How to write a book you’ll be proud of
An article by Alison Jones for Training Journal
You’ve seen them, of course, the coaches and consultants who smugly announce they’ve ‘published a book’. But what they wave under your nose looks suspiciously like a bound copy of their training notes.
The fact is it’s easier than ever to publish a book, but it’s as hard as it ever was to write a good one.
So what do you need to keep in mind if you want to write a business book that enhances your reputation rather than diminishing it? Here’s a three-point plan:
- Start with the reader
- Find your angle
- Show your work.
Start with the reader
In front of a group you get instant feedback: you can immediately see when someone isn’t ‘getting it’ and try a different approach. In a book, you need to do that thinking up front. It starts with getting really clear on who you’re writing for.
Don’t get hung up on originality for its own sake, and don’t apologise for referencing existing models and ideas, but DO find a way of presenting the material that is all yours.
This is less a demographic (though job level, age, gender etc may be relevant), more a psychographic: what’s the common pain point or quest they share? Remember that they might not use the same language as you do to describe that: as an expert, you are cursed with knowledge.
Imagine your book as a conversation with an individual who fits your target readership perfectly: how do they describe the problem? What are its consequences, and what could they achieve if you could help them fix it? What language and imagery are natural to them, and what level of agency do they have?
How can you take them from where they are now, step by step, to the outcome you promise in the blurb?
[Wait, are you saying I shouldn’t take the 60,000 words of blog posts I’ve written and turn them into a book? Yes. Yes, I am.]
Find your angle
You may have a completely original, trademarked approach to your subject in which case, great. Move on to the next point. But for most of us, most of the time, what we’re teaching isn’t brand spanking new.
We’re drawing on models and ideas from years of study and reading, and that’s a good thing (they work!). So don’t get hung up on originality for its own sake, and don’t apologise for referencing existing models and ideas, but DO find a way of presenting the material that is all yours.
It could be a model or framework that reveals new relationships between concepts. Or it could be a metaphor — Guerilla Marketing, Chicken Soup for the Soul — that makes the reader see things differently.
The point is that what you’re saying will almost certainly have been said before, but not by you.
Books form an ongoing conversation over space and time: no one book is ever the last word on a subject, but if you’re going to join the conversation don’t just parrot what someone else just said. You bring your unique mix of expertise, personal and professional quirks and life experience to the party; find a distinctive voice that reflects that.
Show your work
Writing a book takes time (at least, writing a book worth reading does). You could lock yourself in a shed for two weeks and write the whole thing nonstop in a haze of caffeine and sweat. A less extreme version is to quietly grind out 500 words a day for a couple of months. It’s fast, it’s simple, and it means no one can ‘steal’ your ideas.
But if you do it this way, you’re cheating yourself and your reader. When I ask people for their best tip, time after time they say: write in public.
As Buster Benson put it: ‘I learned early on that the best way to learn is to let other people serve as the mirror for the ideas that I have…so I always like putting it out there and getting feedback as quickly as possible.’
If you can, think out loud in blog posts and articles, on podcasts and in groups, to discuss ideas, invite feedback on your early drafts, and generally increase your Luck Surface Area, your book will be all the better for it.
And as a side benefit, you’ll have built up a community of engaged people ready to buy it and tell others about it, rather than launching it on an unsuspecting world and being met by a wall of indifference.
These are the three principles to keep in mind if you’re thinking about turning your expertise into a book. Here’s another: partner smart. From development editors to designers to digital marketing experts to distributors, the right publishing team will transform your manuscript into a polished book you can be proud of and which gets into the hands of the people who need it. Writing a book is a big investment of time and energy, but the returns in terms of personal and professional growth can be extraordinary if you get it right.