Last Updated on February 15, 2022
A simple question… not always so simple to answer. As a developmental editor, it's the first thing I ask a prospective client so that I can get a handle on what they intend to explore with their readers. Regardless of an author's impressive credentials, sometimes their response is tangled, rambling, or vague. It then becomes clear to me that the writer has not quite homed in on their book's core subject.
But I'm sympathetic. As a writer myself, I've been on the other side of the editorial fence and realize how difficult it can be to pin down your topic. One might assume that clearly articulating what your prospective book will be about is a writer's first step on the path to publication. But first things first isn't always the way it goes. Sometimes clarifying your subject can be frustratingly elusive — even as you're in the process of writing the initial pages of your book proposal or manuscript.
Many of my clients are professionals who are experts in their field and have a wealth of fresh, important information to impart. Although their intention is to share that wealth with targeted readers, the challenge becomes: How do I keep from overwhelming my readers with too much information? Which aspects of my professional knowledge, insight, and experience should I focus on? What exactly do I want my readers to discover? And how can I organize my subject so that it's compelling, accessible, and relevant?
These are all issues that an experienced developmental editor can help you navigate. But to jump-start the process, you need to take a stab at describing your book in a sentence or two. Once you can do that, you'll not only make it easier for your editor to guide you through the developmental stages, you'll also be able to become your own editorial guide. Because the GPS for writing your book is based on that not-so-simple question: What is your book about?
Here are some ideas to help you zero in on your subject:
- Dig deep in order to discover the core ideas you want to share with readers.
- De-clutter your subject by deleting tangential topics that are not essential to your thesis.
- Read the bestseller list to educate yourself about how a mere sentence fragment can describe an entire book. While some of these brief descriptions may not be as nuanced as the book warrants, they provide examples of how to succinctly pinpoint the subject.
- Take the 15-word challenge: That's the approximate word count of the average bestseller list description. See if you can clearly explain the subject of your book in 15 or so words.
- Read online blurbs about books that are similar to the one you intend to write. Again, take note of how the book is concisely summarized.
Being able to clearly describe your book in two sentences or less will help you stay on point and focused as you write your book proposal or manuscript. And you'll have a ready answer when an editor, literary agent, or friend asks, “So… what's your book about?”