Writing a book proposal is a long and challenging process, but realising this at the outset might make this time less stressful. Far from a translation of your thesis, the book proposal can help you rethink your material entirely and certainly helps develop your authorial voice. In this week’s PhD Life post Dr Alice Eden gives some tips on how to write a successful book proposal, and in particular the abstract, based on her recent experience.
After my viva, and while holding the post of Early Career Fellow at the University of Warwick, I sought a book contract with Routledge. Here I talk mainly about a key feature of the book proposal – the abstract, ‘blurb’ or ‘statement of aims’.
The Routledge proposal guidelines ask for two types of summary for a proposed book. The first summary, or ‘blurb’ calls for a 250-word snapshot of your research for a non-academic/non-specialist but engaged audience. The second summary is a ‘statement of aims’. Here you can write in your usual academic prose but you must clearly and succinctly explain what your book is about, the main questions it addresses and why it is important. It felt like the editor was confidentially nudging me and asking ‘why do you think we should publish this?’
First, slow down
My main advice for your book proposal, starting with these abstracts, would be to slow down. Despite the intense pressure to publish, take your time to write the proposal well rather than rushing it. Use the time to think about why you are writing the book and what you want to say: you might be surprised to find that this has already shifted somewhat since you completed your thesis. In the transition from PhD student to academic author/early career academic/historian, your main focus and voice will subtly, but significantly begin to change. This is not to say you will change your argument, but the emphases of a PhD student talking to their supervisor differs seriously from a writer addressing an informed audience of peers (more on this shift in later posts). Taking time to think at this stage will help you in the longer term.
Indeed, I had thought I should be able to produce the proposal in a couple of days. I imagined this proposal as an easy summary of what I had written in the thesis, the content and main arguments. This was very far from the reality. The process of writing the book contract was one that early career academics will recognise as an ongoing sifting and rewriting of research aims and devising of schedules that continues through an academic career. I took time to think about every section in the proposal form (overall you will write about 2,500-3,000 words) and also, importantly, I took time to enhance the quality of my prose for readability. The whole process took several months. I had other deadlines and childcare to consider so the exact time for you will depend on your commitments. Ensure you allow enough time to give the process the serious attention it deserves.
Zoom out… think about the future
The proposal is the first impression that the publisher will get of you. It is an important document which says a lot about you as a writer/an academic. Allow yourself the opportunity to think about your practise more broadly and your medium and longer term aims. Like me, you will have spent a lot of time and given much financial and emotional commitment to your PhD. Enjoy exploring the research expertise you have nurtured and the resources you will have lovingly developed in these years: bibliographies, contacts, details of library resources, archives, photographs, a body of research and writing (with oh so many drafts in my case!). No doubt you could develop your research in numerous tangential directions. It is important to begin to see an overall research trajectory at this stage.
Snapshot your research
Slowing down and zooming out will help you create a ‘snapshot’ of your research. My Head of Department gave me some valuable advice in a few moments. She advised me to think about how you would summarise your work for an academic paper or when you send conference organisers abstracts – it’s a distilling process in which you summarise your research into perhaps 150-300 words. The book proposal requires the same approach and you will do this continually as you apply for academic posts, funding, fellowships and competitions, submit articles for publication and organise academic events.
When making artworks in the past I have been advised to take a photograph and look at the artwork on screen or to turn it upside down, to stand up and walk away from it. Creating an abstract or snapshot of research works in similar ways to these methods of distancing. I found that talking to myself out loud or describing my research/book to others helped me articulate the main points and arguments quickly.
While you will be able to expand on your short summaries in subsequent parts of the proposal (see part three of this series), the opening abstract section is possibly the most important. Whilst a difficult task at first, once practised a few times this process becomes your ally – a great writing tool!
What timeframe would you recommend for writing a book proposal? How do you go about ‘distancing’ yourself from your research? Tweet us @ResearchEx, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a comment below.
Alice Eden is an Early Career academic and Associate Tutor in the History of Art department, University of Warwick. Her primary interests are modern British cultural history, spiritualties and feminisms, with expertise in Victorian and Edwardian art history. She currently works in educational administration and is writing a book based on her PhD thesis (see future posts!) Alice can be contacted via email and followed on twitter at @Alice_Eden4.