Science & Medicine

Shelina Janmohamed: Why big ideas matter


The idea is a magical and elusive thing. Any book, presentation or article rises or falls on how powerful and pioneering your idea is.

It’s the same challenge whether you’re writing, speaking or presenting. That’s particularly true for non-fiction.

The greatest books, the most moving speeches, all of them have encapsulated and crystallised something we hadn’t known or put our finger on before.

As a rookie author, I knew I had such an idea for my first book Love in a Headscarf. You have to trust your instinct and then have the self-belief to convince others of your idea. It can be tough, but only if you know your idea is strong can you persuade others. But while holding strong to your core idea, it’s important to take advice from those already in the industry on how to bring your idea to fruition. There’s nothing as important as a great agent and a fantastic editor to help make your idea shine, and to get it to the people you want to reach.

The hard truth is that publishing and the media are also commercial enterprises, so it’s important to show the evidence of how your idea will be both ground-breaking and commercially appealing. In a way, it’s easier to show how innovative your thinking is, but much harder to make a business case for it. That’s where passion tied up with evidence is so vital.

I’ve researched what other books occupy similar spaces and identified the gap. I’ve highlighted how my book will find its place in a social discourse, at the same time as pointing out how it will be different and new.

The same thing applies when I get a chance to present on stage, do a media interview or be on a panel. What is it I want to say, what minds do I want to change, what new information can I impart, what new thing can I say, that only I can say? I see every public platform as a privilege and a chance to change the conversation with knowledge, insight and good oratory.

Finding the right people to champion your work is so important. For each book or article I’ve written, or presentation I’ve delivered, finding people who ‘get’ the idea to be part of bringing it to fruition is a fundamental plank of its success.  I went through so many potential agents before finding the one that ‘got’ me. I’ve written news articles for so many editors and the ones that really do their job elicit the best work from you. It’s worth seeking such people out and working with them.

In the era of social media, all of our public feeds represent an even more fundamental idea: the idea of me. What do I stand for? What do people turn to me for? What do I have to say? Sometimes it’s called personal branding.

I started out my own craft as a blogger. It gave me a chance to try out different writing styles and cover different subject areas. In the process I discovered what I feel most passionately about and what resonates with the audience. I discovered my style and individuality. And it meant that I reached a level of quality to branch into writing a book. All of these make a pitch compelling. This is more important than ever with so much material being published online. Having a profile is like having an ace-card.

Like a lot of people, I wanted to write a book, write for national newspapers and speak on a global platform. But none of these can happen just with the aspiration of being famous or publishing a book. It all falls or rises on having a great idea. After all, we remember how great literary and public figures changed our views about the world through the greatest of all things: the idea.  So whether it’s a book, article or presentation, my process begins by asking one simple but powerful question: what’s my idea?

By Shelina Janmohamed

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