Posted On June 18, 2010 by Print This Post

Ask An Editor: Synopsis vs. Outline

This month, we’re answering a question from the FAQ files. This one comes up once every month or two, and it goes something like this:

My agent asked me for an outline of my next book. Is this different from a synopsis?

The answer is yes and no and maybe, depending on the how the person meant it. I know, that clears it up, right? So let’s look at how these terms are commonly meant.

An outline generally is:

1. A chapter-by-chapter capsule summary of a nonfiction book.

2. Think of it like an enhanced table of contents.

3. The purpose of an outline is to summarize the information which will appear in the finished book.

4. Its format will include chapter numbers, chapter titles and/or headings, and a point-by-point breakdown of topics covered in each chapter.

5. When we evaluate outlines, we’re checking whether the topic is meaty enough to fill enough chapters for a whole book.

6. We’re also checking whether the core thesis is thoroughly developed.

7. We’re also looking at things like organization of ideas, the way the chapters build upon each other, and so on.

Many nonfiction books are sold on an outline plus some configuration of sample pages, such as an introduction and sample chapter. We evaluate the sample pages for writing quality. We evaluate the outline for content. There will be other relevant questions, too, such as whether the author has a platform and how broad that platform might be, which might be addressed in the outline, cover letter, sample chapters, or pitch, but ought to be addressed somewhere. (“Platform” is an author’s established presence as an authority on a topic. It’s the professor of economics who writes a book about money management, or the personal trainer with a blog that takes 100,000 hits a month who writes about fitness.)

A synopsis generally is:

1. A narrative summary of a work of fiction or narrative nonfiction.

2. Think of it like enhanced jacket copy which relates the beginning, middle, and end of the story.

3. You will use your synopsis to introduce your main characters, establish the themes, and describe the events in the plot.

4. The synopsis might mirror the flow of events in the plot in a chapter-by-chapter manner, but it will still be presented in narrative format.

5. A synopsis rarely uses headers and similar material, except that some formats have separate paragraphs to introduce characters. In that case, those paragraphs are sometimes headed “Characters,” and the plot summary is headed “Plot.” But these formats are less common than ordinary narrative formats.

6. When we evaluate a synopsis, we’re checking that the plot is interesting and coherent.

7. We’re also checking whether the characters are interesting, but that might be easier to determine from sample pages. The synopsis will at least give us a starting point, though.

8. We might also be checking for other things like writing quality and tone, but the sample pages usually will be more useful for that purpose.

Many novels, memoirs, and other narrative works are sold on a synopsis plus some configuration of sample pages (generally the first seventy-five to one hundred pages or thereabouts). The purpose of a synopsis is to give a flavor of the tone and characters, the complete but condensed plot, and perhaps some thematic or other elements.

The kicker is that many people use these terms interchangeably. Or maybe they’re so used to asking for one that they use that one term without realizing they want the other document. Or maybe they’ll assume you know which format they actually want. In other words, even though there’s a technical difference between an outline and a synopsis, there’s a bit of looseness in the way we use the terms.

So what’s a writer to do?

If this is someone you’ve got an established relationship with, just ask them which they would prefer. “Do you want a chapter-by-chapter outline or a narrative synopsis?” See how easy that is?

If this is an over-the-transom submission and asking might be awkward, you can either check their submission guidelines for clarification, or you can assume that a narrative work takes a narrative synopsis. That assumption is probably safe, but there may be rare cases when it’s not. So if you’re uncomfortable with this assumption and the submission guidelines are silent, you might have to find a graceful way to ask for clarification. “Sorry to trouble you. I checked your guidelines and couldn’t find the answer. Do you want a narrative synopsis or a chapter outline?”

So now that we know the difference between a synopsis and an outline, do you have any questions about formats?


Got a question for the editor? Email it to askaneditor at romanceuniversity dot org.

* * *

Theresa, thanks for the clarification about these two important writing tools!

Join us on Monday when writer and Facebook guru Haley Hughes provides an in-depth look at how writers can make FB work for them.

Theresa’s Bio:  

Theresa Stevens is the Publisher of STAR Guides Publishing, a nonfiction publishing company with the mission to help writers write better books. After earning degrees in creative writing and law, she worked as a literary attorney agent for a boutique firm in Indianapolis where she represented a range of fiction and nonfiction authors. After a nine-year hiatus from the publishing industry to practice law, Theresa worked as chief executive editor for a highly acclaimed small romance press, and her articles on writing and editing have appeared in numerous publications for writers. Visit her blog at where she and her co-blogger share their knowledge and hardly ever argue about punctuation.


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14 Responses to “Ask An Editor: Synopsis vs. Outline”

  1. Hello everyone,

    Sorry about the post going up so late! I had a complete and utter brain fart this morning.

    Hugs, Theresa!


    Posted by TraceyDevlyn | June 18, 2010, 8:46 am
  2. Great post Theresa. I never really thought about the differences before so this will be handy!

    Have a great weekend everyone.

    Posted by AdrienneGiordano | June 18, 2010, 8:53 am
  3. ahhaha!!! I’m on!

    lol..sorry, internet has been down all morning due to huge storms in the area…typing super fast because here comes another one!

    Morning Theresa!

    I’m right at the start of writing a synopsis..AUGH! talk about my brain leaking out of my ears…lol…..but thanks for the great post….I never knew there was an outline! something new to worry about! =)


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | June 18, 2010, 9:42 am
  4. Hi, RU! I’m off to a late start this morning, too. Must be something in the air!

    Posted by Theresa Stevens | June 18, 2010, 11:31 am
  5. Hi Theresa!

    Thanks for the info! I actually don’t mind writing synopses. Whether I do them well is another thing entirely.

    Posted by Wendy Marcus | June 18, 2010, 12:47 pm
  6. Hi Theresa!

    For some unknown reason, the process of writing a synopsis escapes me. I’ve read – no, devoured, everything on the topic and then when I sit down, totally inspired by great ideas – and I start typing? Holy flaming pages of crap! Seriously, I’ve actually sat there after I’ve completed my first run and stared at the computer screen going WTF? Even I don’t understand what I’m trying to say there. Or? Where did that fancy-shmancy word come from? Queen Elizabeth herself? I’ve actually made gagging noises so loudly that honey’s come rushing into the room ready to do the heimlich on me.

    But after stepping away from it for a time, I’ve boiled a part of the problem down to one thing. For me, it’s subplots that are tied into the final resolution. That’s where I go bi-polar and get to the end of the freaking thing and go uh-oh. I need to mention this or that first – so I go back to the beginning and start plugging in stuff that probably doesn’t matter, but I have this need to try and make it work with the meat of the meal – so to speak. And even though I know it dilutes the message – AND – messes with my over-all writing tone/style I’m loath to forget about plugging this information in.

    So my question would be. Is including all the ties to the final resolution important? I’m of a mind that this is what makes the story interesting – and it’s the story idea your trying to sell with a synopsis, right?


    Posted by Murphy | June 18, 2010, 2:21 pm
  7. I have a question. Do you have any idea how to get us new writers more comfortable with writing the synopsis. I seem to lose the voice of my manuscript when sriting queries or synopsis. Forget the outline. I am not even going there. I did one for myself and killed my story and creativity and am now in process of CPR and defib.

    I had a partial request with a synopsis. I am sure the synopsis killed it. (the query was painstakingly edited by someone from a workshop, so I got past step one)

    Actually I will take ideas from anyone who has had to write the synopsis for an agent/editor and had it work… Desperate, want to write, need to write, but HELP 😀

    Posted by Leona Bushman | June 18, 2010, 2:39 pm
  8. Hi Teresa!

    Aside from the H/H, if a secondary character plays a major part in the plot, should he/she be named? I have more than two secondary characters that are involved in the plot twists and I’ve “read” that as a rule, only one other character (other than the H/H) should be included in a synopsis.

    My other question is how long should a synopsis be for a single title romance that’s around 350-400 pages? I’ve “heard” there should be a paragraph for each chapter.

    I’ve decided to write the synopsis first for my next manuscript. I usually outline the story before hand, though it changes a lot as the story makes it onto the page. I took a synopsis workshop and it really opened my eyes to plot holes…and not in a good way! Filling out the templates in the book “Break Into Fiction” helped me establish the “framework” (for lack of a better phrase!) for writing the synopsis…now whether it’s any good is the big question!

    Thanks! Hope everyone has a great weekend!

    Posted by Jennifer | June 18, 2010, 7:31 pm
  9. Thanks for the posting! I emailed Kelsey with a similar question. My confusion stems from a third term that may or may not be used interchangeably–“proposal”. My agent told me to work up a proposal for a book instead of just writing the darn thing. Personally, writing the darn thing would be easier. So is “proposal” synonymous with “synopsis” or does that have a different meaning? And this is for fiction, by the way.

    Thanks so much for your help!

    Posted by Sarah M. Anderson | June 19, 2010, 4:21 pm
  10. Sarah, a proposal includes a synopsis plus sample chapters. Many places will buy from established authors on a proposals instead of a full manuscript.

    Posted by Theresa Stevens | June 20, 2010, 2:33 pm
  11. Jennifer, I can’t really tell you a rule of thumb other than this: If it helps your synopsis make more sense, then name the secondaries. How will you know if it helps your synopsis make more sense? Well, if the characters are important enough to the plot that they appear repeatedly in the synopsis and you want the reader to remember them by name, then name them. If a placeholder term (“ex-boyfriend” or “boss”) will suffice, that might be easier to track. Otherwise, you risk having the reader go, “Wait, who was Jonas again? The brother? Or the dude with the dynamite?”

    About 20 years ago, the rule of thumb for synopses was 1 page for every 10,000 words of text. That ration has changed over the years until now we’re at 1 page for every 25-40,000 words or so.

    But the best rule is to check the guidelines for the house you’re targeting. Always.

    Posted by Theresa Stevens | June 20, 2010, 2:39 pm
  12. Leona, I don’t think anyone is ever really comfortable writing a synopsis. You just have to do it anyway. Why not try this — let one of your characters write the synopsis. That might be a useful exercise in getting you over the voice hurdle.

    Posted by Theresa Stevens | June 20, 2010, 2:42 pm
  13. Sorry, everyone, to be so late to reply. Major storms in Chicago Friday, and power was out all over the place.

    Posted by Theresa Stevens | June 20, 2010, 2:42 pm
  14. Thank you, Teresa!

    Posted by Jennifer | June 20, 2010, 4:59 pm

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