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Manuscript Writing: How to Organize Your Manuscript Using the Premise/Promise Formula

Posted by Donald Bastian on


What are you promising your readers?


My wife and I like to watch Law and Order reruns together. Okay, that may be using the word “together” a little loosely. And the word “like,” too.

June rarely makes it to the screen for the very beginning of the program.

“You’re going to miss the premise,” I cry out in editorial anxiety.

Of course, as she well knows, the premise is pretty much always the same: Someone happens upon a dead body and calls the police. When she does finally sit down beside me, she watches for a few minutes and then falls asleep. (Everybody’s a critic.)

Formulaic and predictable though such programs may be, they do point to the importance of a premise and, come to think of it, of a promise, whatever the type of communication. The beginning of an article, a book, a TV program must announce a premise and make a promise. In this way the communication in a sense defines (finds) its audience, engages its audience, and sets up in its audience an expectation, whether of enjoyable entertainment, greater knowledge, a way out of a problem, or a strategy for gain, be it pecuniary, practical, or spiritual.

A good way to learn how to plant these in your writing is to imitate the descriptions of books found in book reviews and ads or on the jacket flaps or back covers of the books themselves.

Consider this from the back cover of the novel Lost Souls by Michael Collins:

“The body of a small girl, dressed as an angel, is discovered late one night in a pile of autumn leaves at the side of the road. At first it looks like a hit and run – after all, it’s Halloween night and the streets have been full of children trick-or-treating. But how did a three-year-old come to be out at such a late hour?

Lawrence, the policeman sent to investigate, is under increasing pressure when it becomes clear that the chief suspect is the town’s star quarterback. In the ensuing cover-up, Lawrence finds himself a pawn in the power games between the local major, the suspect’s family, and an investigator with personal scores to settle.”

The premise is intriguing. The promise of an enjoyable read and of the type of read is clear. The blurb gives you everything you need in order to grasp what kind of book it is you have in your hand. The book then simply has to deliver on its premise and promise. Of course, this is not so simple to do, but that’s another story.

What about non-fiction? Consider Robert Webber’s book, Common Roots: A Call to Evangelical Maturity. The title itself signals the premise and promise of the book. The very beginning of the Preface is crystal clear in signaling these to the reader:

“The purpose of Common Rootsis twofold. The primary concern is, as the title suggests, to search for the roots of evangelical Christianity. The secondary concern, and one which naturally arises out of the first, is to look critically at those beliefs and practices of contemporary evangelicalism which are out of harmony with historic Christianity. Thus the subtitle A Call to Evangelical Maturity.”

My advice, whether you are about to embark on writing a book or are in the middle of doing so, is that you practice writing a blurb as if your book had already been published. This exercise may cause you to rethink the setup of your book. It may help you come up with a better outline. It may give you the push you need to finish your book.

When it comes time to submit your manuscript, for instance to a book editor, consider that editors are only human. Even the most cynical among them can be lured into reading manuscripts that hit them with a compelling premise and promise. And if the writing delivers on the promise, they may just keep on reading. The same is true of readers. They’re only human, too!

Donald G. BastianDB

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Topics: Writing tips, Submitting your manuscript

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