One theme, one problem, one big question. That’s all you need.

How many times, when reading a non-fiction book, have you thought, This would have made a great magazine article. Meaning: this book has one good idea that could have been executed so well in a shorter format.

In some cases, that book grew out of a magazine article. An agent or editor decided the writer hadn’t explored the idea in quite enough detail, what with the limited word count and all. What could go wrong?

When writing a book, the tendency is to take one big idea and keep spinning it, unravelling it, maybe layering it with another big idea…sounds like a bit of a tangle, doesn’t it? Have you lost count of your warp and weft yet?

You doubt your reader’s ability to understand the big idea or question, so you support it with other ideas, questions, and themes. You don’t fully believe in the one big solution you’re offering readers, so you suggest a number of options.

It’s not your fault: that’s the format of the expository essay we were taught in school.

It’s possible to weave together an intricate narrative rich in numerous themes, and that can be an immensely rewarding reading experience, but it’s difficult to pull off.

Make it easy on yourself.

One big idea or question. One problem you’ve articulated for the reader. One central theme. That’s all you need.

Business books follow this model to a T. They outline a big problem (e.g., lack of customers) and suggest one solution (e.g., be generous with your offerings). Malcolm Gladwell is famous for taking one big idea, even if not all that original (i.e., David vs Goliath), and then expressing it over and over, using stories as examples.

Trust yourself to choose one big idea, rather than packing everything into a single book. Build on that idea with quality storytelling and well-chosen examples. Instead of doubting your reader’s ability to “get” your idea, focus on expressing that idea clearly.

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