Breaking down the brief

Thinking of entering the Nan Shepherd Prize, but not sure about what to submit?

This article was originally published in 2019, but we have updated it with the submission dates for the 2023 prize.

From 31 May to 25 August 2023, entrants are invited to submit the following:

  1. A one-page synopsis of their book, followed by outlines of every chapter. The book need not be completed before submission, but the idea being proposed should be narrative non-fiction and deal with nature in some form.
  2. A sample chapter or chapters totalling no more than 7,000 words.
  3. A biographical note, including information on why you feel underrepresented in nature writing, and any relevant information such as previously published short works or poetry, agent details, social media accounts, literary prizes won or nominated for, etc. This should be no longer than 500 words and should be pasted in the body of the email.

But what exactly do we mean by narrative non-fiction? And how can you best present your work in a synopsis? We’ve asked Canongate’s Editorial Director Simon Thorogood to explain.

What is narrative non-fiction?

The obvious definition is: a true story. But more broadly I’d describe narrative non-fiction as work that explores an idea or experience in a linear fashion; having a beginning, middle and end (although not necessarily in that order). The writer Anne Lamott has this to say about writing: “good writing is about telling the truth. We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are.” That’s a good place to start thinking about narrative non-fiction. Some authors doing this well include Rebecca Solnit, Laura Hillenbrand, Margot Lee Shetterley, Michael Lewis, Geoff Dyer, Robert Macfarlane, Keggie Carew, Michael Pollan, Melanie Reid, Rachel Carson, Roger Deakin, Rebecca Skloot, Olivia Laing, David Quammen, Gary Younge, Katherine Boo, Azar Nafisi and Barbara Demick.

What is the purpose of a book proposal?

What the Nan Shepherd Prize asks you to submit is essentially a book proposal. Typically, if you write fiction, you submit the entire novel to agents and editors for consideration. With non-fiction, you’d usually expect to submit a book proposal which would include a synopsis of the whole book, chapter outlines, sample chapters to show off your writing style, and a bit about you and why you’re best placed to write this particular book.

What should I include in my synopsis?

A summary of what you intend to cover in the book, in a concise form. You may also want to include why you want to write it, what qualifies you to do so (personal experience, interest or expertise), possibly where the idea for the book began. Oh, and please include page numbers on the proposal, some old-fashioned people like me still print things to read and if you’ve ever dropped a manuscript which didn’t have page numbers, you’ll never not add page numbers again.

How long should my chapter outlines be?

As long as they need to be, but again concision is good – try to keep to one or two pages per chapter if you are planning to have a small amount of chapters (say ten) or one or two paragraphs if you are planning many chapters. If the outline ends up as long as the chapter will be, you’ve done it wrong.

How do I know which sample chapters to submit?

It needn’t be the first chapters of the book. Send those you are happiest with, that fairly represent your writing style. Send your favourite chapters.

What makes the best book proposal?

There is delight in surprise, so originality and personality above all else. But tell a story, keep it tight, tell me something I didn’t already know. And this may sound odd, but demonstrate that this is a book you really want to write, show that you care.

How can I choose which topic to write about?

This question is like asking what to read, probably only you can answer it. Write about what you care about, what you feel passionate about, the book you want to read that hasn’t been written yet.

What information should I include about myself?

Make it relevant to what you are writing – how your personal experience or biography connects to the subject, or to writing as a career. Again, concision is best.

Do I need to have read a lot of nature writing books to write my own?

I would suggest that your writing will only be improved by reading as much as you can. Either in the same category, or just good writing full stop. Why wouldn’t you want to learn from the best? If you want to write well, you should read prodigiously.

If I don’t get shortlisted, can I use this proposal to submit to literary agents?


If you're still unsure how your proposal should look, we've created a template with space for your synopsis and chapter outlines. You can download it as a word document here, or you can view and download as a PDF from Google Documents here. Do get in touch with us if you need any help downloading the documents: email or call 0131 557 5111.

Simon Thorogood is Editorial Director at Canongate and mainly commissions in the area of serious non-fiction. He is particularly interested in books that start conversations, reframe how we think about the world, or that challenge and provoke, and loves finding literary novels that push at the boundaries of genre. He has recently worked with authors including Richard Holloway, Dina Nayeri, Alastair Moffat, Maria Popova, Julia Shaw, Thomas Page McBee, Priya Basil and Jo Marchant. He also oversees the Canons list of modern classics.