I’d queued up this topic for a post, and then a conversation with a friend and colleague moved it to the front. We were talking about our process, and he pointed me to an article that nicely catalyzed my thinking. So here’s a brief post about how I write my books (written, of course).
The article my friend pointed me to was titled: “The Simple Way To Outline A Nonfiction Book”, and it’s nicely resonant, and a bit deeper, than my own approach. If you’re thinking about writing a book, I think this is very good advice. And the author even provides a template to get you started. And you should be thinking about writing. It does a couple of things: it forces you to think through your topic, and if it comes to fruition, it gives you some collateral. Be aware: the advice I’ve found to be true is that you make more money giving the book away. It’s a better business card!
So what the article suggests, and what aligns with what I do, is outline. That is, I outline the whole book. He suggests first doing the table of contents, generating your chapters first, then elaborating each. I do a bit more, creating a multi-level outline (often as much as up to five levels, though the innermost level often is just notes to myself what I’ll put in that section). However, this isn’t a one pass thing, it’s iterative. I’ll revisit it a time or two beforehand, and then as I write sometimes I restructure.
Which is why I need industrial strength outlining in my writing package. I want to be able to manipulate the whole document, moving sections. Which is why I use Microsoft Word, I just haven’t found that Pages can do it. Similarly, Google Docs is too awkward, and I never got my mind around Scrivener.
From there, he has a template for chapters as well. It reflects what I’ve seen in many non-fiction books, starting the chapter with a story that sets up the topic. I haven’t been able to get that formulaic, but it might be better! I tend to write to the outline, but I’m not always telling a story to start, but I do try to set the stage with some interesting element.
Different books have emerged differently. My first, Engaging Learning, on designing serious games, just flowed. Probably because I’d been thinking about the topic for over a decade… My second one, Designing mLearning, was much more incremental. I’d write some, then think of something else to add up above, and then maybe a restructure of a bit, and continue, and add a bit more above, and… It was quite the effort to get to the end! The others have varied.
My most recent effort (I’m working on a ‘Make it Meaningful’ text; how it manifests is still an open question) is an interesting case, since I’ve restructured it somewhat once already, and I think it needs a more major overhaul. It’s partly that I’m still exploring (and people are lobbing interesting things my way). Also, it’s partly that in trying to incorporate some of my earlier stuff, I was inconsistent. It’s just that even with structure like an outline, you write in spurts, and they don’t always proceed smoothly.
Even in my more immediately forthcoming book, Learning Science for Instructional Designers, I’d find that I’d written about the same concept in two different places. While a text is linear, the ideas are interconnected, and can appear more than once in any path through. However, you have to choose one, and saying the same thing again is redundant.
By the way, some of that awareness comes after writing. I’ll admit that it’s an incredible ego crush to get back feedback from the editors: copy and proof. I feel stupid with all the (virtual) red ink I get! Yet, I also see how my writing changes from session to session, and having someone pull it together and point out some reliable flaws helps me improve. I completely value my editors, and am so grateful to them.
Your mileage may vary. If you don’t have a process and structure, however, you’ll struggle more than if you do. Recognize you’ll struggle, at first, and that you should allocate appropriate time. Also, each book is unique and will require its own flow, so also allocate time to discover that on subsequent efforts. Also recognize that even if you block off regular time slots to work, and set goals for those slots (and I don’t do either, by the way, I grab time when I can), you’ll still need to allocate time for revisions and even restructuring.
However, the real value is sharing your learnings. I’ve argued before that you should speak at conferences. If your ideas persist to create a coherent whole, you should consider putting them into book form. Further, if you’ve ambitions to stand out, it’s a useful way. So you should write. In your own way, of course. This is just how I write, but writing, I believe, is a good thing.