Secrets to Writing a Book

Writing a book is, like getting married, one of those things that for many people happens only once. Authors, like brides, build up a lot of knowledge from that one time experience that they never get to use again, hence there is an urge to share. I’d like to do another book at some point, but in the meantime I thought I’d share a few of the things I learned along the way.

Read this book: Thinking Like Your Editor. There are loads of books out there about writing, and about crafting proposals. This is by far the best one I have seen. It is geared toward serious non-fiction and understands what editors, publishers and audiences alike seek out in these types of books. I completely rethought and rewrote my proposal after reading this.

Create tension: One piece of advice I used a lot from Thinking Like Your Editor was to think about narrative arc. You may not think of a business book as having a narrative arc, but ideally there is a thread which keeps the reader moving along and motivates them to keep going.

I tried to do this with my book in a couple of ways: 

  • On a macro level, the flow of the book is fairly straightforward, but is broken into the four major chunks of topic, with implications chapters at the end. This provides a clear story line, and a carrot at the end (implications for strategy and organization) to keep pulling the reader along.
  • On a micro level, I tried to create mini narrative arcs, particularly for the case studies. Each one sets up with a little mystery that needs to be resolved by the end of it. 

I also tried to incorporate lessons from Made to Stick, one of my favorite books of recent years.

Set aside dedicated time. I was very fortunate that frog gave me three months away from project duties to focus 100% on Innovation X. Having said that, there were 2-3 years worth of steady thinking about the topic, along with several articles, conference talks, numerous client presentations and blog posts, that all filled out pieces of the puzzle. I wrote a detailed chapter outline as part of my proposal to the publisher, and wrote several chapters almost full-length to make sure I had enough “there” there to be able to actually write a book.

By the time I sat down to write I had a pretty good idea of what the book would be about, how the ideas fit together, and what the case studies would be. Without that lengthy preparation I never would have been able to crank out 60,000 words in three months. Obviously not a luxury everyone can have, but very beneficial if at all possible. Working on a book over a long period in 2-3 hour bites makes it very inefficient, and you have a hard time keeping the conceptual thread (well, for me anyway).

Take a break from it. Get some distance, come back with naive eyes. I re-wrote quite a bit after coming back to the book after a month not thinking about it.

Print it out. At least for me, nothing beats reading on paper. I catch so many things on paper that I gloss over on screen, from grammar to structural problems.

Read it out loud. I caught an embarassingly large amount of poor phrasing and unwieldy sentences that I missed reading it in my head on screen or paper.

Buy a good chair. I was getting back pain from my old Ikea chair. I sprung for a Herman Miller Mirra chair like the one I have at work, picking one up on Craig’s List for half retail.

Have a routine. I once heard an interview with author Jane Yolen in which she was asked what her writing process is, as every author has one. She said she is a big believer in the BIC method. No, not the pen. It stands for Butt In Chair! That is exactly what I practiced. 8-9 hours a day, typically starting at 9:30. Five days a week. It was just like a job, but with no-one to talk to over the coffee machine.

Make it scannable. What do people do when standing in a book store considering whether to purchase a particular book? Obviously they look at the jacket and the table of contents, but they also flip through very quickly. I tried to have titles, subtitles, graphics and other high level elements every 2-3 pages. These give someone a sense of the flow of the topics as they are quickly paging through it. 

Start at the end. Come up with the title, subtitle, and one-liner blurb description almost before writing the actual book. An exaggeration, but not by much. Once you get into the weeds of actual writing, it’s very difficult to pull back enough to come up with a snappy title that captures the essence without being mechanical.

Rethink your software assumptions. Don’t use a word processor. I wrote using Scrivener, a Mac-only application that is brilliant for book writing. Instead of having one gigantic document for the whole book (unwieldy) or one document for each chapter (means a lot of switching back and forth), Scrivener allows you to work on the book in small chunks and seamlessly string them together. It provides tools that actively help you think about the narrative from top-down, as well as for managing all your pieces of writing from the bottom-up. In addition to efficiently managing all your writing and research, Scrivener helps avoid Blank Page Syndrome where you feel too intimidated to get started. You can just pile in anywhere and get started. Bored or stalled? Switch to another section and work on that for a while. Can’t recommend this highly enough.

I also used Sente to manage all the research documents, reference, footnotes and bibliography. I looked at a number of similar applications and felt Sente was the easiest to use. Its ability to search Google Books and a number of other databases and automatically import bibliographic data was handy. Having said that, Sente is still a bit quirky to use, and the documentation is not very friendly for the first time user.

So there you have my secrets. Now go off and write a book of your own!