“Oh, what’s it about?” Part 2: The Art of the Nutshell

Written by on January 19, 2011 in Books & Self-Publishing, Writing Tips - Leave a Comment

In the same way that some nutritionists have a terrible time sticking to their own diet plans, many writers find it impossible to write and speak clearly about their own work.  In my last post, I discussed some of the reasons writers find it difficult to talk about their work.  Today, let’s take the first step towards overcoming this pitfall:  practicing.

I have a pile of library books on my desk.  At risk of revealing too much about my own reading habits (my boyfriend was recently berating me for reading too many “silly psychology books” and not enough Serious Fiction, so I’m a little sensitive on this point), here’s what I would tell you if you tapped me on the shoulder and asked what they were about:


Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg:  “It’s a Zen guide to creative writing.”

Manufacturing Depression by Gary Greenberg:  “It’s about how the whole concept of ‘major depression’ as a diagnosis came about, and what it means for how we understand sadness.”

Your Brain On Food: “It’s about how different foods and drinks affect your brain chemistry.”


Come, Thou Tortoise by Jessica Grant:  “It’s about a quirky girl who leaves her beloved pet tortoise behind and goes home to Newfoundland after her father dies.”

Demon Box by Ken Kesey: “It’s a collection of more or less autobiographical short stories about life on Ken Kesey’s farm commune in Oregon.”

Chains, by Laurie Halse Anderson.  “It’s about a thirteen year old slave girl trying to gain her freedom during the Revolutionary war.”

As you can see, my descriptions are none too sparkling, and would never make it onto the back cover of any book.  But they give a very short and (I hope) clear explanation of the basic gist of each book.  Within the space of a breath, you have the book in a nutshell.

Go stand in front of your bookshelf and practice this right now.  Describe each book in a single sentence.  Don’t try to be interesting—just say what it’s about.  If you get stuck, here are some pointers:

For non-fiction books, ask yourself:

-To which problem does this book present a solution?

-Which previously unexplored angle does this book offer on its subject?

-Which question does this book attempt to answer?

For fiction, ask yourself:

-How can this book be categorized (autobiographical, dystopian, etc.)?

-What’s the story goal?

-What twist does this story offer on a well-known theme?

The first step towards being able to sell your book effectively is learning to describe it in a single sentence.  The next step is learning to describe it in a way that makes people want to read the darn thing.  In my next post, I’ll talk about how to elevate your one-sentence answer from a description to a pitch.  Until then, practice describing books in a nutshell—and don’t forget to try it on your own.

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