In this post, we talked about what theme in non-fiction is and looked at examples from based-on-real-life TV, movies, and books. Today, we’re covering how to find the theme in your non-fiction book idea, because it can be as confusing as the nine dimensions of The Good Place.

(When you need a laugh, please go watch that show!)

First, remember that everyone approaches writing—and writing themes—differently.

There are two main approaches to finding the theme in a non-fiction book idea, and generally you don’t get to choose!

One approach will come naturally to you; the other will feel impossible witchcraftery.

Theme first, details later

Some people solidify their theme first, then figure out the details. They start with this big, broad idea for a book.

For example, “I want to write a book about how to teach gender equality to kids in elementary school.” They know the idea and are passionate about it.

These theme-first writers might not yet know all the nitty gritty details, like what lesson plans would look like. They might have a vague idea they’ll need gender language guidelines for kids, but they don’t know what that’d include yet. They’ll get to the details later.

At the beginning, they just know the broad idea, aka the theme. In this example, the theme is that gender equality must be taught from a young age.

Details first, theme later

Other people figure out their details first, then their theme.

They might start knowing they want to create lesson plans teachers can use to teach seven-year-olds to talk to the opposite gender with respect.

They can rattle off step-by-step instructions and practical advice, but they struggle to come up with a concise, over-arching sentence about why this work is important.

Both approaches work

Both approaches work for writing. Neither is better than the other.

The trick is:

  • to know which camp your big, beautiful brain naturally falls into,

  • take advantage of what comes first (whether that’s details or theme),

  • then gently push yourself to consider the other aspect.

Getting details from theme

If you naturally think big-picture, sit your butt in a chair and bully your brain into producing details.

For entrepreneurs writing for their businesses, details are a non-negotiable.

They’re not necessary for Moby Dick-style stories and journal entries. But for a book that will help you grow your business?

You need to communicate details to readers desperate for help.

Brain-dump as many ideas as you can, and validate each one by checking it connects directly to the theme you’re working with.

Getting theme from details

Don’t fret if you can rattle off details easy-peasy but stumble when asked, “What’s your book about—in one sentence?” This is my natural inclination, too!

I’ve found two great ways to figure out the theme in what you’re writing, though.

The two best ways to find theme in your writing

1. Ask a friend or colleague

Have someone read your rough ideas and tell you what they think is the main idea that connects everything.

Steven Pressfield, arguable one of the best non-fiction writers of our time, struggles to see the themes in his own work. He asks his editor, Shawn Coyne, to read his ideas and tell him what they’re about. If this technique is good enough for Mr Pressfield, it’s good enough for you!

If you don’t feel confident asking a friend or family member, ask me!

It can feel scary to share half-formed ideas and rough ramblings, but asking a trusted, encouraging outsider (as in, someone outside your own brain) can show you the brilliance in your ideas that you haven’t even noticed yet.

2. Try writing your conclusion

Pretend you’re in the final stretch. You’ve written most of your book and are on to the last chapter. Well done you!

In the last chapter, you’re going to thank your reader for staying with you, and encourage them to go forth and enact your advice. You’ll remind them of all the awesome stuff that will happen when they do what you suggest.

Go ahead… write it! I’ll wait while you get to it.

Don’t worry about grammar, spelling, or slick sentences. For this exercise, we only care about the message you’re sharing.

This will bring to the forefront something you already know but are so comfortable with that you’ve forgotten its awesomeness.

It will remind you of everything amazing that can happen when clients follow your suggestions.

Here’s what our example might look like:

Thanks for reading this. Now, put it into practice! Incorporate these lesson plans into your classroom, and you will see boys and girls talking to each other with great respect. In these most formative years, they’ll learn how important it is to respect the other gender. They’ll grow into adults who respect each other in the workplace, in relationships, and when parenting their own kids. If we—you—can get in early and teach kids when they’re still young, the world will become a better place.

This writing helps reveal that the key—the theme—is all about getting in young, and teaching kids respect from an early age.

Do you see how that comes out of writing the conclusion?

Over to you

Do you know the theme in your book idea? What will you try to get a handle on it?


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