Friday, October 14, 2011

Get a GRIP, part 4: the Idea

What is the one thing you have to say?

The third step you have to take before your write anything is to decide on the main idea of your document. No matter how long or short it is, you have to be able to sum up the point in one clear, complete sentence.

When U2 released The Joshua Tree, Time magazine quoted Bono as saying “Writing songs is easy. Writing good songs is hard.”

Writing anything is easy. All you need is something that leaves a mark on something else. A computer just makes it faster for your fingers to keep up with your brain.

But something worth reading has to be about something. In high school, we learned that “something” was called the thesis statement. It sounds impressive, but all it means is the main point.

A lot of people have trouble with this. They stare at the blank screen or page, or write sentences and paragraphs, then delete the whole thing and start over and over again.

Their problem is that they don’t know what they’re writing about. Before you start to write your document, write that thesis statement: one sentence that sums up the main point.

To do that, you have to go through the first two steps in the GRIP process: you have to have a goal or a purpose for writing—what you hope your document will accomplish—and you have to know whom you are writing for. Once you know that, write your thesis down: the statement that will motivate your reader to accomplish your goal. For this to work, as I have said, you have to know what motivates that reader.

Some books recommend the “hidden words” technique. Start with “The most important thing I have to tell you is ...” After you fill in the blank, you delete the opening clause—“hiding” it.

Every good letter, memo, report or proposal has a thesis—a single sentence that sums up what it’s about. Short stories and shorter poems, too, have to be about a single thing if they are to succeed. Longer novels can be about several things, but there has to be a single main theme.

I just finished reading Too Big to Fail, Andrew Sorkin’s minute-by-minute telling of the 2008 financial meltdown. At 555 pages, plus index and list of sources, it has a single thesis statement: “In the end, this drama is a human one, a tale about the fallibility of people who thought they were too big to fail.”

However, you don’t need to write the thesis statement explicitly in your document. It’s usually best to get to the point immediately, but depending on your goal, your reader and the context, you might decide to put it at the end, or to imply it and let the reader come to that conclusion. That technique is occasionally used in sales and advertising messages, but it’s hard to pull off. Advertisers are very good at this. The thesis of every beer ad is “Drink this beer and you’ll get laid!” Of course, they don’t say that explicitly. But that’s the message.

Writing the thesis statement is not easy. It may not be the first thing that you do. But you have to do it.

First, have a clear conception of the goal of your document. Write it down in terms of action that you want the reader to take.

Next, make sure that you know your reader as well as possible, including whatever motivations might support that action in your goal statement, and anything about the reader that would work against it.

The thesis statement has to compel the reader toward the action of your goal. Take your time with it. Write several versions and think about them. Write down other facts or ideas that will go into your document. But before you actually start writing the body of your memo, report or proposal—or whatever it is—you have to settle on the thesis statement.

“A vote for our candidate will keep your taxes low.”

“The accident was the result of poor safety training.”

“A new copier will save money over a year.”

The thesis can be long, it can be a compound, complex sentence, but it has to be a complete, grammatically correct sentence. Often, the writing of it can crystallize your thinking; I sometimes find that I had a vague idea, but writing it down forces me to make it real and concrete.


Novels can be long and complex. They can be about a lot of different things. But there still has to be a central, main theme that links all the other subplots and conflicts.

Moby Dick: Captain Ahab wants revenge on the whale—other subplots include the growing of characters like Ishmael, questions about the existence of God and the nature of good and evil.

One of my favourites, Foucault’s Pendulum: Our imaginations drive our behaviours, even when we don’t know it—plus a lot about the foolishness of conspiracy theories and some touching observations about the different sides in war.

There are many more. Now, I’m going to ask you to enter in the Comments the main themes or thesis statements of your works in progress. Remember, each one has to be a single sentence. I’ll respond!


  1. I didn't realize you have taught college writing. I do too (as an adjunct). More power to you! It's a demanding but fulfilling job to work with students.

    Theme for my novel? I guess I'd say it's about how our actions have consequences that affect other people, not just us, and we have to take responsibility for those consequences.

  2. Anonymous12:24 PM

    As a publisher I have to come up with single sentences for author's books. Sometimes things that an author considers important are of secondary importance to a potential reader.

  3. That's why I put R, for Reader, before I for Idea. You have to know your audience and what appeals to them. Why should they care about your story? What's in it for them?

  4. Anonymous2:04 PM

    Scott, this is an excellent article. One of my memoir themes is family, linked through genes and sometimes thwarted by genes, is still shaped by choice.

  5. My WIP is about identity and what it really means to be accepted, but it also looks at basic things which are taken for granted, using a fantasy setting.

    Nice article!

  6. Anonymous6:32 AM

    The role of Therin's King is to keep the golden stone, that which holds the balance of magic, safe, but it no longer resides in his Keep and he must thwart the evil that would use it to gain power, accepting the help of the races man has long refuted.

  7. Anonymous3:33 PM

    The main theme in The Road trilogy is friendship, the trials and tribulations involved in those friendships, and how they hold up under the strenuous and dangerous conditions of the lives they lead. The secondary theme is knowledge and experience, or the lack thereof, and how the protagonist and his friends make their decisions, as well as how they deal with the repercussions of their mistakes, however painful they are (and some WILL be painful).

    Thanks for writing the article - gave me food for thought, and I do tend to binge.