It was painful for me to watch as she struggled to explain her book topic. She had hired me to help her lay the groundwork for what she was sure would be a bestseller. During our one-day session, I asked her the question I ask every aspiring author: “What’s your book about?”
With eyes staring at the ceiling (as if the answer was up there, somewhere), she explained that she wanted to write a book about how she managed to climb the corporate ladder and raise a family, while battling a debilitating disease, caring for her aging parents, and starting a business, which she now runs full time. So, of course, she has to share the life-changing system she developed that has helped so many of her clients succeed. Whew!
Ummmmm, yeah, that’s too much going on for one book.
One thing people struggle with most is deciding what topic to write about. When you have years of experience in your field, or years of life lessons to share, choosing the right topic for your book can be hard; but it doesn’t have to be.
I’ve talked with many authors who have a half dozen book ideas, and most of those ideas are good. But, as I explain to each of the aspiring authors, you can’t write one book about every experience you’ve ever had in life. You have to choose one topic, one focus, one theme for your book. Just ONE!
Your purpose for writing this book could help you decide on a topic. Because really, if you’re writing to gain more clients, get paid as a speaker, or serve others through your ministry, those goals should drive the story you tell in order to get maximum impact for yourself and for your reader.
Here are 3 common traps authors fall into when they don’t decide early on in the process what topic to write about:
- The dump: They dump every life experience, every lesson learned, and every gory detail of their lives into their book. I see this most often with writers of memoir. Believe it or not, readers don’t need to know all the gory details of your life. Unless you’re a celebrity, athlete, or elected official with an amazingly shocking life experience and a million-dollar book deal, there’s no need to expose yourself in that way. Readers want to know what you learned through your life lessons. So save yourself the struggle, and avoid all of those painful—and sometimes embarrassing—details, and just stick with the lessons learned.
Now, this next one might sound like a total contradiction to the above, but it’s not:
- The hold-out: When writing a self-help or how-to book, authors often want to hold out on sharing the “how”, and focus only on sharing the “what” for readers. Afraid that sharing the entirety of their process will discourage readers from working with them further, these stingy authors make the mistake of thinking that if they just tease readers with a little bit of the process and hold back on the juicy parts, that will really help them advance in their career and life, that they are actually baiting them. No. In fact, this often proves to be frustrating to readers. Either give it all to them (specifically when you’re teaching a process, system, or methodology), or just don’t write the book at all.
- The rambler: These are the authors who are all over the place with their content. Because they have no focus, their book has no cohesion. There’s no glue holding all those stories and ideas and approaches together. There’s no clear lesson or takeaway for the reader, and the book reads like a bunch of gobbledygook. I’m a staunch believer in relevance. Every word, sentence, and paragraph in your book should be relevant to the topic. Just because you know something, or have experienced something, doesn’t mean it belongs in this particular book. Ask yourself if the example or story you wish to include helps move the book forward, enlightens the reader, solves a problem, or adds critical information for the purpose of the book. If it does not, leave it out. It might hurt at first, but you’ll thank yourself later when you have a clean manuscript that flows well.
So before you begin writing (yes, before), decide on the topic for your book. Choose just one topic, and develop your main points and supporting stories around that one topic. Doing this will help make your book much easier to write, and make it more enjoyable for readers to consume.
Anita R. Henderson is CEO of The Write Image, LLC and creator of Write Your Life. Known as The Author’s Midwife, her work with high performers has resulted in multiple bestselling and award-winning books and has helped authors grow their media and online visibility, speaker platforms, industry credibility, and overall confidence in their ability to write a compelling, high-quality book and leverage it in their business or career.