People keep asking me, how do you write a book? Obviously there is some weird notion that those who know how to write a book possess some special skills and knowledge that others don’t have. I am of course talking about non-fiction books, fiction is really a whole other ball-game and something I personally am still struggling with. But when it comes to non-fiction, while most people know how to write a blog post, when faced with writing an entire book, it’s almost as if they freeze up entirely and can’t think how to proceed.
I believe that while writing a book isn’t exactly easy, it’s difficult in different ways than people think. Its more the size of it, the tenacity and persistence that is needed, and that there are a whole lot of problems that come up while writing that one needs to troubleshoot. I think that the main difference between someone who has written a book and one who hasn’t, is the former has a bag of tricks that she pulls out to get through the different parts. And when you get stuck, it’s because you have either forgotten to use a tried-and-tested trick, or you need a new one.
And today, I discovered one that I was inadvertently using without realizing, and because I didn’t recognize it, I wasn’t making the most of it in the book I am working on at present.
So the project that I am working, which I may have mentioned a few times, is the revision of a book I published earlier. Parts of the book are actually not that different from the first edition, just some tweaks and line editing, and just generally going over to make it read better. Other parts are completely different, where I have broken chapters up into separate ones, or pulled bits from different chapters into one. Right now I have the structure finalized, and about half the chapters completely or almost completely edited and proofread. The other half of the book - that’s a different story.
My usual writing process, and one that I recommend to others, is to tackle the easiest bits of a project first. There is always a lot of resistance to working, at least for me, and being able to do the easiest bits always helps me to get going and make progress. So basically I am sure by now you can guess where this is going. The chapters that weren’t too different from the first draft, where I just had to make small changes, those are done or mostly done by now. The chapters which I basically had to re-write completely, those are the ones I am avoiding working on now, because they are less ‘done’, less polished, and there are many questions and issues to resolve.
The thing is, when I am avoiding working on a chapter, or feel overwhelmed by some piece of writing, I don’t consciously tell myself, this work is unpolished, or this is missing something. What I feel is this sense of dread, and I quickly run away from the work. If I do manage to force myself to work on something, I sometimes just stare at the words on the screen (in the case of something that I have at least a rough draft of), or just stare at the blank screen. I give up pretty quickly because I know nothing much is going to happen there.
The other day though, I had this epiphany. Now as all a-ha moments, this one seems pretty obvious, but it wasn’t to me until it was, if that makes sense. I realized that the chapters of this book that I was ok with working on, dare I say even the ones I enjoyed or were happy with, were mostly ones that I had done many more drafts of than the other chapters. Either because they were not very different from the original book, or because somehow I had worked on them more. So they were more polished - in terms of structure, the way they were laid out, and better edited at the paragraph level. So I preferred to work on them, because I felt reasonably confident while editing them - I only had to do some simple tweaks.
On the other hand, the chapters I was avoiding working on were ones that I had recently re-written, in some cases done some new research, or broken up so much that they didn’t resemble anything like the previous version of that chapter. They were far from polished. And I was scared of working on them. And when I probed myself and asked exactly what it was I was afraid of, I realized it was something very simple, but very powerful nevertheless.
I was afraid that I couldn’t get it to a polished level. In one draft.
Now I never stipulated that I had to do it in one draft, but it was implied. This project was already taking too much time, I had stopped and started several times, and even while I was giving it focused attention, it wasn’t moving forward as fast as I would like. And I now realized why. It was a vicious cycle really. I wanted the project to move forward so I was pressuring myself to finish the chapter every time I worked on it. And knowing that I had to do it quickly, I got panicky and blocked and found myself unable to work on it.
In her excellent book 7 Secretsof the Prolific, Hillary Rettig teaches this notion of the writer-copter; you basically work on a piece, and when you’re struggling, you just move on (in the writing helicopter) and work on another part of the project. She also talks about the importance of doing several drafts. I have read that book several times and I did agree with this notion of doing many drafts, but obviously it didn’t really sink in. But once I made the connection between doing more drafts and actually being able to handle difficult chapters (or rather that a chapter was difficult just because I had done fewer drafts of it), I actually felt like I found the secret to several of my writing problems, at least for this book.
I keep a table where I note what stage I am in with a specific chapter (and if really struggling then I break it down into sections). Usually once I move on from a stage, I note that. The stages are different from drafts, it is more like different aspects - so outline, rough draft, editing, checking for structural or argument level problems, etc. Once I figured I just need more passes at the material, I figured I would make that explicit. So I added in some columns in my table to reflect that - and note which ones I thought were done and which ones needed a few more drafts.
So, to get back to the topic of this post - which is why you need many, many drafts. I find that when I explicitly tell myself that I have to get this section of the work in shape within a single draft, or at best two or three, I feel pressured and slow down and try to get every sentence perfect before I move on. Sometimes you don’t know what’s wrong with a section, but you come back later, and suddenly its clear. Or you work on another chapter and give this one another pass, and it makes more sense. You need to give yourself permission to go over the work as many times as it takes, till it feels polished.
Won’t this take forever? How will you ever get any deadlines met? Actually I think this will make it easier to meet deadlines. Instead of avoiding the work and making tea and doing everything possible but write, you can sit down to work secure in the knowledge that as soon as one paragraph is troubling, you can just jump to something else. You can cycle around the work, in no particular order, or in a methodical way, and then get back to the bit that was tough. Chances are, you may not be done with it, but you made some more progress. And with this method, I am sure you can procrastinate less, and get the work completed in less time, with far better results. Try it and let me know how it went.