Ten word creative summaries: a secret sentence, a North Star to write by

22 December 2022

A journalist once told me he could summarise any article he was writing with a sentence of no more than ten words. These ten words, or less, outlined the purpose of the piece he was working on, whether it be five hundred words, or fifty thousand.

If he found himself floundering, or stuck, while writing, he’d refer back to his article outline so as to refocus on the task at hand. He ventured that the ten word outline could be applied to any creative endeavour, be it a painting, a sculpture, whatever. If the basic objective of the project could not be described in ten words or less, something was wrong, he said.

I think he was onto something. Let’s look at an example. If I had been making the 2019 film Portrait of a Lady on Fire, instead of Céline Sciamma, my ten word or less outline for the project might’ve been: “a painter falls in love with her subject.” If I realised, as the supposed filmmaker, that I was losing sight of the story, while trying to tie the myriad other elements of the narrative into a cohesive whole, I could go back to my outline for guidance.

American author Austin Kleon has a similar methodology, though he titles it with a little more pizzazz. He refers to his ten word outline as a secret sentence, and sees it as his “North Star”. Should Kleon need guidance while working on a writing project, he looks to his secret sentence:

Since we both write books, I confessed that with each book I usually have a secret sentence that I write down somewhere but don’t show to anybody. That sentence is sort of my North Star for the project, the thing I can rely on if I get lost. The sentence usually doesn’t mean anything to anyone other than me. And sometimes it’s pretty dumb. (When I was writing Show Your Work! the sentence was: “What if Brian Eno wrote a content strategy book?”)

A sort of star to steer by while writing. I like the sound of that.


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