Writing a Book: What’s the Big Idea?

Aug 21, 2018 | Writing A Book

“I finally got it. Call me.”

Now, that’s the kind of text that gets your attention. I called right away.

The text was from a client I’d been working with. We were at the beta reader stage of her book project. When she answered the phone, the first words out of my mouth were, “Okay, what did you get?”

Her very best friend, one of the people she sent the draft of her book to, had taken her out to lunch. When they were seated, her friend pulled out the book manuscript and laid it on the table between them. “Before I read any more of this, I want you to tell me something. What’s the most important thing I should get from your book?”

My client had an answer ready. She’d thought about this a lot, we’d spent a lot of time on it during the planning phase, and she knew what she wanted her book to do. It came out in about two sentences. Her friend tapped the manuscript and said, “Okay, show me where you say that in here.”

My client started looking through the manuscript, but after a couple of minutes, she couldn’t find any place where she said exactly what the book should do. She suggested to her friend that maybe she needed to make a clear statement in the beginning. That just made her friend laugh.

“No, you don’t need to put something else in. It’s the opposite. You must take all the junk out. Make it easy for me to get the important stuff.”

That was when my client got it.

If you want people to understand what you’re saying, you have to say it simply and avoid cluttering up your message with anything that’s not directly related to making your key point.

My client’s friend had done in about 20 minutes what I had not been able to do in several months and a couple of drafts. She convinced my client to concentrate on her big idea.

Why the Big Idea Is Important

Hopefully, you’re writing a book because you have something important to say. You understand it completely, but in your mind, it’s connected to a host of other ideas. Some of those ideas are important, and some of them aren’t. Actually, most of them probably aren’t.

If you want people to get your big idea, you must make it easy to understand. In today’s world, where we’re bombarded with thousands of messages every day, people don’t have time and don’t want to do the hard work of figuring out what it is you really want to say. They won’t do that. They’ll just move on to something else.

Ask the Big Question

Since the incident I just described to you, I’ve added the big idea question to every book planning session. Ask “What’s the big idea?” for your book as a whole. Usually, that needs to be a one or two-sentence statement that includes three things. You should include the problem you want to solve. You should state what your solution is, what you or your reader should do. And, you need to state the benefit.

I’ve got a simple three-part way to do that. It comes from the world of marketing and branding. I used to use it to develop elevator speeches. Now I use it to clarify what a book is about.

Begin your problem statement by saying something like “You know how…” Then, describe the problem very briefly. Next, begin your action statement with something like “Well, you should…” Follow it with a benefit statement that says what will be different if your reader does what you suggest.

Here’s another three-part way to think about it.

* When you understand…
* Then you will…
* And so…

The big idea is that you want your book to give the reader everything he or she needs to solve the problem you’re describing but nothing more. That makes for a lean book.

Don’t Stop with the Whole Book

It’s important to ask the big idea question about your book, but you should ask it about anything that you write. Ask it about every chapter. The big idea of the chapter should support the big idea of the book and move the book forward.

Ask the big idea question. Then keep everything that supports the big idea and get rid of everything that doesn’t. Some of the clients I work with ask the question and then write a nice, clean chapter. Others are like me, they write way too much stuff and then cut out everything that doesn’t help

I like to think that we work in the great tradition of Michelangelo, who is quoted as saying:

“Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”

Bottom Line

Develop a short answer for the question, “What’s the big idea?” for your book. Then put everything in your book that helps the reader understand and act. Take out or leave out anything that doesn’t help that happen.


Thanks to Nancy Duarte, whose excellent post “How to Use Your Big Idea as a Filter When Developing Presentations” started the train of thought that ended in this post.

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