Simple enough question, not exactly rocket science. Yet a lot of people struggle to find the right answer or, worse, don’t ask it at all. And that’s a major mistake, because the answer contains the secret to good writing. Especially when you ask it twice…

It was a producer at a film festival who put me on to it.

We’d been talking about a film I’d been commissioned to write by some mutual friends and he asked me what it was about. I gave my carefully prepared pitch: a pithy summary of the plot with choice tit-bits of character and tone thrown in to make it come alive.

‘Nice,’ he replied, then paused. ‘What’s it about?’.

This threw me. Had he not been listening? Was my pitch that bad? I started the summary again, less sure. He cut me off quick. ‘No, I get the plot. What’s it about?’

I stared blankly for a bit, then I got it. ‘What’s it about.’ What is that connects the characters to the daily lives of the audience? Universal themes like love, money, sex, revenge and carnal fear. What will make the reader or audience care?

The more I write for business the more I’m convinced it’s no different. We all know how busy people are. How they’re bombarded by emails, texts, ads, tweets and calls (remember them?). Why should they care about our incursion into their lives?

They’ll care because we care. We’ve put the work in to answer that same question twice. First, ‘what’s it about?’ Is the information presented in a logical, articulate and elegant way.

Then, ‘what’s it really about?’ What’s the underlying message, and what is its connection to the reader.

Until you have asked and answered that same question twice, my advice is to step away from the keyboard and do some more thinking.

Here are a couple of examples of how you’d apply this. First, to creative writing.

What’s it about? Stan is a high-achieving exec who lives to work. When his long suffering wife dies in an accident he’s forced to spend time at home with his 6 year old daughter and cold-fish mother-in-law .

What’s it really about? Estranged family members united by grief…the effect of absent fathers on their kids…what it means to be a ‘real man’ in modern society…finding and preserving a work-life balance.

Now here’s how you could apply it to business writing.

What’s it about? Studies show that mental health and behavioural issues among children and young people is a real and growing threat. Public health organisations are buckling under the pressure, and who can afford a private therapist these days? Something must be done.

What’s it really about? Prevention always trumps cure…Parents can’t afford to wait for the authorities to solve their problems…Private practitioners are overcharging…and the author’s company will soon launch a service that solves all these problems!

What’s it about? Ask yourself this one simple question each and every time you sit down to write. Then ask it again! 

bf