A few years ago, I gave a workshop at Aalto University called “How to Write a Book.” Later, I added some of the content from the workshop into a course I now teach every spring called Thinking Tools.
My approach to writing is very methodological. I’ve studied literature in creativity and writing, ranging from scientific work by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Teresa Amabile to the actual methods recommended by acclaimed writers like Stephen King, Anne Lamott and Ursula K. LeGuin. Using the method I describe below, I’ve written seven non-fiction books out of which most have been bestsellers.
The methodology seems rather linear, but like everything in life, the ultimate creative effort is always messy. So feel free to go back and forth among the steps until you have something you care about in your hands.
1. Write What You Love
In 2013 I gave a presentation at the World Congress of Positive Psychology in Los Angeles. In a hotel bar, I noticed a man reading a book, opened on a spread where large letters read: “Write what you know” — but “know” was crossed out and replaced with “love.” The book was Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist. The man kindly allowed me to leaf through the book, and I proceeded to order my own copy.
If you don’t care, why should anyone else?
We’re often taught that, especially in student theses and non-fiction, we need to focus on what we know. Of course, to be able to write about a topic, you’ll need to know a thing or two about it. However, what really matters is your interest in what you write.
If you don’t care, why should anyone else?
The first step to writing a book is to ask yourself: what do you care about deeply enough to spend months or even years figuring out and generating a deep understanding worth sharing with others?
2. Hoard Like a Hamster
One of the biggest stumbling blocks in any creative effort is Writer’s Block. When we start a new project, our minds cast instant comparisons with whatever we put to paper to both our previous finished work as well as the masterpieces of others. But to get to the finish line, you have to start somewhere — and some of the best ideas in the world were initially absolutely idiotic.
But what to do if everything you put on the paper looks idiotic? Back off and act like a hamster: start hoarding.
When I started studying creativity, I read through the biographies of many people we tend to regard as creative “geniuses,” like Edison and Da Vinci. It turned out that these people were almost pathological note-takers. Da Vinci left behind thousands of pages of notes, Edison millions.
Everyone gets great ideas, but typically not when staring at an empty Word screen. To fully leverage your creative capability, keep a notebook with you wherever you go — and learn to write ideas down as soon as they arrive. In a year, you’ll have enough raw material for a book or two.
3. Sort the Stuff
Once you’ve gathered enough raw material — ideas, stories, quotes, web clippings, whatever — it may be that the sheer amount of the material is overwhelming. That’s why it’s sensible to devise an archiving system for your stuff relatively soon into your writing process.
I’ve kept an Idea Cloud for over a decade, with more than 20 000 notes sorted by topics and themes. For the first decade, I used an app called Evernote, but nowadays, I’ve migrated to Bear. It doesn’t matter which app you use — you can even use good old manila folders if you feel like it. What matters is that your stuff is sorted so that you can find what you need when you need it.
Everyone gets great ideas, but typically not when they’re staring at an empty Word screen.
A good practice is to keep stuff sorted by topics and themes. Topics are universal descriptions, such as “meetings,” “receipts,” “recipes,” “quotes,” etc. Everybody can have these. Themes, in turn, are more linked to your work and interests. For a painter, they could be things like “paints,” “styles,” “visual inspiration,” etc. For a philosopher, something like “metaphysics,” “epistemology,” “ethics,” and so forth. Themes are descriptions of aspects of your interests that you can use to find what you need.
Once you’ve sorted your notes, you can access what you need even years later. For example, when I wrote a book on creativity with my brother, the first thing we did was go to my Idea Cloud and print out the first 200 or so of the notes tagged with “creativity.” Some of those notes were written in conferences, others in heavy rain walking down the street. They became the backbone of our book.
4. Table of Contents and Outline —and Initial Title
This is a funny post, isn’t it? It says “How to Write a Book” on the title, yet we’re still not writing. Bear with me, the writing will come.
Once you’ve figured out what you care about, spent some time gathering stuff and organized it one way or another, you probably already have a semblance of an idea of what to write about. At this point, you can gather your notes, sit down and figure out what, roughly speaking, you’d like to write.
List down the main themes of your intended work. Then, perhaps using your notes to help, come up with 3–5 subtitles per theme. Once you’ve created the initial structure of your work as a table of contents, write 1–3 pages of outline covering the nuts and bolts of your argument. What are you saying? Why does it matter? Why should the reader believe you?
Once you’ve finished the first version of the TOC and the outline, you can also come up with the initial title for your work. Don’t spend too much time fretting about it – it will likely change. And especially if you have your work published, the publisher will probably want to slap something extremely well-selling on the cover of your book.
By the way, this is also the best moment to start reaching out to publishers. Especially with non-fiction work, publishers are not usually looking for finished manuscripts. Usually, a title, a table of contents, an outline and a few sample chapters should be enough to land you a publishing deal if you’re persistent enough. But that’s a topic for a whole other blog post.
5. Copy-Paste Your Notes to the Table of Contents
Still no writing? Feel the hunger rising in your gut? Good, good. Hang in there.
At this point, you have a pile of raw material, a table of contents, an outline — and a title that’ll probably change later. Now sort out your stuff and search through it using relevant keywords or tags based on your table of contents.
Simply copy-paste your notes where they best fit in your work. This helps you create the first rough version of your book. Most of the stuff won’t stay in the finished version — but it will help you clarify and materialize your argument better than if you had started with a blank paper.
One thing to keep in mind: be extra careful if your notes contain quotes or other copyrighted work. In academic work, in particular, it’s perfectly ok to quote existing work, but two things are essential: proper attribution and referencing.
Proper attribution means that if you claim somebody said something, they actually said it. As Aristotle famously said: “The internet is chock-full of stuff misattributed to famous people.” Referencing quoted work means showing where your quoted text is from. So whenever you add stuff from others, place it in quotation marks and tell the reader where you got it.
Still not writing. But don’t worry.
The writing starts first thing in the second part of this post.