Is My Topic Broad Enough?
By Joel Armstrong
The Speak Up Conference has been blessed with many faculty members who are extraordinary publishing professionals. In this post Joel Armstrong, associate editor at Kregel Publications, addresses an important question.
“I love this author’s idea, but I don’t know if there’s enough here for a book.”
I’ve heard many editors and industry professionals say this about proposals they’ve received, and I’ve said it myself. We like the topic, the author’s platform looks good, we can picture the audience who needs the content . . .
But there just isn’t enough of it.
Maybe you’ve even read books like this, where the first two or three chapters were insightful and original, but it felt like the author was spinning out the same material in the second half to make it stretch.
So how do you know whether you have enough of a topic to fill up a whole book?
- Is the problem I’m addressing both broad and complex?
I know, I know. Everyone tells you that you should be able to boil down your book to a single, simple sentence. And that’s true. But behind that one sentence, there should be diverse, complex issues that will take a couple hundred pages to address.
Let’s say your one sentence is this: “My book equips Christian parents with biblical principles to approach the confusing issues their children face today.”
This is a good place to start, but to write a whole book, we have to fill out the specific problems the book will address. Maybe you’ll have separate chapters on social media, anxiety and depression, and racism within school systems, among other topics. While these all fit comfortably under the umbrella of “parenting for today’s children,” they offer needed complexity to flesh out the central problem.
Perhaps, in mapping out different aspects of your main topic, you realize you want to focus on a specific area, say racism in school systems. This is fine, as long as you then break down the complexities of that problem to help you define the individual chapters of that book. In this case, you might then develop chapters on peer-to-peer racism, racism from teachers and administrators, and implicit racial bias in ourselves.
- Are the solutions I’m offering both broad and complex?
Not only does your book need a complex problem, it also needs complex solutions. Say you’re writing that book on parenting that addresses everything from social media to anxiety to your kiddos’ interfaith friendships. If your takeaway for each chapter is some version of, “Help your child read the Bible and pray more for discernment,” you may actually only have one chapter on your hands. Or really, one online article. Which would be an excellent article on the need for daily Bible reading for your children to face today’s issues with wisdom, but that’s not a whole book.
For a whole book, you need to offer specific solutions for each specific issue. So to address harmful social media usage, perhaps you’d draw on the biblical principles that God made us each uniquely and that God doesn’t find our value in how we look or how much money we have. But to address anxiety and mental health, you might lead readers to other passages about God’s peace that passes all understanding and hands-on practices like mindfulness and self-care.
Most nonfiction books should address around 6–10 specific problems within your broad topic, and each of those smaller problems should have unique solutions or applications.
- When I’m honest with myself, how many words do I actually need to cover everything I want to say?
The average Christian living title is at least 40,000 words, with 50,000–60,000 words being a more normal range. Devotionals and Bible studies often run a lower word count, and gift books can be even smaller.
In whatever genre or format you are writing, just be honest with yourself about how much content you actually have in you. If you’re outlining your Christian living book and realize chapter 6 and chapter 7 are basically the same (“I thought addressing gossip and lying were separate topics, but my solution is the same for both: speaking the truth in love”), then consolidate those chapters. If a 90-day devotional on women in the Bible sounds “fuller” to you than a 60-day devotional, but really your three devotions on Mary Magdalene all highlight her faithful dedication to Jesus, maybe it’s time to rethink how many devotions your book needs.
Questions: How about you? What topic are you writing about? What complex problems and solutions within your topic can you address to give your book breadth and depth?
Joel Armstrong is an associate editor at Kregel Publications. He is also a conference speaker and fiction writer. Joel lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with his wife and their two cats, Gadget and Rigby. Find out more at joeljarmstrong.com.