How I Write a (non-fiction) Book

Good day! So, fellow museletter subscribers often come up to me and say “Oh Jason! The magnificence of your beard is only surpassed by the superlative quality of your prose — how is it that you manage to consistently convey such brilliance?” 

“Oh stop it” I say, flapping my hand whilst adjusting my heavy thread-of-gold cape, tilting my head up to the side and laughing magnanimously, with one eyebrow cocked. “It’s nothing really,” I assure them.

And that’s actually the case (not the first bit, but the ‘it’s nothing’ bit). I seem to have possibly one of the most awkward approaches to writing on the planet. And yet, somehow it works. Sometimes. (I’m not consistent at all).

And so, on that rousing, inspiring and deeply assuring and/or authoritative note, I’d love to share with you...

The Weird and Wonderful Ways in which I Write a (non-fiction) Book

A Procrastifectionator’s Guide to Writing A Book That’s Not Too Bad. 

Follow this advice at your own peril. 

Dr Jason Fox, a-musing
by dangerlam

Btw, why am I writing this, really? Two reasons. Firstly, I seem to know a good lot of people who either intend to write a book, know people who intend to write a book, or know people who ought to intend to write a book. I hope that sharing my approach may be of relevance and use to you if you are one such person. Secondly: I occasionally need to remind myself of these things. Just like my last post reminded me about The 3 Hidden Benefits of Doubt, this post is also equally self-serving. Oh and I’m deep into the guts of my next book, so it’s all rather top of mind really. Enjoy.

And so, without further ado (because I do do ado a lot), here’s the first phase of any good book. 

1. Embrace the Hunch

Writers are stooped individuals with terrible posture. There’s no fighting it. No wait! I mean steeped. Steeped individuals. What are they steeped in? Mystery? Wonder? Yes! All that. But first and foremost, a writer is steeped within a web of intrigue that surrounds a well-nurtured hunch — that intuitive reckoning that somehow, the world hasn’t clued onto something important yet.

That is, of course, assuming you are writing a thought leading book. If you intend to just replicate existing thinking without adding any new perspective or insight, then cease reading this article, post haste! Save yourself the time and effort and just employ a ghostwriter to churn out a book for you. And thus, unless your ghostwriter is exceptionally brilliant, you’ll end up with a wad of paper that simply echoes existing thinking — a ‘me-too’ doorstop book that does little to progress things. An insult to your creative potential destined to become lost within the grey-beige deluge of mediocrity. Meh.

After doing this: lament, shake your fist at the gods, level-up and come back when you’re ready.

...

Still with me? Ah! *claps once* Good. 

So we’re writing a thought leading book then. Not merely a thought following book, or a thought replicating book — but something that brings the world something new and needed (or at least brings about a new perspective on established ideas). Good! 

Right, so first thing to do is to stay with the angst. Resist the urge to default to quick fixes or established default solutions. "The presence of those seeking the truth is infinitely to be preferred to the presence of those who think they’ve found it," as Terry Pratchett (RIP) once said. Likewise, a writer seeking answers through good questions and shared reasoning is infinitely preferable to one who thinks they’ve already got it all figured.

Doubt makes ideas stronger. It’s the trial of fire your hunch needs to survive if it’s going to convert into a book. There are two key stages.

First, you need to feed your hunch

And there are a few simple ways you can do this.

i) Literarily establish a feed (<– omg pun!)
We are all on an information diet, although few of us are deliberate and selective about what we consume. Most of it’s junk. But if you’re looking to progress a hunch, you need to establish a diverse and healthy information feed.

I use a combination of Zite/FlipboardTwitterScience Daily and Google Alerts to keep ahead of recent posts in my fields. I also maintain a healthy diet of Good Books, Relevant Magazines (like WiredMonocleHarvard Business Review), Medium, Journal Subscriptions and Other Nonsense — all of which is read with a healthy degree of skepticism (with two highlighters, see below).

By far my favourite method is Zite (which has recently been acquired by Flipboard). This nifty little app delivers you the latest posts in areas relevant to your interests. But what’s more — over time, it learns from your reading habits (which articles you liked, which sucked, and what you’d like to see more of). The result? A wonderfully curated feed to browse through with your morning coffee — keeping your hunch well nourished. 

ii) Capture relentlessly
You need to be ready to capture ideas whenever they strike you. When in active hunch mode, I always carry a good notebook (and spend far too much time on sites like notemaker) and have my phone ready to capture audio notes (which I may have transcribed using Rev if I get particularly excited).

And for all of those really nifty articles you read online, Pocket is your app to save them into. This app (and its associated browser plugins) not only saves articles in an ad-free and much more readable format, it also allows you to add tags (allowing you to search through a horde of articles for key ideas or categories). It's brilliant. I love it.

iii) Read with two highlighters
It’s easy to read passively, and become enamoured by the seeming brilliance of other writers. But if you’re progressing a hunch, and looking to contribute your time and effort towards a book, you’ll want to be sure your hunch is either filling a gap or advancing thinking in some way. This means reading books like a thought leader, and not simply a thought follower.

In research we call this “conducting a literature review” — but already that phrase is putting me to sleep. And so here’s a good strategy I learnt from my mate Matt Church. I may be paraphrasing this ineloquently, but he suggests that if you’re going to be writing a book in any field, you’ll want to purchase and read at least three current books in your domain, along with three classics and three that are a bit more contemporary. So, that’s at least 9 books (plus all the research, notes, musings, experiences, conversations, learnings and reflections you’ve been tracking along the way).

From there, you’ll have a rich set of material to work a couple of highlighters on. Let’s go with Yellow and Pink. (This works with most eBooks too).

The Yellow Highlighter is for any sentence, paragraph or point you read that makes you think “Yeah, but…” 

I get this a lot when I read books in the motivation or leadership category. I read stuff that sounds good, but then doesn’t seem to correlate to research, reason or sustainable practicality. You might read something and think “Yeah, but {that’s shit, because…} or {that won’t work in this context, because…} or {that’s fine if you’re running a startup, however…}” — these “yeah, buts” help you build your hunch, and develop your thought leadership.

The Pink Highlighter is for all of those things that make you go “Yes! And…” 

This is where you draw together different ideas to take things into new territories. The hunch that turned into The Game Changer was a combination of a few “yeah-buts” (mainly around conventional approaches to workplace motivation) and a heap of “yes-ands” (like the overlap of game design, intrinsic motivation, the progress principle and the future of work).

You’re going to find pink and yellow highlighter moments in your world on a daily level, to keep your hunches well fed.

Once we have these yes-ands and yeah-buts, I use a piece of software called Ulysses to keep track of my raw notes. 

But we can’t stay in hunch-feeding land forever. 

Next, you need to visualise it

It’s one thing to carry a heap of ideas in your head — but it’s only by mapping them out that we truly begin to appreciate all of the connections they have. 

I generally like to start any creative process in analogue mode — so a dot grid notebook and/or a whiteboard works best here. Here’s a photo of what my whiteboard currently looks like.

It seems a mess, but it’s oh-so-liberating to have that mess outside of your head. See — look how happy I am.

Once mapped out, this will quickly translate into a program called Delineato Pro (it’s like a well designed minimalist mind mappy thingo). This allows me to further play with all of the interconnecting elements that any good hunch harbours. 

And now! Ah, now we are in a position to start contemplating a book.

2. Do the Write Thing

As I may have said before, writing a book is bloody hard work. Most of the time you’re working in isolation, alone with your doubts, your cat and a tea-stained cup. All the while, your friends are skipping past the window, frolicking under a rainbow that’s outside. 

The road is long. It’s easy to lose your way, to sabotage your progress (procrastination, perfectionism, or somehow committing yourself to a heap of non-book writing activities), or to give up before you’ve even got going. 

It’s also easy to fall into physiological self-sabotage. Because writing is a largely about sustained time on your backside infront of a computer, simple things like remembering to drink water, sleep well and maintain a healthy level of physical activity (and something resembling a social life) can go by the wayside.

The thing is: it's all a game

And we can choose how we want to play it. It can be doom and gloomy. Or it can be… slightly less so. Like a paladin traversing the nine layers of hell kind of thing.

The way we play this game, and the way we tap into a sense of progress, is very much within our control.

But part of the issue here is that we focus on the wrong types of activities at the wrong times. We don’t approach it through the lens of motivation strategy and design, and thus: we become undone.

For me, I know that I can stare at a blank screen for hours unless I’ve got a bit of structure to play with. And so that’s the first step in my game — converting the web of interconnected elements we previously visualised into some sort of logical structure: a table of contents.

Level 1 — The Scaffolding

You can’t lift your game unless you know what game you’re playing. For a book to happen, I find it super helpful to map out a bit of a structure — temporary scaffolding that allows us to build the content of the book.

It may seem that I’m fairly app-happy (I think I’ve already recommended close to a dozen so far). But in my world the switch between apps is like a rite of passage — a clarification piece, and a chance to revisit your thinking and determine what’s most important. They’re also clear demarkations between phases; a line in the sand which in itself provides a sense of progress.

And so, I take the mindmappy web of connected elements, cherry-picking them from Delineate and placing them into an app called Tree for Mac

This app is a nice and lightweight ‘outliner’ with a horizontally expandable tree view. This essentially means you get to expand and collapse layers of detail — making it a perfect way to build and sequence your Table of Contents at a high level, and to then flesh it out in more detail (think: dot points within dot points within dot points — a shift from context through to the content you’ll be writing).

Another thing you’ll want to be thinking about at level-one is your meta-model. What’s the overarching framework behind the core idea of your book? This should pop for you in the hunch phase, or at least begin to get clear for you during this level. The Game Changer contained a few models (like constructive discontent and contextual momentum) — they are gloriously useful ways to nest your thoughts.

Level 2 — The Proposal

If you’re going to survive this hero’s journey, you need to be sold on the concept before others are willing to buy it. My publisher (Wiley) has a great process in which authors need to present and sell the business case for the book. Who will buy it? And why? What does the competitive landscape look like? What marketing channels will you utilise? What PR angles can we generate? 

In the process of preparing your proposal, you need to throw a lot of 'so whats' at your book. Oh you’re writing a book about blah? Why is this important? So what? 

Through this process, you’ll land upon something relevant. A real need within your target market. Your book is not an indulgence in self-flagellation — it has purpose. And knowing that complete strangers will purchase your packaged intelligence in book format, reading and possibly applying some of your insights for the betterment of their world, well — that’s a good thing.

So, be sold. And then, let’s write.

Level 3 — The Habit

It’s so easy to not spend time on the book. There are so many things to be done, like emails, social media, and ooh look: that thing over there. 

At this level, you want to just get into the habit of writing. For this I use a website called 750words.com — it simply creates visibility of the number of days you’ve written at least 750 words. Get a streak across 14 days and you’ll have more than 10,000 words written. Achievement unlocked.

Level 4 — The Count

Having established a good rhythm and smashed through the first 10,000 words, we now need to focus on writing the bulk of the book. No more myriad of apps — everything goes to Scrivener now (a dedicated book writing app). Scrivener is a seriously wonderful app. It takes a bit of time to learn all of its powerful features, but once you find them it’s bliss.

In my experience, it’s at this point that my internal editor starts to pipe up. “Ur writing is crap!” it’ll say. “Oh how unoriginal” or “Who are you to be writing this?” — all the usual suspects anyone confronts as they progress into what is essentially new and unchartered territory. 

My academic training can get particularly stifling at this point — sometimes I get so stuck and so self-critical that nothing happens. Actually, what’s worse: sometimes I actually start deleting massive chunks of work. (Just imagine one hand trying to pull my other hand’s finger off the delete key while I watch in horror, mouth agape). 

The solution? Wine.

No I’m kidding (I’m not kidding). “Write drunk, edit sober” as Ernest Hemingway once said. 

But, how that translates in my world is through a focus on quantity of writing, not quality. 

This is bloody hard, and so there are a few things I do to trick myself into writing, so that the ‘editor’ in me can’t keep up. Here are a couple of examples.

The productivity blitz — this is where we set an epic word count goal for a day. Something ridiculous yet achievable. And then you write using a combination of the Pomodoro Technique of working in 25 minute blocks with 5 minute stretch breaks (I use an app called Focus for this, but you can kick it old-school with a kitchen timer) and a writing method called free-flow. This is where you keep your hands typing continuously across the 25 minute period. If you get stuck, you write “… and I’m not sure what I’m trying to say here I think what I’m really trying to say is…” and bam — you keep writing. Writer's block? Nope: we keep writing.

Scrivener provides progress bars to track how you are progressing towards your writing target — it’s incredibly motivating. However, the productivity blitz can be quite exhausting. And so you may like to mix it up a bit.

An alternative game you can play is where you go into speaker mode and record your thoughts. Some folks can do this in an empty room, recording it all onto their phone or computer and then having it transcribed with a service like www.rev.com I tend to enjoy rubber ducking it — having a trusted friend to ask me key questions and nod emphatically while I indulge in long but relevant monologues.

In this level, you need to maintain a high level of disdain for friction. Anything that gets in the way of writing needs to be frowned at and worked around.

Stay strong, and exceed your targets. If you’re writing a 50,000 word book, write 65,000 words in this phase. Why? Because the critic has brought a knife.

Level 5 — The Critic

Only a couple more levels to go folks

Right! It’s time to don your black skivvy and serious glasses, print out your manuscript and bring it to a cafe. Order a long black and click out your red pen — there’s some savage work to be done. That editor you left in the dust of your progress in level 4 has finally caught up. And they’re pissed off.

{It’s not that bad — but if there’s any one time to get savage, it’s here. And let’s remember — the critic cares about you and the quality of your work. They want this to be your best.}

So, level 5. This is where you identify duplicated thinking, weaker ideas that need support, and the wads of padding and filler text that need cutting or trimming. Unleash, and yet also: be kind to yourself. 

Also, take this time to reconnect with the world a bit. Let things sit for a few days. 

If you’re courageous enough, this is where you might share your manuscript with trusted and empathetic friends. Frame this up heavily though — be very clear on the type of feedback you’re looking for (logic? flow? gaps? bits that are too long? bits that are too short or need more explanation or examples?). Be very clear on what you’re not looking for too. And also let them know that while you may not take their feedback onboard, you’ll certainly consider it.

By the time the critic is done, you’ll have a heap of specific things to fix up, some more research to do, and some reading flow to ensure.

Level 6 — The Shine

By now, you’re over it. But you’re also so close to the finish line. I find at this point in the game, it’s worth creating a checklist of all the little bits left to do. There’s also fussing about of images and diagrams, and over layout and cover design. By now, you’ve slayed the dragon and conquered all the demons in your hero’s journey — it’s the penultimate piece to get through. 

And you’re not alone. 

You’ve got printing schedules to adhere to, and there are probably marketing and promotional events to keep you real (indeed, for my book one of the first things we did was book a venue for our book launch). If you play your cards right, there will be enough external pressures in play now to get you across the line.

But there awaits one final challenge for you.

Level 7 — The Letting-Go Bit

If it weren’t for the wonderful folk at Wiley, The Game Changer would not have been a bestseller. It’d probably still be stuck on my computer, because I couldn’t let go. It is, perhaps, one of the hardest things about writing a book — by the time you’ve finished it, the world has changed just a bit more. There are new examples you can reference, and besides: your thinking has grown too. 

This whole learning and sharing knowledge/perspective/insight thing is an infinite game. There’s always more progress to be made. But sometimes, someone needs to call it. You need some partners in this journey — or some sort of external party or pressure to ensure you ship.

3. And then we realise — the game has only just begun

Oh gosh there’s a whole world beyond the point of sending the book to the printers. Particularly if you want to leverage the book for positioning and progress. Ah there are so many mistakes I made when promoting The Game Changer — but that’s a post for another time.

hat tips,
jason