How to Write a Book

Last week, I stumbled across a link to this article on how to write a book. Being part of the boing boing technogeek culture, it’s no surprise that there’s a heavy focus on tools. But I have to say that my eyes almost popped out of my head when I saw how many times Johnson switched software for writing. Now, as a musician I can be a bit of a gearhead. (well, more than a bit — “can you hear that slight decaying buzz on the top of that distortion, right between bee and buzzsaw? yes, that’s exactly what I’m after but with more low end”) But as a writer I want my tools to be absolutely absent. And actually, I also want that in my music too. I like a certain effortlessness with my instrument (bass, MS Word) so I can focus on other aspects of the creative process as it unfolds. A student recently brought me a chapter in progress to discuss and was using Scrivener to organize it. I thought I was in love–a virtual corkboard with index cards linked to piece of text–how cool! So one day when I needed to organize a chapter, I fired it up. Unfortunately, I got too impatient. I wanted to organize, not learn an interface. I went back to the old post-it method, which I didn’t mention but you can see pictured in the second image in the linked post. It worked just fine until I actually got the chapter to flow from beginning to end.

So what do I think about when writing a book these days? How about:

–>Blocking off Mondays for writing instead of Fridays. I’m not beat from the week’s events and I’ve had a couple good nights’ sleep to get into the zone. I’ve also probably stolen a few hours over the weekend in anticipation of my Monday. I know, not totally cool and not practical for people with kids, but it works great. In exchange, Friday is an admin day, since the staff and I are both at school but there are fewer profs and students around. A good day to get my desk clean (figuratively only)

–>Alternating between big-idea brainstorming and typing out massive unsupportable claims with “data entry” days where I am simply filling in blanks, trying to get historical sequences rendered correctly in the text and tracking down those elusive citations for things I know are somewhere in my files.

–>Following the advice of Robert Boice, I write before I’m ready. Always write before I am ready. I can never get into a chapter if I have too solid of an outline. It starts its life as modules that are eventually connected. As an experiment I have been writing the MP3 book with no section headings whatsoever (there are chapter titles, of course) to see if the writing can manage the transitions all on its own. I’m not sure if I succeed, but I like it as an approach. When I have something that flows from beginning to end, I know I have won. I’m not sure what I win, but it feels like victory.

–>I am trying to leave stuff for revision instead of getting it all right in the first draft. You never nail it in the first draft anyway, even if the first draft anyone ever sees is the second draft. I mean that draft too.

2 replies on “How to Write a Book”

  1. Jonathan: this bit about “writing before you’re ready” is gold. I’ve always done that kind of out of preference, because I put things off and only write things, pretty much, if I have a deadline. Writing about the Internet means that you’re always writing before you’re ready, so this advice is easier to take if you do work on new media, but it’s good advice for anyone.

    I wish that I could say that I had a writing plan. I’m trying to write something now for cinema studies (the journal) but only because it is due in a few days.

  2. I love this post.

    Steven’s post was junk (the sense of progress through writing tools seems a bit silly when you take the long view of writing), but it did point out how often we talk about digital research tools and how seldom we talk about digital writing tools. Of course this is all still to write books. There is a disconnect there that still seems really important to me — no matter how digital your tools, if you’re writing a book, you’re trying to remediate the digital into the print in the end.

    Also: no matter what gadgets we come up with I think we simply can’t think our way back into what it would be like to write without a word processor at all. Try writing a whole book with your hand. It would be an *entirely* different book.

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