One Sentence, One Paragraph, One Page



It may take several drafts to get this exercise right; it might also necessitate going back and refining the product itself. In forcing ourselves through this process, we also force ourselves to explain succinctly what we have, what it does, and why anyone should care. If we’re not able to, then it says something about the potential viability of this thing we are creating and our ability to explain it to the audience.

Adapted from Perennial Seller: The Art of Making And Marketing Work That Lasts

There is a fundamental question of knowledge that goes all the way back to Plato and Socrates: If you don’t know what you’re looking for, how will you know if you’ve found it?

For creative projects, we wrestle with something similar sometime after the bulk of the creative production is done but before a work is fully wrapped up. Yes, we’re editing and improving and refining and testing to see the results of these efforts, but we’re not just doing these things for their own sake. We’re certainly not doing it for the fun of it. We’re working to get somewhere.                                                                     

But where?                                                                     

That’s not a rhetorical question—there is a real answer, one that is unique to every project.                                                                       

A creator must step back and ask: “OK, what was I trying to make here? Did I get there? What do I need to change or fix in order to successfully do so?”                      

Again, I don’t think just thinking about that question is the way to do it. Amazon has developed an internal culture that encourages physically writing out ideas, policies, suggestions, problems, and solutions—write to think is their belief. For that reason, Amazon actually requires managers who are launching a new product to write a press release about it before the idea is even given the green light. If they can’t come up with a way to express their idea in exciting and compelling terms at this early stage, well, thank God it was caught in time before they launched that dud.                             

A similar exercise that I like to do with all my projects is one I call “One Sentence, One Paragraph, One Page.” It goes like this:   

Put the website or the beta version of your app or your manuscript aside and grab a piece of paper or open a blank Word document. Then, with fresh eyes, attempt to write out exactly what your project is supposed to be and to do in . . .

One sentence.

One paragraph.

One page.

This is a ______ that does ______. This helps people ______. Fill in this template at the three varying lengths. It’s best to do this exercise in the third person, creating a bit of artificial distance from the project so you can’t fall back on, “Well, I think that . . .” Deal with facts instead.         

If I may go off on a tangent for a minute, perhaps the most essential part of the sentence above with blanks is the first one—the part that says what the project is. Is it a book? Is it a big-budget Hollywood movie? Is it an experimental piece of modern art? In short, What genre does it fit in?

Genre matters. If you’ve written a great rock album but more than one of the songs on it are about Jesus, people are going to put it in the Christian rock genre. If that’s your intention, fantastic. If it isn’t, you might want to make some changes. If you’re attempting to write a definitive Pulitzer Prize–worthy biography of a famous historical figure but it’s only 126 pages, you’ve probably violated the unspoken qualifications of that genre of work. Is this a coffee shop or a coworking space or a members-only private club? It probably can’t be all three—not without confusing or alienating the customers who are looking for just one of those options.

When your proposition to prospective customers is, “This is like [random genre] mixed with [random genre] with a little bit of [third random genre],” do you know what they hear? They hear confusion. Lightly fictionalizing your real insider experiences working on Wall Street into a novel doesn’t give you twice the audience—say, fiction lovers and business types. It may actually give you half, because you’ve openly violated the basic conventions of two well-defined spaces. Now, it’s unlikely you’ll get media coverage for your very real portrayals of what goes on inside the hedge fund world, and you’ll have trouble getting your average fiction reader to get excited about your fairly mundane plot or to understand exactly why any of what you’ve written about matters.    

That’s not to say you can’t or shouldn’t break rules with your work— remember, being bold and brave is important…But you need to know that this will likely make your job harder—and you’ll need to compensate for it in various ways during the creative process, in your packaging and positioning, and certainly in your marketing. In a podcast discussion with screenwriter Brian Koppelman, Seth Godin explained, “Everything that has a clear path to commercial success is in a genre.” We need to be able to put things into categories so we know where they fit. And you as the creator need to be clear and honest with yourself about where this work is going to fit for people.           

That’s why we do this exercise. So we know where we fit. We know what expectations we’re setting and what we’re going to have to do to meet them (which in some cases may require us to be twice as good just to make up for how unclear our proposition is).                

(And that ends my genre tangent.)

When you know what genre you’re in and you know what you’re trying to accomplish, it becomes clearer which decisions matter and which don’t. Jon Favreau once explained in an interview that as he was beginning to put together the pieces for the movie Iron Man he decided that his vision depended entirely on Robert Downey Jr. receiving the starring role. The rest of the decisions—the other actors, how to shoot the movie, the gear they’d need—would be clear if that happened. You could say his one sentence was: “Robert Downey Jr. is Iron Man.” (Or perhaps in longer form: “We’re doing a big-budget superhero movie, but it all hinges on Robert Downey Jr. being an unconventional but badass Iron Man.”)

Favreau’s singular insistence helped create one of the most valuable franchises in the history of film, but you can imagine how, without it, he might have been tempted to consider the notes and suggestions of the studio executives who wanted something different. This is why creators must know which variable(s) the project will hinge on. They must know which conventions of the genre they are observing and which ones they are taking a risk on by tweaking or subverting. They must understand—even if it is some vague notion— what they are making and what they are aiming for. If they do, the rest can be lined up against it. If they don’t, how will they ever know if they’ve done it? How else will every- thing that comes after—from the movie poster to the marketing— come together?

It may take several drafts to get this exercise right; it might also necessitate going back and refining the product itself. In forcing ourselves through this process, we also force ourselves to explain succinctly what we have, what it does, and why anyone should care. If we’re not able to, then it says something about the potential viability of this thing we are creating and our ability to explain it to the audience.

The most important part of the process is comparing the results of the exercise against the product we’ve made. Does your one-pager really describe what makes your screenplay worth producing? Would your one sentence capture an investor’s attention in an elevator? You might find that, yes, your answers are compelling, but the work itself does not rise to meet the proposition they promote. Alternatively, you might find that the work is a lot more complex and important than your encapsulation suggests. If that’s the case—if your product is great but your one-pager is blah—you probably need to rethink how you’re talking about it. Perhaps you don’t truly understand the topic well enough yet.

This is where an editor (or any early eyes on the project) comes into play again. You say to them: “Here’s what I’ve been aiming for. Do you think I am close? What do I need to change with my [writing, design, music, art, etc.] to get where I’m trying to go?”

Too rarely, creators forget to consciously stop and compare their first attempt against their goal. Often they can’t even articulate where they were trying to end up and what that would really look like if they did.

Instead, they wing it. The result? A name and tagline out of alignment with where the project ended up. Or a passionate, long-winded description of the work . . . utterly indecipherable to anyone other than the creator. Or, worse, a product pitch that bores you out of your mind because they haven’t put the time or thought into making it exciting.

Ryan Holiday’s latest book, Perennial Seller: The Art of Making and Marketing Work that Lasts is a meditation on the ingredients required to create classic books, businesses, and art that does more than just disappear. His writing has been translated into 28 languages and sold half a million copies worldwide while his creative firm, Brass Check, has worked with companies like Google, Taser and Amazon. You can join the 80,000 people who get his weekly articles.

Tags: art,
perennial seller,
ryan holiday

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