How to Write a Big Idea

Since I’m now getting a lot of writers wanting to participate in The Big Idea feature, I figure it will be useful to give them a reference document on how to write one (and how not to). Hence the following, which I will direct folks to rather than having to write this all over and over again. I am nothing if not efficient. To spare those of you who don’t care while this is on the Whatever front page, all of the gory details await behind the cut.

Now then:


It’s simple, really:

1. Identify a “Big Idea” in your work — Usually this is the “hook” or central conceit of your book. For example, in my own book Old Man’s War, the “big idea” was that soldiers were taken from the ranks of the elderly rather than from the ranks of the young. However, you may have other, secondary “big ideas” in your book other than the obvious, that you might want to explore instead; in Old Man’s War, a secondary “big idea” was how or if someone could keep hold of his humanity while fighting inhumanly alien enemies. In both cases, it’s an idea you as a writer have had that has consequence for how you wrote your work — and would therefore be interesting for readers here to know about.

2. Explain how that “Big Idea” had an impact on your writing — Ideas are easy; writing is hard.  What this feature is about is how you as the writer took that big idea you had and made a book out of it: what effort it required, what challenges it provided you to make your words worthy of the idea, how you stumbled or even failed with the idea before you got right, etc. Every writing experience is different because every book’s “big idea” is different (one hopes). Tell the story of the writing of the idea.

3. It’s about the “Big Idea” but it’s also about you — More specifically, your interaction with your Big Idea through the medium of writing. The readers here like getting a sense of the person behind the words, so don’t be afraid to let your personality come through, or to admit frustrations, joys, aggravations, accomplishments, etc., that you felt during the writing process itself.

4. Tell your story, don’t flog your book — Which is to say that you should avoid making your Big Idea piece sound like flap copy or a publicity release for your work (presumably those have already been done). Simply by appearing as a Big Idea participant, readers here know you have a book out, and when I post your piece, I’ll be putting up a big picture of the book as well as links for people to buy it and to any Web presence you might have. So, relax. What will recommend your book to the readers here will be the story you tell about your Big Idea, and how you worked with it.

5 . Make the piece something you would want to read — If it’s not interesting to you, it won’t be interesting to the readers here. Now, I know that there may be some temptation to be a little slack here, because this is a blog and not the New York Times. But, you know. The audience here is a pretty literate, book-buying crowd, and there usually thirty to forty thousand of them who come by every week day, and most of them seem to like these features. It’s worth it to make the effort.

And that’s pretty much it. In terms of mechanical issues, I suggest you write something between 400 and 1,000 words; shorter than that and it’s not much of a conversational piece, longer than that and you’ll begin to wonder why you’re writing so much when I’m not paying you. However, write the piece the length it needs to be; it’s not like I’ll run short of space here. My editing is generally confined to very light copyediting, so do try to catch errors on your end. I do reserve the right to send back a piece if I think it’s unsuitable (I’ll explain why when I do); if I do you can do an edit and send it back to try again. I do reserve the right to pass on the piece if it’s unsuitable at that point (so far, that hasn’t happened). You retain all rights to your “Big Idea” piece, save that I reserve the right to keep a non-exclusive copy of the text here on the blog and/or its associated electronic archives. I try to post each Big Idea within a couple of weeks of the release of your book, but scheduling or other issues may mean it could run a bit later.

Any other questions? Drop me an e-mail at


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