You’re finally sitting down to write your book. You might even make it through a few chapters. But then you read back over your work and you feel a lack of firmness in your writing, as if you’re vacillating back and forth between ideas, as if you’re not clear on what you want to say (but you swore you knew exactly what you wanted to say when you sat down to write!).
This can happen to anyone. And usually, “wobbly” writing comes as a result of overlooking one task that makes a huge difference in the creative process: they don’t know how to get clear on the premise and the promise of the book.
This might seem obvious. But authors usually confuse the topic of the book with the premise and promise. Being clear on the topic is easy – you’re simply naming what it’s generally about (i.e. marketing, increasing revenue, networking, etc.). On the other hand, getting clear on the premise means that you’re getting clear on the argument you’re making, the theory you’re putting forward. You are, in fact, putting forth an opinion, an argument, a way of thinking that is different from those in your field, and you are hoping that your reader will adopt it. (And if you’re not putting forth a unique viewpoint or way of looking at the world… then why are you writing a book?)
A premise is defined as:
- noun: a statement that is assumed to be true and from which a conclusion can be drawn
- verb: set forth beforehand, often as an explanation
- verb: furnish with a preface or introduction
- verb: take something as preexisting and given
Getting clear on your premise is more important than ever in this day and age of half-baked, business card books. You should be putting forth a specific viewpoint, one that is based on you and your experience and your stories. This means you need to take a position on the subject matter you’re sharing with your readers.
Let’s look at an example. Here’s a hypothetical premise from the book Give and Take:
Give and Take explains why givers succeed far more than takers, and why learning to give in a healthy and effective way is essential for a successful career.
In this premise, you can see that the author believes it is better to be a healthy giver than it is to be a taker, and that giving or taking is not a fixed behavior – it can be learned.
Here’s another hypothetical premise for Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic:
In Big Magic, Gilbert shares how creativity is not some nebulous trait that we either have or don’t have but that it has an innate presence in all of us. She teaches readers that ideas are separate entities that come to us when they want to be manifested into reality, and it is up to us to engage with them or not.
Gilbert clearly believes that there is no one on this earth who was born with more creativity than another person and that we are all capable of creation. She also believes that ideas are available to all of us and not the territory of the gifted few.
Getting clear on your premise means that you’re taking a stand, you’re making a decisive declaration about what you believe in – and, implicitly, what you don’t. It’s the last part that can be scary for authors, because they don’t want to make a declaration that might offend someone, or put someone off, or scare them away from hiring them. But this is part of getting clear on what you’re saying and who you’re serving.
For example, as a writer and a book coach, I believe good books take (and deserve) time. I believe good books come as a result of patience, time, and digging deep to pull out the best in you. If I put forth that statement in a premise for a book, you could read between the lines and come to the conclusion that I do not stand for business card books that are written in a weekend. Will this alienate people who are looking for a quickly done book? Yes, and I hope it does. Those who desire a book like that are not my ideal client. Will I possibly offend the people in my industry who are producers of quick books? Yes, and that’s okay too. I’m unlikely to do business with them anyway. While your premise doesn’t have to boldly declare what you don’t stand for, it does need to be clear what you do believe in.
Take some time to think about the major premise of your book. Try and winnow it down to one or two sentences. Any more than that and you’re getting too long-winded. As the saying goes, if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough. It’s not going to be perfect the first few times you write it out. Take several approaches to it until you feel you’ve settled on one that makes you light up with excitement.
Next, we’ll talk about the promise you’re making to your readers. The promise is based on the premise, but also the outcome your reader is looking for when they pick up your book. When a reader buys a book, they are looking to solve some kind of problem. Your promise clearly speaks to their unconscious fears and assures them that their desires will be met.
Let’s look at a hypothetical promise for Give and Take:
By the end of this book, you’ll not only know how to be a giver with healthy boundaries, you’ll have the tools to give in a way that helps you create lasting relationships and networks that serve you and your career.
A hypothetical promise for Big Magic might look like this:
By the end of this book, you’ll know how to tune into your own sense of creativity, and how to work with it to feel more fulfilled and self-expressed.
The promised outcome is that readers will have a novel way of connecting with their creativity, and they’ll feel the satisfaction of fulfillment and self-expression.
Think of the promise you want to extend your readers and write it down. This should reflect the thing you most deeply want them to get by the end of the book. Like the premise, it might take a few tries to get it right, but keep going until you’re clear on how your reader’s world will change by the time they finish your book.
Consider Your Ideal Reader
As authors, we can get so excited about the idea we want to share that we forget to focus on what the audience wants. You might think your premise and your promise are fascinating, but let’s check in for a moment and ensure that your audience wants to learn what you want to teach them.
Think of that scene in the movie The Break Up with Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn. She complains about how she wants him to do the dishes, and he says he doesn’t want to. She then complains that she wants him to want to do the dishes. It’s a small difference in intention that leads to a big difference in outcome, right?
If you have an existing audience, are your premise and promise in line with what they want to learn? Or is it that you want your audience to want them? Let’s say a Wim Hof teacher with thousands of followers wants to write a book about teaching the method. His premise and promise would be based on what it takes to teach that method of breathing. That works if his audience is made up of teachers or prospective teachers, at least partially. It doesn’t work if his audience is made up of people who simply want to learn and practice the method themselves. If he wants to reach people who want to learn the method, then he needs to shift the premise and the promise of the book.
I hope that your premise and your promise fire you up. You should be able to look at them and feel some spark of inspiration. When you get clear on the premise and the promise of your book, you can come back again and again to what you’re committed to, which not only helps keep your writing on solid ground, but helps you maintain your enthusiasm for writing the book in the first place.