Editing week, Level 1: The power of idea development

Editing is hard. It’s hard to provide useful advice. And it’s hard to take it and use it to make your writing better. This is editing week at Without Bullshit; each day I’ll share my best tips for each of the five levels of editing, as shown in the graphic below. Today: I show how you to help someone before they begin to write. This is idea development: hammering on an idea until it’s solid enough to write about.

levels of editing

What is idea development?

If you’re going to write anything substantial — anything longer than 1000 words — you need a solid idea. That idea must be powerful, simple, and coherent. And the writer must write it down — so that anyone involved in reviewing and editing the piece knows what they’re talking about.

I call this stage idea development, and it was actually my job (as SVP of Idea Development) for the last five years of my tenure at Forrester Research. It was crucial to the success of our “big idea” reports. It was also tenuous and hard to get ahold of, because ideas are abstract and often, formless.

Here’s my definition:

Idea development is the process of taking a vague concept and developing it into a solid foundation for a piece of writing.

What the writer brings to idea development

A writer needs to be able to present the idea if the editor is going to be any help at all. So here’s what you need to do:

  • Do a ROAM analysis. Who are the readers you’re aiming for? What’s your objective, and what action do you hope they will take? What impression are you seeking to make? These are the elements of ROAM, and you should write them down — or work on them with your editor — before considering writing anything.
  • Write a quick treatment. Write a paragraph about your concept, even if it’s ill-formed or vague. If it’s easier for you, do a set of PowerPoint slides or a graphic. Write as informally as possible, because the only audience is your editor.
  • Write some titles. Titles are crucial to defining ideas — if you can name something, you’re halfway to talking about it intelligently. But titles are hard. So don’t try to find the title, just rattle of a bunch.

For example, here’s a book idea I’ve been tossing around, in a form that an editor could critique.

How Stories Lie

Stories are central to how humans communicate. If you want to share an idea, you do it as a story. But are stories true? A good story always leaves stuff out and distorts the truth to fit the narrative. This creates a bias — away from boring data and towards a sequential narrative. This book is an examination of how stories distort truth, and how we can compensate for the biases that stories create.

Readers: General business readers.
Objective: Get people to think skeptically about the stories they tell, and the ones they read.
Action: Identify story bias and combat it.
Impression: Wow, that Josh Bernoff is a smart and original thinker.

Alternate titles: Narrative Bias, The Rest of the Story, Ethical Storytelling, Stories and Truth, The Bias of Stories

What the editor brings to idea development

Your job as an editor is to make ideas stronger. You can’t do this with love. You must do it by being tough. All ideas are flabby and weak at first. You need to help the writer fix this.

Remember, you are standing in for the reader. If the reader is confused, or just not inspired, you haven’t done your job.

So think about how you will push back on the idea. Poke holes in it. Figure out if it is too small — or too big — to be interesting.

[tweetthis]Being hard on people is mean and unfair. But being hard on ideas is what makes them better.[/tweetthis]

How to actually do this: the two huhs method

I recommend a session, preferably in person, but in a pinch, on video or on the phone. And you can use my patented “two huhs” method (which, conveniently, requires no intelligence whatsoever on the editor). Here’s how it works.

  1. Ahead of the meeting, editor reads what the writer has produced. Editor thinks a bit about where it’s weak — vague, uninteresting, not believable, etc.
  2. Editor pushes back on ROAM. Are the potential readers a clearly defined group? Is the objective clear? Is there a clear action? Editor and author discuss and define more clearly.
  3. Author describes the idea. Explain the idea in 5 minutes or less. Cite examples. Explain what you think is cool about it.
  4. Editor fails to understand. Say, “That sounds interesting, but I’m not quite getting it. Could you explain it a little more simply?” (This is the first “Huh?”)
  5. Author describes the idea more clearly.
  6. Editor still fails to understand. Say “That’s better, but it’s still a little fuzzy for me. What’s the nub of the idea? What are you really trying to say?” (This is the second “Huh?”)
  7. Author describes the idea with passion. At this point, the author will be frustrated. They’ll probably say something like “Look, it’s pretty simple, ok.” And then they’ll explain it in the starkest terms possible.
  8. Editor accepts the idea. Now you’ve boiled the idea down and made it strong. And you can build it up from there.

Note: Two huhs is ideal. Three is just annoying.

Don’t stop here, of course. At this point, it’s worth discussing subsidiary ideas, what your idea builds on, examples that prove your point, and anything else that makes the idea more interesting.

It’s also useful at this point to look at alternate versions of the title and subtitle. Use a thesaurus, search Google, search Amazon (if you’re writing a book). See if you’re onto something unique, or have come up with the same concept or title as other people. I find that knocking around alternate titles — and especially, subtitles — is a good way to move idea thinking along.

What to produce: a treatment

Once you’ve finished the meeting, the writer needs to expand the treatment. Write up a page or two about the title, the main idea, and the subsidiary ideas. This codifies what you learned.

In my Book Whisperer projects, I’m the one that asks the ROAM questions, I’m the one that does the two huhs, and I’m the one that writes the treatment. But I’m ghostwriting for the idea person, writing down my understanding of their ideas.

Once the author has done the treatment, they can expand it into a fat outline. And that prepares everybody for the next step in editing: the structural edit, which I’ll address tomorrow.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


  1. You have an amazing way of explaining things to clarify understanding. I look forward to learning from you every week.