What's the Big Idea?
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What's the Big Idea?

Nonfiction Condensed

Leslie Watts, Shelley Sperry, Shawn Coyne

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eBook - ePub

What's the Big Idea?

Nonfiction Condensed

Leslie Watts, Shelley Sperry, Shawn Coyne

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Undertaking any big project, but especially a book is a daunting proposition. The way to make it less scary is to have a map for the journey, and ideally, some experienced fellow travelers to ride shotgun—friends who know the road well and can help you make it to your destination. That’s what we are aiming to provide.

We’re two editors with over twenty years of experience between us, writing and editing many types of nonfiction. In the pages that follow, we distill some of the lessons we’ve learned in the trenches applying Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid methodology to the work of our clients, all of whom are leveling up their skills as nonfiction writers.

We’ve chosen to use several masterworks—with the most considerable emphasis on The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin and In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan—as the maps to guide us throughout What’s the Big Idea?

Although Baldwin and Pollan write on different topics and in different styles over half a century apart, both men had an enormous cultural impact. They extended that influence to a broad popular audience with these works. We could have chosen many other titles, and we’ll include examples from some others where it’s helpful.

After reading this short, macro-principles primer, you may want to take a microscopic dive into Big Idea nonfiction by looking at The Story Grid Masterwork Guide to Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, which provides a scene-by-scene analysis of another exemplary title. We hope you’ll be inspired to find your own favorite masterworks to learn from and apply Story Grid Methodology yourself. We’ll provide some tips on how to do that too.

With Baldwin and Pollan as our touchstones, we’ve organized this book around a series of questions and answers that will explain how and why Big Idea books work.

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First, put your “aha” to the Venn diagram test.
You’ve started your writing journey with a particular phenomenon or problem that fascinates you, and you just can’t escape the urge to explore it. You’ve probably had an “aha” moment when you’ve recognized a new angle or insight about your topic. You’ve probably scratched out some notes, written a blog post, or even furiously drafted several chapters of something that needs a global structure to hold it all together. Now you realize you don’t know exactly how to form that comprehensive organization.
What’s the best form for this project? A structure that, in the most accessible way, will attract the broadest possible readership.
The first order of business is to decide whether the information and ideas you want to share should be in the form of an academic work, a how-to, a narrative, or a Big Idea book, which combines elements of the first three. This question may seem simple, but as editors, we’ve often found that it can take weeks, or even months, of writing and thinking before our clients understand their subjects and their ideal audience well enough to know the answer.
Part of the process of writing nonfiction is allowing the research to guide you to new places and new insights, so it’s okay if you make changes in the structure of your book along the way. We’ve met many writers who begin writing a Big Idea book and end up with a narrative memoir or a how-to book—or vice versa. That’s just part of the process. Don’t lose heart if you’re confused. Everyone gets confused.
Most nonfiction books, no matter which category they’re in, have some sort of “aha” component—a new way of looking at a topic or question. But only in a Big Idea book does the writer structure the book so that it includes elements of academic, narrative, and how-to nonfiction built around a single central “aha” revelation.
Let’s look at the characteristics of each of the four types of nonfiction so you can start to narrow the options for your book.


If you’re a professor, a physician, or another kind of expert with highly specialized knowledge, chances are you know whether you’re writing an academic book because you know your audience is made up of other experts in your field. That niche, but highly skilled, audience, will hold you—and you’ll hold yourself—to a rigid standard of evidence and analysis, and you’ll probably downplay your own author’s voice. You’ll follow standard guidelines within your community that determine the structure of your book.
Examples of academic nonfiction that have been highly influential on Story Grid Methodology include Dynamics in Action: Intentional Behavior as a Complex System by Alicia Juarrero and Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter. Both works assume their readers will have a working understanding of scientific fundamentals and a strong grasp of the humanities. They do not begin at first principles but rather assume the reader has a core knowledge within the realm of their inquiry.
But if you’re an expert who wants to reach a wider audience, one that needs a logical progression of ideas from common sense on up, you’ll have to adapt your work and approach to fit into the mold of narrative, how-to, or Big Idea nonfiction.
Most of us don’t come in contact with much academic nonfiction—unless it makes a significant impact in the world—and even then, it’s more likely that you’ll hear about a critical academic book because of an article in a newspaper or magazine, rather than reading it firsthand. Hofstadter’s book is the perfect example of an academic work that was so highly praised it sold extraordinarily well (and even does still today). But very few readers have actually made it from page one to the end. Other examples of breakthrough academic works include Alan Jasanoff’s The Biological Mind, Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, and Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.


If you’re a journalist, a memoirist, a historian, or just someone who has a compelling tale to share with a broad audience, the narrative format is tailor-made for you. The subjects you can explore are endless, as long as there are connected characters and events. Usually, there’s some movement through time, but that doesn’t mean the events must be told in chronological order. In narrative nonfiction, the story is the star. You’ll use the tools and techniques of a fiction writer to tell a true story in a dramatic way that will grip readers’ imaginations. You’ll need to provide rich, specific details about the setting and cast of characters, and most importantly, a cathartic moment in the end, just like good novels have.
Memoir, history, and journalism focused on politics, natural science, and social science are among the most popular kinds of narrative nonfiction, and they dominate the lists of prize-winning books each year precisely because they captivate readers. Some examples of recent masterworks in this category include Tara Westover’s Educated and Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl (memoirs); Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time (histories); and David Quammen’s The Tangled Tree and Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (science journalism).
But if analyzing a phenomenon or problem is more important to you than telling a single compelling story, you’ll need the structure of a Big Idea book instead of a narrative.


Maybe you’re an expert in gardening, time management, or child psychology who would like to share your knowledge, experience, and pro tips with the masses. Like academic nonfiction, how-to books target a specific audience that wants valuable information. But in this case, the experts translate their ideas into more straightforward language and careful, step-by-step instructions so ordinary people without degrees or special skills can make, understand, or survive something.
Nonfiction bestseller lists are full of how-to books, especially in the United States, because we have a cultural proclivity to want to improve ourselves and our situation in life. There are how-to books for every need. If you’ve been in a bookstore recently, you’ve seen James Clear’s Atomic Habits, Tim Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Workweek, Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and Jen Sincero’s You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life, to name just a few. Crafting a how-to book often can be an indispensable first step for authors to take before jumping into the deep end with a Big Idea.
So, how-to books provide step-by-step instructions to solve a complicated problem or multiple problems. Narrative nonfiction uses the fiction writer’s toolbox to tell a story about historical or contemporary events. And, an academic work focuses on grand global theories that explain complex known data within a sizable phenomenal domain to people already engrossed by that domain. So, what’s the Big Idea book?


Big Idea books combine elements of each of the three types of nonfiction discussed above. The ultimate point of a Big Idea book is to help your readers think in a new way about a specific problem or phenomenon and to spread that new way of thinking to others. In the process, Big Idea titles teach readers how to cultivate knowledge and wisdom. ...