This article was originally published in The Writing Cooperative, a publication.

I’ve edited thousands of nonfiction pieces written by other writers, from blog posts to news articles to books. When I see major problems, the root cause is the same in about 70% of cases: a poorly-formulated theme.

In nonfiction, the theme is equivalent to the foundation of a building. If your theme isn’t clearly defined, carefully worded, and factually correct, the piece will be greatly weakened or fall apart entirely. There’s no getting around this problem. In more than 15 years of nonfiction writing and editing, I’ve never seen a good piece with a bad theme. That’s just not a thing.

Different writers have different ideas about what a theme is. Over the years, I’ve approached writing with various views on what a theme should be and how it should be structured. Around 2012, it finally clicked for me. Once I adopted a certain definition of what a theme is, I stopped having theme-related problems almost entirely, and my ability to spot and correct issues in other peoples’ writing went through the roof.

So here it is: In nonfiction, the theme is the one point that you want your readers to accept (or at least seriously consider) by the time they’re done reading your piece, and it should be a single, grammatically correct sentence.

Note that, in this article, I’m referring exclusively to nonfiction themes. In fiction, themes serve an entirely different purpose and are structured differently — a subject for another article.

You may be wondering why it’s so important for your theme to be a single, grammatically correct sentence. There are a few reasons for this, best illustrated with an example. Here are two themes that may seem fairly close to one another:

  1. Allegations of child abuse against Michael Jackson
  2. Michael Jackson never abused children

The second theme is the one I used in one of the most challenging articles I’ve ever written. On the surface, these two themes might seem similar enough that the choice of which to use wouldn’t matter too much. If you read my article (it’s 15,000 words, so I won’t blame you if you don’t), it very quickly becomes clear what my position is, and by the end, my theme — “Michael Jackson never abused children” — is (hopefully) the conclusion you’ve come to. Throughout the entire article, every sentence does something to support the theme, either by establishing relevant context, providing evidence, or drawing conclusions based on that evidence.

Of course, I didn’t set out to prove Jackson’s innocence regardless of the facts — I chose this theme only after hundreds of hours of research. Had the evidence overwhelmingly supported Jackson’s guilt, I would have written an entirely different article. Formulating your theme comes after you’ve absorbed and processed the relevant raw data.

Once you start drafting, the theme (or lack thereof) that you’ve chosen influences every word you write from that point on, whether you realize it or not. If you’ve chosen a clear, strong theme that makes a specific claim, you’ll be able to make clear, strong arguments to back up that claim.

This works because a theme structured as a complete sentence contains verbs, and verbs describe actions. The verbs in your theme tell you exactly what every sentence in this piece must do. That’s not to say that a good theme magically reveals which words you should choose, only that a good theme acts as a bright neon sign you can always glance at if you’re not sure what to write next. A good theme is also a yardstick you can use to measure your draft come editing time. Ask yourself: “Does this word/sentence/paragraph do something to nudge readers toward the conclusion I expressed in my theme?” If not, that word, sentence, or paragraph needs to be reworked or cut.

Had I used the first theme — “Allegations of child abuse against Michael Jackson” — I never would have been fully clear on what I was writing about. This theme contains no verbs, so it can’t tell me what to do as I’m writing. It can’t give me clear instructions about what to include, exclude, or emphasize. A 15,000-word article built on such a theme would almost inevitably be more like a summary of the various allegations against Jackson. It may put a bunch of vaguely related facts in the reader’s head, but it probably won’t persuade them of anything in particular.

In other words, a theme that is not a grammatically complete sentence isn’t a theme — it’s merely a topic. A topic only tells you what you’re writing about. A well-formulated theme tells you how to write about it.

The same basic rules of choosing a theme apply to nearly all forms of nonfiction, not only persuasive journalism. Imagine you’re writing a whitepaper for a nonprofit. Yes, a whitepaper is a largely informational document, but what do you want people to do after reading it? If the only purpose of the whitepaper were to list facts, there would be no point in writing it. You want someone to act on those facts in some way, perhaps by making a larger donation. If that’s the goal, choose a theme such as: “You should donate more than you did last year.” Now, you have a crystal-clear idea of what to include in the whitepaper: facts, figures, plans, and success stories that show why the nonprofit deserves more money.

Even a 200-word blog post benefits tremendously from a well-formulated theme. Whether it’s a blog about tea, yoga, or parenting tips, you want people reading it to try, believe, or investigate something, so choose your theme accordingly. Consider two more possible themes:

  1. Tea Brand X can improve sleep, circulation, and immune function.
  2. I like Tea Brand X better than Brand Y

In this case, both themes are grammatically complete sentences, and both can be conclusions that readers come to after reading the post — but one is clearly more compelling. Which post about tea would you rather read?