Statistically, about 80 percent of people want to write a book. They dream of becoming authors—what it would feel like to hold a book in their hands, to have other people read it. Yet many aspiring authors hit a major roadblock before they ever start. One of the main reasons? Uncertainty around the book idea.
I know because I’ve been there, and I’ve coached others through book ideation. And I receive message after message that follows a similar pattern: “I want to write a book about [insert idea]. Do you think it’s any good?”
Here’s the thing: lack of confidence around a book idea usually has to do with lack of clarity. Not just around how to articulate the book idea clearly and concisely but also about the why behind a book and who the book is for.
In Nonfiction Book School, my book-writing program for aspiring authors, we spend two in-depth sessions focused on ideation. We first walk through a step-by-step ideation process, and then dig into how to build out the idea using a book concept, which is essentially a one- to two-page document detailing the book project. The end result: a clear idea that serves as a compass for writing.
If you want to gain clarity around your own book idea, here are six questions to help.
1. Is it a topic or an idea?
The first thing to sort out is whether you’ve actually defined an idea, or if it’s just a topic. For example, a book on “helping women reach higher-level leadership positions” is a topic. A book on “how to apply the B.R.A.V.E. leadership approach to courageously rise through the ranks of corporate America, and bring other women with you” is an idea. One is broad: a women’s leadership book; the other is specific and focused: a book that applies a framework and heart. Which brings me to the next question . . .
2. Is my idea fully explored?
If you are considering writing a book, I suggest spending about a week or so journaling about your idea for fifteen minutes each morning. Dig into the why, the who (your reader), the core message or purpose behind the book, and what your big vision is for writing and publishing it. Then, head online and see what else is out there. Just because someone has written a book like yours doesn’t mean you should jump ship. Instead, ask yourself these questions, and maybe journal about them too: “What is unique about me and my approach that can [insert main goal of book] in a way these others can’t?” and “What am I adding that’s unique or different?”
Here’s my pep talk: your book is unique because you are writing it, not those other authors out there with published books. So dig deep into what positions you to bring value to the reader in a way no one else can.
3. Is my idea clearly articulated?
Use your writing to pull together a concise and clearly articulated one- to two-sentence core message for your book, the guiding compass while writing, and a one-paragraph high-level book overview. Push yourself to eliminate unclear pronouns like “that.” For example, “they will apply that idea to their family and work” becomes “they will apply the B.R.A.V.E. leadership approach to their family and work lives.” Do your best to use the clearest, truest language possible. Don’t be fluffy or flowery. Be clear.
4. Do I understand whom I’m writing it for (my reader)?
News flash: “everyone” is not your audience. When you write to everyone, you write to no one. There’s an industry catchphrase that’s rings true: “the riches are in the niches.” So especially if you’re writing a book as part of a larger professional or business purpose, getting clear on whom your book is for will help you vet or adjust your book idea.
I suggest completing a reader persona, much like marketing folks use when creating a marketing campaign. Create a fictional reader based on several people you know or are connected to in real life; you can also pick a real person who is a great example of an ideal reader for your book. Give that person a name, family, work life, challenges (things holding them back), and opportunities (things available to advance their life). Write about the books they read, podcasts they listen to, and their hobbies. Complete this again for up to two more readers, and then rank them one to three. Then, go back to your clearly articulated core message and book overview and revise it to be even clearer.
If you really struggle with this, it might be a sign that your book idea needs some love. Go back to #2 and spend more time journaling, really pushing yourself to get to the essence of why you want to write this book—what is your purpose?
5. Does it align with, and get me closer to, my bigger vision?
First off, you need to be able to answer the question: what is my vision for my life and work? If you haven’t defined that yet, I suggest utilizing my free life visioning guide to help.
If you understand your short, mid-, and long-term vision, spend time reflecting on whether your book idea gets you closer to that vision. I often find that a book idea is just a step or two to the right of where it needs to be, and with some additional reflection and adjusting the core message, book overview, and ideal reader, a book is clearly aligned with getting an author to where she or he wants to be long-term.
Here’s the thing: writing a book takes time. It requires commitment and reallocation of focus, energy, and effort. If you’re not on fire for the idea, and it doesn’t align with where you want to go long-term, you’re wayyyyyy more likely to abandon the draft. I’ve seen it so many times throughout the years: an aspiring author makes it about 20,000 words into the draft—which is no small feat!—and then quits, unsure of how to finish and whether the idea was any good to begin with.
6. Is it vulnerable, courageous, and thought-provoking?
I had a conversation with my friend and colleague Tim Vandehey recently about what makes a book idea great. He pointed out that, often, the best ideas are the ones that authors keep pushing aside, the book they don’t want to write.
You don’t have to write a tell-all memoir to be brave in clarifying your book idea. Instead, push yourself to dig deeper and get bolder about how you’re approaching your book idea. Ask if your book will get your reader to think deeply, transform internally, or shift their worldview (yes, this holds true for even the most nonfiction-y books out there!). It can be tempting to write a safe book, but the truth is that great books resonate emotionally. Emotion requires courage from the author. At the heart of courage is vulnerability. Is your idea vulnerable? Is it courageous? Is it thought-provoking? Be honest. If the answer is no to any of them, go back to your description and push yourself to make the idea great.
A great book starts with a great idea. Spending the time and effort to clarify your idea from the outset will make your writing process easier and more enjoyable, and once your book is out into the world, it will be more likely to make an impact.
What questions would you add? What book idea are you thinking through? Share with me in the comments!
Thanks so much for these six questions. They are powerful. I am grateful for question 6 in particular. I am just finishing up my manuscripts on marriage. And sometimes, I am tempted to fear that some readers would accuse me of being too courageous with some of the insights I have shared.However, the way you have described questions 6 puts me at ease that the book is going to make a lot of impact on those who will read it.
Thank you for reading and sharing your insights, Mannie! Anchoring to impact—with a focus on serving readers—is a powerful approach. Congratulations on nearly finishing your manuscript! I wish you the best as you take the steps to share it with the world.