Thesis and Theme Self-publishing 8 Developmental Editing

Self-Publishing Lessons Part 8: Thesis and Theme

Thesis and Theme

This is the last installment I’m going to do on developmental editing for a while, and it probably should have been the first, but it won’t hurt to save the best for last.

First let’s get the obvious out of the way. I wanted to call this column “Theses and Themes,” but not only is the word “theses” effectively unsearchable, it’s somewhat inaccurate. “Thesis and Themes” is accurate and fair, but it feels inelegant to me because it doesn’t seem to agree, even though there’s no need to keep them both singular or plural. One thesis and multiple themes is how almost every fiction works. So just to make my half-assed attempt at SEO less annoying to me, I went with the keyword choice, which feels elegant even though it’s kind of a lie.

If you don’t like it, fuck off.


In general, a book has a thesis. Singular. One.

A book is about something. This something should be something that can be stated in one sound sentence, just like everyone learned about writing an essay in middle school (or should have).

The thesis of a textbook, for example, is usually the title of the textbook. Chances are, your textbooks had names like “Biology,” “Chemistry,” “Grammar,” etc., with some small variation in subtitles, to clarify them from other, similar works.

Textbooks, by the way, are always the result of the pinnacle of developmental editing. Producing a textbook is almost more like producing a movie than a novel, and the names on the spines of textbooks tend to be the lead developmental editor(s). They may do a lot of writing, but almost without exception, they are primarily Executive Producers of the work, in the sense of producing a collaborative product. The “big” Executive Producer is the Publisher, but the hands-on Executive Producers are the developmental editors.

It’s interesting in some ways to think that a textbook will often have more theses than themes; this is because of their modular nature and collaborative design. It’s almost the opposite of fiction, because despite having one overarching thesis, each chapter and subchapter, however they are divided, will have a thesis that can be isolated. Most textbooks have a singular theme (the subtitle, usually) that all the theses work to support—a methodology or approach.

In fiction, almost the opposite is true. The themes play off of, and work to support, the book’s big thesis, which is the core of the story.

I say “almost the opposite is true” because obviously, it’s not true.

All good writing will have theses throughout, but in nonfiction the entire work’s flow depends on smaller theses, whereas in fiction, those smaller theses aid the flow in a less obtrusive and far more subtle manner.

Every paragraph needs a topic sentence, or else it’s not a proper paragraph, is it? It’s a bad break instead.

Of course, that only applies to narrative paragraphs.

Nonfiction doesn’t really have anything else though, does it? It’s pretty much just a bunch of narrative paragraphs one after the other, even when they are “showing” and not “telling” (and yes, that will be the subject of a future column as well). So in fiction editing, that big thesis, the topic sentence of the whole book, the thing the fucking story is about, becomes all-important.

The first thing you need to do when you start to developmentally edit your book, is to isolate and understand what the thesis is.

Figure it out.

You should have done this before you ever started writing, but better late than never. If it’s not available for sale already, you can revise and rewrite it with the insight you should have had before you opened a new document or put pen to notebook or dialed a sheet onto the platen of your typewriter.

The second thing you need to do when you developmentally edit your book is to clarify, rethink, and rephrase your thesis.

Write this shit somewhere. Don’t do it in your head, you lazy fucking cheater. Have a document, a post-it, a piece of paper, something, with your thesis on it, that you can see with your little eyes as you edit.

Keep your thesis in mind CONSTANTLY. This is one of the two things an editor must keep in mind constantly.

Keep your thesis in mind CONSTANTLY.


I have a holistic approach to theme. It’s not a dictionary definition. To me, I approach themes like this: anything the book has to say that is not plot is a theme.

A theme is a message. A theme is a point. A theme is an approach to saying something of worth.

This is strictly opinion, but it’s important to consider your own stance on whether you agree with me or not: Ideally, a theme raises questions that readers must answer for themselves. (In my opinion, if your themes are written such that the reader cannot disagree with you, you have written an allegory, and chances are, if you are knowingly writing allegories, I don’t want to read it.)

Almost every good book has a few things in common, and it makes my life easier to consider them themes, so it will probably do the same for you.

Take character development. Character growth and development is an important theme in every good book, even if it is only a minor theme. It’s important because it’s big: stories feel like they went somewhere if something changes, and everything starts with character.

Readers need to relate to stories. Readers can only relate to characters, when you come right down to it. It’s just psychology. Whether it’s a person just like them, or an anthropomorphized animal, or a sentient blob of goo that may or may not be intelligent jism from another dimension, readers can’t understand a story unless they can relate to something that at least seems like a human element in your characters.

When characters change, the forces involved generate themes and subthemes.

How the characters change generate themes and subthemes.

What those changes are generate themes and subthemes.

The author’s voice, via the narrative voice, will create themes that the author may never realize without someone pointing them out. That someone is almost always the developmental editor, because that’s what most of fiction developmental editing is. These ‘overlooked’ themes are the best ones to develop most of the time, because they are organic and therefore, hopefully by definition, not preachy.

Preaching sucks. If you’re not writing a religious book, don’t preach to your readers. It’s condescending and off-putting and it completely kills immersion, sooner or later. Don’t tell your readers what to think.

Convince them if you like, but don’t command them.

(This is the problem with allegory. Some allegories are absolutely brilliant—a shitting rare few, as a percentage. If you’re not writing something in the ballpark of Animal Farm or Lord of the Flies or The Screwtape Letters, for instance, just hold off on the allegorical novel for now. Don’t quit, but make sure your chops are up to it, because nothing is worse than preachy, poorly done allegory.  It’s immensely hard to write allegorically without preaching. Until you can, please please please just fucking don’t.)

Break your themes down. Know why you have them.

Consider why they are there. If someone else spotted them for you, which is one of the invaluable services of a developmental editor being someone who is not the writer, consider why they came from you in the first place.

Consider whether they merit a complete rewrite of your book (this is always an option, learn to live with that!), or just a solid fleshing out throughout the manuscript, or an outright deletion (cf. previous boldface comment—sorry, but writing is rewriting, get a grip on that reality or GTFO).

Always consider your audience.

Does the theme you detected say what you want to say to them?

How will they take it?

How can you make the point, how can you make them think, how can you generate the kind of reactions you desire?

Always consider your audience.

Always consider your audience. This is the other thing an editor must always keep in mind. CONSTANTLY.

Always. Consider. Your. Audience.

This is barely a start, but it’s a start.

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