Seven Practical Tips for Aspiring Book Writers
Ever since I published my book, The Five Anchors of Cyber Resilience, several of my LinkedIn connections and friends have been asking: How did you do it? I have discovered that so many people aspire to write a book, but perceive the process as too difficult and complex. Paulette Perhach’s words sums these common sentiments, “Writing is like putting together Ikea furniture. There’s a right way to do it, but nobody knows what it is.”
Based on my experience, here are some seven tips:
1. Fixating on the end product and accolades, rather than the task at hand, can immobilise rather than motivate you. Most aspiring writers never shift from talk to action because they see book writing as monstrous 200-page project. To take the vital first step, you need to “view it as a collection of tiny goals and achievements you can knock off one at a time”. Start with writing individual blogs, magazine journals or LinkedIn articles. Don’t be too self-critical, acknowledge the unavoidable flaws of your first drafts. Its OK to write 200 words per day and ramp up as your skill sharpens and your confidence grows. Slow and steady always wins the race. Remember Roy Peter Clark’s words, “Tiny drops of writing became puddles that become rivulets that become streams that become deep ponds.” Overtime, you will be surprised how much progress you make when you chunk your work into realistic tasks and show up consistently.
2. Carefully choose a topic you deeply care about. Writing a book is a stretched and painstaking mission, but with a deeply compelling why, you will be able to push through long periods of deterrence. You will refuse to let short-term distractions get in the way of your ultimate goal. Without passion, on the other hand, you will fizzle out or settle for a rushed, substandard book. Once you zoom into a specific domain, Roy Peter Clark counsels, “Go deeper. Get to the heart of the matter. Break the shell and extract the nut. Getting there requires careful research, sifting through evidence, experimentation, and critical thinking.”
3. Writing nitty-gritties, no matter how mundane, cannot be bypassed to success. When I decided to take my writing seriously, I read numerous writing books, including: On writing well by William Zinsser, The Glamour of Grammar by Roy Peter Clark, Writing well for business success by Sandra E Lamb, On writing by Stephen King, The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr, etc. These taught me priceless lessons on grammar, style, usage and the importance of writing with brevity, humanity and clarity. But while studying these essentials is invaluable, at some point you will need to stop reading about writing and actually start writing. You will only truly find your voice through practice.
4. Go in with the right mindset, and don’t obsess about material rewards (money, best-selling titles, fame, etc.). Your job is to write the best you can. After all, quality is its own reward. If you are primarily motivated by financial gain, you will likely be disappointed. Also, be realistic with your time frames. I planned to write my book within six months, but ended up taking me 20 months. I greatly underestimated the time and rigor needed to produce a quality manuscript. Writing requires careful research, sifting through dozens of journals, books, as well as understudying authors whose work you admire until you develop your own voice.If you commence with a clear sense of challenges that lie ahead, you are more likely to succeed.
5. Aim to produce the best possible product, even if it takes a bit longer than you planned. You are competing for reader’s attention against more than 1 million new books that are published each year. No one is willing to endure 200 pages of mind-numbing content. Bret Stephens emphasized this well, “A wise editor once observed that the easiest decision a reader can make is to stop reading. This means that every sentence has to count in grabbing the reader’s attention, starting with the first.” This requires reading widely outside your domain. I read heaps of articles from the HBR, NYTimes, New Yorker, Financial Times, Wired, etc. I am curios to discover new styles, and I am always taking notes and marking interesting sections. The persuasiveness of your voice is as important as the depth of your content, if not more vital.
6. No matter how good a writer you are, please engage a professional editor. Good editors, as William Zinsser wrote, “bring an objective eye that the writer has long since lost, and there is no end of ways an editor can improve a manuscript: pruning, shaping, clarifying, and tidying a hundred of inconsistencies of tense and pronoun and location and tone…dividing long awkward sentences into short ones.. questioning matters of judgement and taste.” Of course you can get your friends or peers to review your work, but they can never replace a professional editor. I was very fortunate to work with Bernadette Foley, who coached me throughout the process with grace and patience. Engaging a professional editor is especially important if you are self-publishing your book.
7. Reach out for help. There are several individuals on LinkedIn who have written books, and will gladly share their experiences. People are much nicer than we think. Towards the end of my work I wrote a note to Jane Frankland, who was very kind to promptly respond with an encouraging message. An open mindset will save you from significant missteps, and help you discover innovative and cost-effective ways of doing things. Don’t write 200 pages before seeking independent feedback. You are likely to resist constructive feedback if you have invest significant amount of time and effort beforehand. I sent my first two chapters to my editor, which enabled me to fix material issues early into the draft.
Book writing takes time, commitment and follow through, but it’s extremely rewarding. It expanded my belief system, reinforced my credibility, created several long term business relationships and opportunities. I have been invited to speak at several conferences, including overseas. Writers are often depicted as loners sitting behind ancient type writers in dark little rooms. For me, nothing could be further from the truth; the work itself got hold of me, and I found the process to be a deep and fulfilling pursuit that wrapped my attention until the end. If I did it, you can also do it.