If you are like many authors, early drafts of your book are—or will be—a bit kitchen-sinky, with too much of this and too much of that. Whether the issue is models, stories, or some other element, be prepared to make some hard decisions and do some trimming as you revise. One common problem I see in manuscripts is too many themes muddying up the message of the book. Of course, I also see the opposite problem: too little thematic cohesion. Either way, weak theme development is something you have to address to create a consistently engaging read.
What are themes? Those foundational philosophies that you return to again and again as you develop your content. Themes work with your message and promise to create the through-line for the book, turning a collection of topics into a cohesive whole. Remember, your message is the refined expression of a core idea. Your themes are how you deepen and support that idea.
I am working on a book about the customer experience, and one of the core themes is the importance of improving the employee experience. In most chapters, that philosophy comes into play in how the message of the chapter and book are explored. In a chapter on understanding your customer, for example, the author explores how employees feel—respected, prepared, confident, connected—when they know what they need to know to serve customers well.
Why is weak theme development problematic? If you have too many themes, you have too many angles on your core message, and it becomes muddy. Readers come away from the book not entirely sure of what it was you were trying to communicate. And that prevents them from telling their friends about it in a compelling way. And if you have little theme development, your chapters will seem like loosely related essays and the reader may or may not have a strong sense of your perspective on the main idea by the end of the book.
So, to avoid these problems, try the three approaches I’ve described below.
Plan: Either as part of your work on your message and promise or as part of your work on your outline, think carefully about your themes. Make a list of big ideas or philosophies that support your biggest idea, your message. Return to your notes on message and promise. You probably touch on a couple of themes in your one- or two-sentence message, and you probably considered other themes during your work on that message.
CLARIFY: You want to return to your themes consistently throughout the book to help support your message and your perspective on the content. If you have a dozen themes, many will be raised once or twice and then be abandoned, confusing or distracting the reader. Take your initial list and refine it to five or fewer. Consider whether some themes are actually topics or whether they just aren’t as important to the development of your message.