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Why Great Ideas are Worth Nothing

Maybe you’ve heard the quote, “Great ideas are worth nothing,” often attributed to Apple and Pixar entrepreneur, Steve Jobs.

Perhaps you’ve wondered why that is, because ideas seem kind of important, don’t they? People say that inspiration is priceless, don’t they?

And, as this is a website about writing, isn’t writing all about ideas?

Well, no, and here’s why.

Great Ideas are Worth Nothing: Naïvety

Here’s an email similar to the ones I get occasionally:

Hey Graeme,

I’ve had a great idea for a story. How about you write it as a novel and we split the profits?

It’s an amazing idea, honest!

[An Aspiring Author]

Are people really so naïve as to think that a professional writer is going to write their book for them and then ‘split the profits’ just because they ‘had the idea’?

Apparently, yes they are.

What is it that these people are missing? Well a couple of things

  • Their idea isn’t as great as they think it is.
  • A great idea for a story is 0.1% of the job.

Great Ideas are Worth Nothing: Not So Great After All

Here’s the sad truth: most story ideas are nowhere near as amazing, and nowhere near as unique, as people think they are.

It’s so great in my head…

One reason your idea isn’t as amazing as you think it is, is that stories are always better in your head (or that dream you had) than they are on the page, and all story ideas inevitably suffer as you try to turn them into a real story.

I’ve written dozens of synopses of highly successful novels. Although they’re good examples of the art of story compression, it’s inevitable that, when you reduce a story from three hundred pages to one page, something gets lost.

So when you have that earth-shattering idea and write it down, it won’t impress people as much as you think it will. Remember, agents, publishers and producers spend all day, every day, looking at story ideas.

The Zeitgeist

You may think that your idea is super-unique and amazing and no one else could think of it, but you’re probably wrong. The idea you think has struck you in a blinding flash of inspiration is an idea that has occurred to lots of other people, most likely the ones who were watching or reading the same thing that inspired you. You’re as influenced by the rest of society as anyone else.

That’s why it’s called the zeitgeist.

Don’t Panic!

Okay, let’s not get too downhearted. So perhaps your story idea isn’t quite as unique as you thought. That doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea for a story. It’s that having ‘an idea for a story’ is just the start of your job.

The Easy Work and the Hard Work

Maybe you’ve heard another expression: “All talk and no action”. That’s what thinking about your story idea is. Thinking of the idea, as hard as that can be, is the easy part of the work.

It’s taking those ideas in your head and writing tens of thousands of words to make it into a coherent story that’s the hard part.

Okay, Great Ideas are Worth Nothing, So What’s Really Important?

What we need to do is take that great idea and turn it into a story. And luckily, I’ve written multiple articles about how to do that:

How to start a story is a good place to start.

Discovering a High Concept Plot Idea is useful too, because although you might have a great idea can you express it in a way that quickly and effectively gets it across?

Writing a Killer Logline is a vital part of developing your story, because a well-crafted logline is an incredibly powerful way of understanding the core of your story.

And once you’ve got those in place, Spy Novel Plots is really helpful for developing your plot.

Great Ideas are Worth Nothing: Poster

The Keep Calm and Carry On poster is a classic piece of design, and it suits this classic bit of advice.

Great ideas are worth nothing


If you’d like help with turning your great idea into a novel or screenplay, then please email me. Otherwise, please feel free to share the article using the buttons below.