One-Sentence Summary Critiques & Tips

Today I’m offering some thoughts on a few of the one-sentence summaries that were entered in the contest. Sometimes it’s helpful to see what’s not quite working, in order to learn how to do it better. Maybe these examples will help you spot something you can improve with your own pitch. We’ll group them according to common problems.

Issue: Not using specific language. Many pitches suffer from being a bit too vague to effectively build interest.

When things are not what they seem, Kimberly must overcome many obstacles in her life, to find herself again…at any costs.

>>Notice the general, not specific words. “things are not what they seem.” “overcome many obstacles.” “find herself.” They lack real meaning and don’t give us anything to visualize. After this pitch, we still don’t know what the story is about.

When a lonely scientist’s nightmares become reality, she must embrace her magical abilities to save her planet from an invading alien force.

>>I don’t know what the nightmares are about, there is no clue as to the nature of her magical abilities, and the alien force could be darn near anything. Just a few carefully chosen words could make this more visual and draw my interest.

After the world she grew up in is irrevocably altered, a girl named Evernow determines to live by her own rules in the fractured world she’s been left with, even if that means treading a fine line between species and the battles taking place between them.

>>Again, use of non-specific words makes it impossible to understand what this story is really about. “irevocably altered.” “live by her own rules.” “treading a fine line.” These are amorphous terms, they’re not visual or compelling, so there’s nothing I can actually picture happening in this story.

Note: Although I didn’t include any examples here, quite a few of the contest entries had a character needing to “deal with” something. Be careful of that language. To “deal with” something is again, vague and non-visual.

Issue: Confusing or just doesn’t make sense.

A Bible belt of California teen, hell-bent to choreograph a Moby Dick modern dance masterpiece, is blown off course by the true love of a purity-ring wearing eco-warrior.

>>Unfortunately this doesn’t convey a coherent story. The danger, besides not making anyone want to read the book, is that someone might assume the problem isn’t just a muddled pitch, it’s a muddled book.

When the ship carrying Marcus Reider sailed into Lemaigne, the city’s Observer had no idea this would overturn his loyalty to the Security Corps, and his sense of reality.

>>I couldn’t make heads or tails of this. There’s nothing to grab on to.

Reviewing the origins and impact of today’s dichotomy, a new paradigm is offered for the relationship between social action and evangelism in 21st century Christianity.

>>What is “today’s dichotomy”? Starts off confusing, and feels like jargon. It also uses the passive voice. This pitch is unclear and doesn’t make the book sound interesting.

A kick-ass heart surgeon, hung-up on a terminal patient, is thwarted by a hot researcher who is not sharing his discovery until it is stolen and they are fighting for their own lives.

>>This is confusing and the language is unspecific. What does “kick ass” actually say about the heart surgeon? And by “hung up” do you mean “in love” or something else? And what does the researcher being “hot” have to do with this story? It feels like the writer is trying too hard to be cool rather than convey the story. The unspecified “discovery” adds to the confusion.

As a new and unwilling owner of a ramshackle USVI hotel, divorced mother of two Holly Thompson must confront her own demons and an island crime ring that threaten her fragile family.

>>This is confusing because it would take most people a minute (at least) to understand what “USVI” means. Avoid using words or abbreviations that could be confusing.

Issue: Book sounds uninteresting or like a real downer.

A bitter young widower’s second chance at love means marrying a dying woman.

>>The protag is a widower, which is already sad, but characterizing him as “bitter” takes away any desire I might have had to read a book about him. The idea of marrying a dying woman just makes it worse. This sounds like a depressing book!

Wry, wrung-out suburban mom doggedly pursues her dream of visiting all 50 U.S. states before her 50th birthday without going broke, abandoning her children or divorcing her husband.

>>Like the previous example, when you begin your pitch describing an unpleasant person, you make it hard for anyone to want to read the book. This pitch continues with really negative language, “going broke, abandoning her children…” and so it ends up feeling like a downer of a book about a negative person.

Issue: The parts of the pitch do not seem connected to one another or do not follow logically.

Shiloh’s art career was just taking off when two things happened – she was given guardianship of her sister and a widower came to town.

>>The art career, the sister and the widower all seem oddly disconnected from one another, just kind of hanging there unrelated. There is no indication of the story that connects them.

Fifteen-year old Rick pulls Hollywood’s hottest actress from the wreckage of a plane, spurring a deadly race through America’s last frontier.

>>For me, the idea of a race across America doesn’t seem connected or follow logically from the idea of rescuing Hollywood’s hottest actress. The pitch would work better with a clue about why they are in this deadly race and what’s at stake. How did the crash lead to the deadly race?

The murder of her ex-boyfriend’s new sweetie in pancake batter yanks EmmaTrace from her quiet life and forces her to confront her fear of flying.

>>This is weird on a couple of levels; first, what does a murder have to do with confronting a fear of flying, and why should I care? Confronting a fear of flying is not exactly an exciting premise for a novel. And then there’s… pancake batter? It may be meant to be intriguing but it’s just off the wall and isn’t working to generate interest in the pitch.

A Few Tips on Summaries
(based on what I saw in the entries)

>>If your summary was about 45 words or more, I disqualified it immediately. When it’s that long, it’s missing the point and defeating the purpose. Work harder at getting the word count down.

>>Many of the summaries had trouble with basic punctuation or grammar – in particular, commas where one is not needed; or a comma where there should be a semi-colon or em dash.

>>In general, don’t try to use dialogue in a one-sentence pitch.

>>If your pitch is getting too convoluted, you’re trying to say too much. Strip it down.

>>Lots of pitches presented a a situation but no story or conflict.

>>Don’t use exclamation points!!!

>>Attention to detail: I realize this is only a silly blog contest, but the number of typos was disturbing– and reflects the same kinds of mistakes I often see in queries and submissions. Call me crazy but I think it’s not that hard to carefully proof your 25 words to make sure they say what you want. It leaves a bad impression when you have “at” instead of “an” or “it” instead of “if.” Innocent mistakes? Yes. But if you’re going to be a writer, pay attention to detail.

And thus ends our discussion of the one-sentence summary.

Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Garrick Northover on July 7, 2015 at 5:55 PM

    Yes Bethany that was a good hint

  2. Beth Parker on October 31, 2013 at 12:22 PM

    Thanks for the examples showing what not to do. Now I’m off to see if I can find the original contest post and hopefully some examples of really good one-sentence story summaries.

  3. […] Rachelle Gardner compiled a list of pitch problems she saw cropping up in a contest of […]

  4. Victoria Dixon on June 11, 2010 at 7:52 PM

    >I didn't get a chance to compete, but this did give me cause for concern. I've had a few readers tell me my title, "Mourn Their Courage" was a turn-off. I wonder if it is for agents, too? The story's themes are courage and self-sacrifice, which are sometimes things to be mourned, but are also uplifting. Hmmm. I don't want to change the title for a number of reasons, but it is food for thought….

  5. Nikki on June 10, 2010 at 9:59 PM

    >Thanks, Rachelle, for taking the time to spell this all out. Your blog is a huge gift to the writing community.
    Thanks also for running the contest. I went on an Internet-free (!!) vacation and came back to see my pitch got an honorable mention. It was nice to see I'm on the right track. Just a little more paring down, I think… isn't that the way it always is with writing?

  6. Dave Cullen on June 10, 2010 at 2:53 PM

    >Great advice, as usual.

    Grouping them really helped illustrate the common problems.

    It's also interesting to me that people turned in sentences of more than 40 words. To me that's the sign of a larger problem: focusing on the detail (of the rule) and not the bigger picture. If the rule states one sentence, and you string together three in a way that is technically one, you may feel you have succeeded, but you missed the point: an editor wants one mouthful that he/she can wrap her head around quickly. It doesn't matter what the rule says: what does the rule mean?

  7. Diane J. on June 10, 2010 at 1:04 PM

    >I'm a bit late commenting on this post. I regret missing the contest…that'll teach me to be more on top of it. 🙂

    I've learned quite a bit about from this post. Hopefully, you'll run another one of these opportunities again.

  8. Edwina on June 9, 2010 at 2:20 AM


    This post was helpful and I appreciate the time you took to not only offer the contest and read all the entries but post these critiques as well. I learned from them and I'm sure others did also.

    Edwina Cowgill

  9. Harry Markov on June 9, 2010 at 12:08 AM

    >Ah, the commas. I'm seriously not so cool, when it comes to commas. I am positive that I manage to lose all the appropriate commas and ram them somewhere they do not belong…


    But thanks on all these tips. Short, sweet and to the point.

  10. K J Pascoe on June 8, 2010 at 11:56 PM

    >Thanks so much for this Rachelle, I think I need to make my conflict more specific. I hope you'll give us another chance to post our new and improved pitches 🙂

  11. Angie Ledbetter on June 8, 2010 at 11:41 PM

    >So interesting. Thanks for posting the crits.

  12. Steve on June 8, 2010 at 10:49 PM

    >My WIP is plotted episodically. Instead of one story line it has several, mostly organized sequentially, but in some instances running parallel. To keep the pitch concise, I had no choice but to leave out specifics. Mutiple story lines = multiple sets of specifics.

    So I described the over-arcing challenge my protagonist faces, which is substantially identical to the story's theme.

    Other than not writing a work that is plotted episodically, is there a way to fix this?


  13. Anonymous on June 8, 2010 at 8:08 PM

    >I'm just wondering… in regards to the pitches that sound "depressing," is this more of a "depends on the agent" thing or would these projects have trouble everywhere?

  14. Bethany on June 8, 2010 at 6:32 PM

    >Personally, that one about Evernow got me quite interested.

  15. Richard Waskiewicz on June 8, 2010 at 4:21 PM

    >Like so many, I find it an interesting exercise. Though, for me, I more or less had the one sentence story from the beginning of my current WIP. It’s something I’ve tried to do with everything I’ve written lately (start with a one line story, write the story, and then revise the one line story again).

    @Timothy – I didn’t realize when I originally wrote my one-liner, but it’s funny. The dilemma presented in that tag line became exactly as you suggest – the diving end of act 2. I’ve never heard anyone say that it SHOULD be, but it seemed logical to me at the time. I didn’t necessarily plan it that way… it just felt natural.

  16. Karen Yuan on June 8, 2010 at 3:49 PM

    >Wow, these are so helpful and specific. Thank you for taking the time to show us different types of issues.

    Adding this to my pitch resources post for sure! 😀

  17. Susan on June 8, 2010 at 3:48 PM

    >Ha, and of course I get your name wrong! Long day, I guess. I think you're great, Rachelle. Now that's better 🙂

  18. Susan on June 8, 2010 at 3:46 PM

    >I think you're great, Rachel. You tell it like it is and come across like you sincerely want to help us writers (and by doing so help cut down on sorry queries – it's brilliant). Thanks for your commitment to blogging. I read your posts most every day and always find a bit of useful advice in them.

  19. Claire King on June 8, 2010 at 3:00 PM

    >Excellent and helpful post, thanks, Rachelle.

  20. T. Anne on June 8, 2010 at 2:53 PM

    >I can see a big difference between the pitches from yesterday and today. Your tips are great. I'm going to apply them to my pitch and see if I can come up with something better.

  21. Christine Hammar on June 8, 2010 at 2:24 PM

    >Great lesson on writing pitches. Much appreciated!

  22. Jaimie on June 8, 2010 at 2:03 PM

    >Thanks, Rachelle! So informative… you rock!

  23. Jess on June 8, 2010 at 2:00 PM

    >Thanks for doing this, Rachelle! I really appreciate the time you took to critique these summaries. Now I have a better understanding of what does and doesn't work, and I'm eager to apply it to my own summaries.


  24. Jen J. on June 8, 2010 at 1:38 PM

    >Thank you, Rachelle, for taking the time to wade through all the entries and for showing us the good, the bad and the ugly among them. This was a very useful exercise for many of us.

  25. Kat Harris on June 8, 2010 at 1:20 PM


    When writers overgeneralize or use non-specifics they risk sounding cliche.

    I use this guideline: If a one-sentence pitch sounds like something I might hear from the "big voice guy" in a movie trailer, then the pitch is probably too general.

  26. Jil on June 8, 2010 at 12:50 PM

    >Thank you, Rachelle, you have (I hope) set me on the right track and I sincerely appreciate it.
    Its kind of fun, really, and now there are scraps of paper all over the house with different versions of my tag line on them.

  27. Jolene on June 8, 2010 at 12:11 PM

    >Thank you for taking the time to critique so many, it was very helpful.

  28. Barbara's Spot on the Blog on June 8, 2010 at 11:21 AM

    >Thanks to you I have finally made my one sentence tag line! I missed the contest but must thank you for running it because it got me motivated to do mine.

  29. Valerie Norris on June 8, 2010 at 10:59 AM

    >Thanks, Rachelle, for taking the time to read all the entries, and to critique some. I know it took a huge chunk of time out of your busy schedule. Hope you continue to help writers in our paths to publication. I appreciate it!

  30. Timothy Fish on June 8, 2010 at 10:42 AM

    >I think it’s a mistake to see this activity as an attempt to sum up the whole book into one sentence. At most, we’re summing up the first half of the second act. But even at that, what we’re actually doing is stating what our protagonist is doing to keep from dying. And if some of the winners are any indication, we don’t even have to reveal why the protagonist is dying, just what he’s doing about it.

  31. Roxane B. Salonen on June 8, 2010 at 9:53 AM

    >Rachelle, I regret having missed this contest altogether. Life is busy! I do hope you'll consider offering it another time. I'll be watching, and hoping to participate. Seems like a really great exercise. I enjoyed reading your thoughts to these.

  32. Dara on June 8, 2010 at 9:20 AM

    >Thanks! I'm thinking mine may fall under the whole "do not follow logicially" one. I am having the hardest time trying to do that for this book 😛 Guess I have to keep trying!

  33. Shannon Nicole Wells on June 8, 2010 at 8:51 AM

    >Very helpful. Thanks. As I read, I kept thinking, "Oh, no, here comes mine," but I didn't see it. A good thing? A bad thing? I do think i know which category it fits in, though. Am a bit worried, because I'm pitching this Saturday for the first time and was planning on using that log line..

  34. Teenage Bride on June 8, 2010 at 8:36 AM

    >These critiques have taught me quit a bit. Thanks so much for sharing.

  35. cherryrn on June 8, 2010 at 8:10 AM

    >It was like wandering around in the dark .

    I don't understand what I am supposed to express in a nonfiction book query.

    I was suprised at what was nonfiction in the contest.

  36. Mesmerix on June 8, 2010 at 8:02 AM

    >I think the 1-Sentence Pitch comes down to one thing: precision. Each word has to carry so much meaning because you're summing up thousands of words by using only a few. Quite the trick of a true wordsmith.

    Thank you for taking the time to cover this topic. Very informative!

  37. Kelly Freestone on June 8, 2010 at 7:30 AM

    >Very interesting.
    Thanks for the tips, and for spending so much time on this.

  38. A. Grey on June 8, 2010 at 7:25 AM

    >Thank's for the advice Rachelle!

    My entry was one of ones you put up for critique that was too amorphous. It's valuable information because I thought I was doing right by NOT getting buried in detail. I didn't realize that too little information was being conveyed.

    Now I know. 🙂

  39. Heidiopia on June 8, 2010 at 7:13 AM

    >Great advice!! Thank you so much for taking the time to read and critique all of these. Alot to be learned!! 🙂

  40. MJR on June 8, 2010 at 7:10 AM

    >Thanks for the contest and great advice…I didn't enter because I wasn't able to boil my WIP down to a single sentence, which I think means my novel's premise might be a bit muddled. So this is a useful way to get to the core of what it is really about.

  41. Timothy Fish on June 8, 2010 at 7:05 AM

    >I would add bad imagery as a potential problem. There was one that I couldn’t focus on the rest of the sentence enough to finish reading it because I was thinking about “the arm-pit of Texas.” The pancake batter thing does sort of the same thing.

    I disagree with those who have said that taglines should be vague. The tagline/title “Throw Momma from the Train” is anything but vague. That’s exactly what the movie is about. It doesn’t tell us why someone is trying to throw Momma from the train, but we don’t need to know that until we watch the movie. The conflict caused by what is being done is obvious. If I were to rewrite my own tagline in a similar fashion it would probably be something like “A woman pretends to be the daughter of a movie producer.”

  42. Jason on June 8, 2010 at 7:03 AM

    >Wow! You even gave examples…thanks! I mean, really. Thanks!

    I think my pitch suffers from all the issues you mentioned… 🙂

    Seriously, I have problems with a lack of specificity. I use vague language when pitching. Thanks again for the tip.

  43. Jessica Nelson on June 8, 2010 at 6:55 AM

    >Guess my comment didn't go through.
    Just wanted to say thanks! These are helpful and though I'm not sure where my logline is weak, I'm def. going to be studying it and trying to make it better.

    Also, thanks to Adam for his example! It rocks (and also helped me!)

  44. Sharon A. Lavy on June 8, 2010 at 6:16 AM

    >Thanks Rachelle, this was a great lesson on writing pitches.

  45. Heather Sunseri on June 8, 2010 at 5:16 AM

    >Wow! It must have taken you a lot of time to do that. Thank you for the posts on one-sentence summaries. It's amazing how difficult it can be to step far away from your story to come up with 22-25 words that sum up a 75k to 100k novel. I appreciate your tips.

  46. Gwen Stewart on June 8, 2010 at 5:16 AM

    >Thank you so much for this, Rachelle. I know you spent a long time on it, and it was very instructive. Not only for thinking about one-sentence summaries, but stories, goals, stakes, etc.

    I love the last sentence of your post because, polite as it is, there's a little sigh at the end. 😉 Who can blame you, after reading 500+ summaries? You are a saint–thanks again.

    Have a wonderful June day in beautiful Colorado!

  47. Andrea on June 8, 2010 at 4:44 AM

    >Thanks, Rachelle. An extremely useful post.

  48. Sarah Billington on June 8, 2010 at 4:36 AM

    >The pitch is something I feel I'm a bit clumsy at so it was really informative to have you dissect pitches and WHY you felt they weren't working.
    Thanks Rachelle!

  49. Adam Heine on June 8, 2010 at 4:03 AM

    >@Dave: I think it's more of a balance. If the summary is too general, the result sounds uninteresting and unoriginal. But you don't have space to be too detailed. Like Nic said, be specific in your vagueness 😉

    Take the first critique here for example: When things are not what they seem, Kimberly must overcome many obstacles in her life, to find herself again…at any costs.

    Without specifics, this could be an accurate description of almost any story. But change the vague phrases to something specific: When Kimberly discovers her life is an elaborate reality show, she must find and confront the director to discover how much of her life is real, if any of it is.

    It's not great, but it is a unique, specific story. That, I think, is what Rachelle means by being specific.

  50. Nic on June 8, 2010 at 3:26 AM

    >Dave, i think the criticism was more levelled to the idea that there was no hint at a plot or conflict and that the pitch could be used to refer to just about every book in the world.

    The idea of the pitch is to be general yes but specific as well. When conflict is in but its just some obstacle – that could explain every conflict/obstacle in every novel or use generic words to describe whats at stake again it becomes like every other novel in the world.

    The art of the one-sentence pitch is to be vague but to be specific in your vagueness.

  51. tessaquin on June 8, 2010 at 3:15 AM

    >I can see which category my one-liner falls under. Thanks for the tip. I'll work on it to make it less vague, well, and introduce more conflict. I suppose I'll have to re-think the whole thing, but I know it'll be better next time around.

  52. Amie McCracken on June 8, 2010 at 2:55 AM

    >Thanks for all the tips. Now to work on it all some more.

  53. Dave Bartlett on June 8, 2010 at 2:47 AM

    >I must take exception with your criticism that people overgeneralise and use non-specific words.

    Summarizing something in a single sentence requires quite a large use of precis.

    To precis effectively, detail has to be kept to a minimum. When the choice is to either omit information or to generalise details, surely the latter is preferable to the former.

    Also, referring to specific details in a single sentence often means relaying information out of context. giving more general information avoids the confusion that may result from this.

  54. Rebecca on June 8, 2010 at 2:06 AM

    >Thank you for a very interesting and informative post.

  55. Kemari on June 8, 2010 at 1:36 AM

    >My summary was 41 words. The silver lining is that it wasn't put on the chopping block. I need to really work on scaling it down without retracting from its wow factor.

    This was a great exercise. I would love to do it again! Thanks Rachelle.