What’s your big idea?

Reading time: Just over 2 minutes 

Blog posts can start with nothing more than an interesting story but, eventually, they need to evolve into a big idea. Here’s why you need to accomplish that…. 

When I met with bloggers Mitchell and Jordan (not their real names), they looked nervous.  They were sitting in a meeting room, at the other side of the continent, connected to me by Skype. Also, their boss was in the room with them.

But it’s not that they were in trouble. Far from it. Their boss simply wanted me to help improve their blogging skills. To accomplish this, the team had sent me four posts c/o Goggle Docs. My job? To give them some tips for future writing.

We introduced ourselves to each other and — knowing they’d be nervous — I tried hard to be as friendly as possible, even cracking a few (quite lame) jokes. Then I started reading the first story. In fairly short order, I discerned a problem. 

The issue wasn’t grammar. Or sentence construction. Or choice of words. The problem was more global than that. The piece suffered from what I sometimes call “the lack of a big idea.”

If you’re a corporate or not-for-profit writer who needs to blog, you might want to examine your own writing and see how it stacks up in relation to this terribly important issue.

Journalists often call a big idea an angle. Academics, describe it as a thesis statement or argument. Salespeople might call it an elevator pitch. Businesspeople might call it a point. In short, it’s a succinct  — usually no more than a single sentence — summary of the main idea that you want your readers to walk away with. If you can’t put down your own text and describe your point in one sentence, you shouldn’t be writing. Or at least you shouldn’t be writing until you can figure it out. Really! (Try mindmapping if you’re having a problem with this.)

I asked Mitchell to tell me his point, verbally. At first he hesitated but then he articulated it, quite thoughtfully. And it was even there, in his post. It was just in the wrong place (hidden at the end). And he hadn’t devoted nearly enough space to it.

In a 500-word blog article, your big idea needs to be introduced somewhere in the first third of the post. You can’t count on readers waiting to read it until the end. (What if they’ve given up, before they get there?) Furthermore, at least 30 to 40% of the post needs to dwell on the big idea. It can’t be relegated to the (approximately) 10% that Mitchell had given it.

Note that when I say this, I don’t mean to suggest that Mitchell was a bad writer. He and his colleague were both decent writers who had some clear talent. They had done a good job of incorporating their lived experiences into their pieces. Their writing was engaging and in a couple of spots, funny enough to make me laugh out loud. They even had some hints of some good anecdotes and examples.

But their failure to identify their big ideas quickly enough not only made their posts seem unfocused, it also contributed to problems with the pacing. Think about it: If you don’t know your goal (i.e.: your big idea) how will you know when you achieve it? You won’t. So you’ll be inclined to waste words on description that’s irrelevant or unimportant. That’s going to make the reader feel frustrated, puzzled and perhaps bored.

Never assume that people have so much time on their hands that they have nothing better to do than read your writing. Instead, always remember the vast number of other things your readers could be doing: Socializing. Watching TV. Checking email. Spending time on Facebook. Working out. Reading something else.

They weren’t put on this earth for the pleasure of reading your work. In fact, they’re doing you a favour by reading it. So, respect them and their time by being very clear about the big idea you’re trying to convey.

The big idea of this post? Every piece of writing needs a big idea.

*

My video podcast last week aimed to help a writer who was struggling with a profound lack of confidence. See it here and consider subscribing. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

*

Does all your writing have a big idea? How do you find it? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post  (or any others) by Feb. 28/17, will be put in a draw for a copy of Around the Writer’s Block, by Rosanne Bane. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.

Posted February 14th, 2017 in Power Writing

  • Heidi Yorkshire

    That’s the problem journalists call “burying the lede.”

  • Christine

    I think my big idea comes in the introductory paragraph. It is rare that I can’t get the big idea in the first paragraph of my work. I’m a bit thankful for that.

    • Thanks, Christine. You might consider whether a more “delayed” approach to getting to the main point might benefit your writing. I find I really enjoy stories where the author begins with an interesting anecdote or example, setting the scene, as it were, for the big idea.

      • Juliann

        It’s true, a good story helps to set the scene. But my pet peeve these days, especially with news articles, is that the introductory stories seem to be getting longer and longer. I often find myself glancing away to a later section of the article or story to see where it’s all heading. and feeling impatient for the writer to get to the point.

        • Really? Wow, I never feel that way. I always enjoy a good story. But we’re all different so perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising…

  • Lisa and Bruce Miller – Pond

    Unless you are writing a novel, the big idea needs to be clearly present, early in the piece. I tell my university students that without that big idea in their introduction, reading their essay is like putting a jigsaw puzzle together without the picture on the box. All of the pieces are on the table, but without knowing how they fit together, reading the paper is an exercise in frustrration.

    • Yes, the big idea is even more urgent for any sort of academic writing. Thanks for making that point!

  • Christine Junge

    I love the idea of “the big idea”! It will be very easy to think of this while editing.

    • If you have a hard time with it, just ask yourself: “what’s the one idea I want the reader to take away from this piece?”

  • Catherine W

    Hi Daphne and thanks for this post. I’m an academic and also write every week for a blog with a large following, and some weeks are harder than others for finding the “big idea”. I’ve found that just starting writing usually does it– the big idea finds itself. But when I’m constrained for time (e.g. need 500–900 words in 2 hours or less), it’s much harder. If I’m in the position of having to do the whole task there and then in say 2 hours, how would you suggest that I divide up the tasks (e.g. mind mapping, writing, editing)? Not trying to get loads of free advice here (I know you do this for a living!), but a brief tip would be welcome.

    • This might sound crazy but I suggest you start with taking a WALK. Sitting at a desk is the world’s worst place to think about writing and walking will keep your big muscles occupied and allow your mind to roam. Do this for at least 20 minutes of your two hours. Then, when you get back to your desk, do a mind map. Then you should be good to go. If you can adjust your schedule so that you do your editing on a different day than your writing, that would be even better. (I’m not saying it should take more time — just that the time should be moved around.)

      • Catherine W

        HI Daphne– I’m chuckling while reading this! You’re quite right. And yes, I do have the power to divide up the time allotted into different days. For my academic writing I absolutely do this. Just because blogging is more fun and casual doesn’t mean I can’t structure it, too. Thanks loads!

  • Mai

    The nutgraf came to mind when I read this. And I agree– I really struggle in the writing process when I don’t have a strong nut graph to anchor my story.

    • Yes, nutgraf is another term that journalists use. Thanks for sharing, Mai!

  • Hafiz Nazari

    Thanks for this great tip Daphne. It is always important to make sure to have your “big idea” in mind before you start writing, and while you are writing. Because, your big idea literally presents and supports a position that you as a writer take . It conveys your main point or idea to the readers.

  • David Carlson

    About thirty years ago, journalist and editor for NBC and ABC News, Nathan Rutstein lectured at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Clark Morphew was there for the St. Paul Pioneer Press as Religion Editor. We had a few minutes private conversation with them before the lecture. We asked how to get our Baha’i stories published or reported on the news. We need a hook, they said.

    The subject of that lecture is a current hot topic today. How educators, beginning in preschool, commit psychological murder by insisting that black kids will never make it, and girls should avoid pursuing careers in math, science, and the arts.

    Thankfully, we have strong support for those programs in Minnesota public and private schools. This week these programs face serious challenges.

    What is the big idea? Lead with a hook that gives permission for women and girls to use “F” words in the headline? Two friends did on Facebook. They write blogs too. If the big idea simply is “Protest”, it got my attention. What big idea wins friends and enemies to give us hope for effective social action?

    • I was a victim of the “girls shouldn’t pursue careers in math” epidemic of the 1970s. Twenty years later I did some psychological testing and they told me I had some significant APTITUDE for math but almost no knowledge! So sad…