Three Ways to Understand Your Book’s Big Idea

 If you can state the big idea behind your book with the utmost brevity—and in plain English—then you really understand what you’re writing about. In turn, this increases the odds that your reader will understand it also.

Articulating the big idea of a book is an ideal activity for people who are collaborating on a book manuscript. This is something you can do while you’re on the phone or sitting together at a coffee shop. And it’s a welcome relief from writing tasks that are best accomplished in isolation, such as cranking out chapters.

One caveat: Nailing down your book’s big idea is not easy. It calls for sustained, intense thinking—along with many drafts and hours of work.

It’s worth it. What readers want from you is clarity, brevity, and relevance. Your mission is to take the avalanche of available information on a vital topic and drill down to its essence. The result is a book that’s worth buying.

To discover your book’s big idea, approach it in stages.

1. Reduce your message to 1 page (up to 250 words)

Seth Godin said it well: “The recipe that makes up just about any business book can be condensed to just two or three pages. The rest is the sell. The proof. The persuasion.”

In the early stages of writing your book, skip the sell, proof, and persuasion. Save that for later. Just get to the recipe, and see if you can get it down to 1 page instead of 3.

Michael Hyatt wrote a cool post about how to do this. Though he focused on summarizing books that you read, the idea easily applies to any book that you want to write. (See Hyatt’s next-to-last paragraph for links to a sample summary and templates for writing them.)

Another option is to write your page by answering a question that prompts you to state your big idea. For example:

  • What is the core problem I want people to focus on and the core solution that I offer?
  • What, above all, do I want people to remember from this book five years after reading it?
  • What, above all, do I want people to do differently on a permanent basis after reading this book?
  • What are three high-impact habits or best practices that I want people to adopt as a result of reading this book?

2. Reduce your message to one paragraph (up to 125 words)

Whittling down your big idea to 1 page is an intellectual feat. Now take it up a notch. Cut the number of words roughly in half and craft a memorable paragraph.

Following is an example—my own summary of David Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity:

List the situations in your life right now that are nagging at you as incomplete. For each item on this list, describe an ideal outcome for the situation and the very next concrete action that you will take to produce that outcome. Keep reminders of these outcomes and actions in places that you’ll see them every day, and organize the reminders in a way that allows you to scan them in a few minutes. Once each week, review these reminders to make sure that they’re still current and consistent with your life purpose, vision, goals, and areas of responsibility. Based on this review and your intuition, make moment-to-moment choices about what to do each day.

3. Reduce your message to one sentence (up to 25 words)

Now for even more fun. Take your paragraph and edit it down to one sentence.

Claire Booth Luce once advised president John F.  Kennedy to remember that “a great man is a sentence.” For instance, Abraham Lincoln’s sentence is: “He preserved the Union and freed the slaves.” For Franklin Delano Roosevelt: “He lifted us out of a great depression and helped us win a world war.” (These examples come from Dan Pink’s book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.)

What’s the 1 sentence for your book? I like this example from Constructive Living by David Reynolds: “The key to successful living is to pay attention and act purposefully.”

5 thoughts on “Three Ways to Understand Your Book’s Big Idea”

  1. […] Can I pass the “one page test”? Stating the essence of your book in page tests your understanding of your material. I’ve written about how to do this in The Message Hierarchy—A Power Tool for Describing the Essence of Your Book and Three Ways to Understand Your Book’s Big Idea. […]

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  2. […] Amen. This is an intellectual achievement of the highest order. Stating the essence of your book will test you in a way you’ve never been tested before. I’ve written about how to do this in The Message Hierarchy—A Power Tool for Describing the Essence of Your Book and Three Ways to Understand Your Book’s Big Idea […]

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