020 Sally Collings

The Book Proposal Expert

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