“Any organization that won’t take the trouble to be both clear and personal in its writing will lose friends, customers, and money.”
— William Zinsser, in his 30th-anniversary classic, On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction
Enthusiasm, drive, and energy are virtues. Yet unbridled drive can turn into impatience. Impatience can lead you to start writing your business book without adequate preparation. Submitting to the urge to get on with the writing is a common mistake. Slow down. Plan first.
Writing a book and building a house share common principles. Construction companies don’t build each room, put in windows, doors, paint the walls and install furniture, then move onto the next room. But this linear method is used by beginning writers. Crafting each paragraph before moving to the next may work for a short blog post, but not for long-form writing. Planning your business book matters.
An architect produces a plan of a building. A contractor collects resources, provides skilled labor, and then goes about construction. It’s easier and cost-effective for the building owner to make changes at the architectural planning stage. Once materials have been bought and construction is underway, changes will be expensive. This is true for a book, too.
We talk about writing a book, but really we build a book. It’s an engineering project (and a creative one). Ideas, data, and stories all have to fit into a cohesive whole. A construction project and a book both need scaffolding in place before construction/writing begins. Everything you write depends upon primary decisions about your topic and readership. You’ll save yourself a lot of suffering later on if your book has a firm foundation—before you write.
No book doctor enjoys delivering a painful diagnosis. It’s frustrating to undo weeks or months of work because the book has lost its direction. If you have a limited budget for hiring a ghostwriter, consider hiring help at the planning stage only. Why? Because fixing a manuscript with no solid foundation usually means a complete rewrite.
Paradoxically, anxiety to get the book done is why so many people give up. Writing a book is not for the faint of heart, which is why authorship demonstrates such status and value. Putting your scaffolding in place correctly is a lot of work. You still have done no writing at this point. But you will have made a lot of progress.
Whether you’re writing a business book, a brochure, or a white paper, you need to ask yourself five foundational questions.
- What have I got to say?
- Who is my readership?
- Why does what I have to say matter?
- Am I going to say a lot about a little?
- Am I going to say a little about a lot?
You can generate a list of topics and then prioritize and research them.
One central idea
In my book-coaching practice I often see clients chasing too many disconnected ideas. While all ideas may have value and meaning, they may not fit the current book’s theme. Yet ideas can be banked, and used elsewhere at a later date.
Planning is about generating options and deciding. Some of the hardest decisions are deciding what to leave out. One test for choosing to include or exclude a topic is to ask yourself how a topic, story, or data relates to the central idea. And this is why it’s wise to spend time and resources on the central idea (what this book is about).
Let’s look at some examples from classic business books. A central idea could present a new business model. In a Behavioral Theory of the Firm, Richard M. Cyert and James G. March contrast traditional approaches to decision-making with and alternative nine-step model. Each of those nine steps supports the central idea.
Eliyahu Goldratt and Jeffrey Cox created a business fable in The Goal, an influential business book now in its 30th edition. The central idea of The Goal is to teach the theory of constraints: how to identify and reduce bottlenecks in the manufacturing process.
David Allen’s Getting Things Done is about (you guessed it) personal productivity. In Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline, the central idea is companies must become learning organizations. Each of these books has an easy to express a central idea. Everything else in the book supports the main point.
Create your scaffolding by organizing your topics. You have a lot of options for how you go about this. One option is to write topics on a giant whiteboard. Alternatively, you can pin index cards all over your office wall. I use a mind mapping program to cluster ideas around a central theme. Whichever way you do it, the common element is visualization. You can see your book as a complete whole.
It’s typical for an author to spend forty percent of the time to write a book on creating a detailed plan. The plan starts off with keywords, then short descriptive sentences, which I call meta-writing. Meta-writing will significantly shorten the time to draft your complete book. So, don’t dive in at the introduction and write. Plan your business book first. Visualize your whole book—then write.