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Why Your Book Needs a Single Big Idea

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

You start structuring a book by being very clear on what you are writing about. Sounds simple? You (sort of) know what you want to say and it feels logical to you, but how do you present it to the reader in a way that is clear, logical and compelling? It’s much harder than it sounds. Surely this book is about YOU? Or at least your story

People often write to me and say … Sarah I want to write a story about:

  1. My motor neuron disease

  2. My 20-year battle with bulimia

  3. My sex addiction

  4. My lessons learnt about money

  5. My gardening tips

  6. My adventure through Africa on a unicycle

  7. My 10 years as a stripper

  8. My father’s harrowing organ harvesting in Cambodia And these are all great stories to write. But a book demands more of a writer than just noting down your thoughts, idea or experiences. Because the hard truth is that most readers who will buy your book (with the exception of your friends and family) don’t know you. That is why we took a look at a theme and tried to find one. Your book needs to be elevated into something that speaks to the reader. That is why all books about you need to be about more than you. They need to be about something bigger than you. Enter the realm of the Big Idea. All non-fiction books need one. Yes, just one. What is this big idea? The Big Idea is a single and clear statement that both positions you as an expert, and also answers the question: What is your book about? You want to tell the reader the answer to this in the most obvious, clear, easy-to-understand and exciting a way possible. You don’t want to imply what it’s about, or hint at it - you want to state it clearly, and upfront. Most Big Ideas are stated (or contained) in the title, or at least on the cover of your book. We are going to get there, but let’s just pin down some possible Big Ideas. Sometimes the idea or topic seems obvious. It’s about your addiction. Or your life. Or it’s a book about sales techniques…. Isn’t it? Well, no. That is not tight enough. That is not yet a Big Idea. That is still all about you. A Big Idea not just says, ‘This is what my book is about’, it also positions you in the debate. It puts a stake in the ground. It delivers an argument or a solution.

  9. You can see grief as magic if you look right (My Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion)

  10. You can get filthy rich in two years (How to Get Filthy Rich, Mohsim Hamid)

  11. You need to change the way you think about money if you want to make it and keep it (Rich Dad Poor Dad, Robert Kiwosaki)

  12. Only 20? Time to learn to manage your money Manage your Money like a Fu***ng Grownup, Sam Beckbessinger)

  13. Little things can have big consequences (The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell)

  14. You will lose weight/be healthier if you eat like this/like me. This is basically the core argument of any diet book out there. In fact, I am going to take the Big Idea one step further (for non-fiction authors in particular.) Your Big Idea should Be an argument or a solution Go against the current grain, give a new idea, or give you an edge Be revolutionary, radical or a new take on something WRITING TASK What’s your Big Idea? Boil down what your story is about into a single sentence of no more than five words. Go back to that theme you chose. That is a good place to start. Remember this idea is about the book and NOT about YOU. Aim for about three of these with different takes on your story. Take it one step further? Turn your Big Idea into a position or argument. Remember this: the Big Idea sometimes reveals itself in the writing of the book; so if it’s elusive don't let it derail your progress. It will emerge. Your Big Idea checklist

  15. Is not about you, it is about the concept (or theme)

  16. It is single-minded

  17. It is tightly-focused

  18. It contains a universal message

  19. It contains a clear solution or argument (even if it is only really for you)

  20. It can be contained in a single sentence

  21. It is radical, revolutionary or disruptive

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