The Complete Guide To Writing Your Book
by Tucker Max
You know you should write a book, but you still haven’t done it. Why not?
Probably because the process for writing a book takes too much time and is needlessly complicated. You can’t justify spending hundreds of hours over a year or more away from your business to do it.
Doesn’t this seem wrong to you? The process for writing a book is almost the same as it was 50 years ago, except you type on a computer instead of a typewriter now. How could this be?
Other creative fields that used to be incredibly time consuming have been simplified and democratized, but not book writing. Photography, for example (expensive complicated cameras replaced by simple iPhones), and music (Pro-tools and cheap mics replaced expensive studio equipment) have been unleashed because of amazing new tools that made production easy and simple.
Why not book writing? Why can’t that be made 10x easier, like photography and music?
The answer from writers has always been, “The only way to write a book is to sit down and type for as long as it takes.” I’m a writer and I used to say that. Entrepreneurs with great book ideas would ask me sincere questions about how they could make the book writing process quicker and effective, and I would pretentiously lecture them about hard work.
Well, there’s finally a better way. An entrepreneur called me out and inspired me to develop a better way for a smart, busy person to turn their ideas into a book, in their words and their voice. That conversation turned into a completely new way to write a book. We detailed this process in our book, The Book In A Box Method, and we created a company that does this for people as a service.
Entrepreneur Magazine asked me to detail our method exactly in this post, so that you can do it yourself at home, and finally finish the book you know you need to write.
This process is perfect for entrepreneurs, because it only works for the types of books that entrepreneurs write: non-fiction, informational, how-to books that involve some personal storytelling to display their knowledge.
This post will walk you through each step of this method, in detail, so your book will not only be finished quicker, but also will be better.
What Is The Book In A Box Method?: A Quick Introduction
[This introduction to the process is skippable. If you just want to start, go to Step 1 below.]
There are two simple principles that make this method so efficient and effective:
- Speaking Replaces (most) Writing: We replace most of the typing in the standard process with talking. This makes the process much easier by drastically reducing the amount of time you spend at a keyboard writing, but still ensures that it’s your words and your voice. You’re still going to spend time at a keyboard typing, but it’s about 10x less than the normal book writing process, and it’s mostly editing and rewriting.
- Certainty Of Process: You never have to figure out on your own what to do next. Each step is a clear action for you to take, and if you take them all, you will finish your book. You will never face a blank page, and I’ll never tell you to “just write.”
The act of writing is very hard for most people, but not because people are stupid or lazy or unskilled. It’s because the way we tell people to write makes it an unusual cognitive task that requires a deep, specialized skill. The writing skill is a totally different skill from having ideas and wisdom to share in a book.
Just think about it. How many really intelligent and accomplished people do you know who have great ideas, but hate writing?
Writing is a specific cognitive skill that is totally distinct from thinking and wisdom. The best example of this is dyslexia. Some of the smartest, most accomplished people on earth—Richard Branson, for example—can barely write an email. Richard is not stupid, nor is anyone else with dyslexia. It’s just that human brains are not optimized to read or write text, and those with dyslexia are never able to efficiently develop those functions.
We replace writing with talking in the book writing process because talking is the natural way to communicate ideas and information between humans.
Humans have been talking for at least 200,000 years, but we’ve only been writing for about 10,000 years (at most).
This is not actually a new idea. Here’s a very short list of people whose words still move the world, yet they never wrote anything down themselves:
Socrates…never wrote anything down; Plato recorded his words.
Jesus Christ…never wrote down a word; his apostles did.
Buddha…never wrote down any of his teachings; his disciples did that as well.
Marco Polo…told his cellmate about his travels while they were in jail, and his cellmate (who was a scribe) wrote them down.
Winston Churchill…dictated most of his books to his secretary.
Malcolm X…dictated his iconic autobiography to journalist Alex Haley.
For thousands of years, writing was a specific job, different from thinking. People who did the writing were called “scribes,” and they were not themselves the esteemed thinkers and influencers of their era (what we would now call a “thought leader”). In fact, they were considered artisans with a skill, like a lawyer or a mechanic. It was the thinker, not the scribe, who was celebrated.
Take one of the most prolific authors of the Roman age, Julius Caesar. He used scribes to record almost every single line in all of his letters and books.
Why did he use scribes instead of writing it himself?
For the obvious reason: his time was too valuable to be spent mastering the skill of writing words so they read properly on the page.
He spent his time thinking and doing things, not writing.
He had scribes record his thoughts as he spoke them out loud, and then he signed his name to it. His volumes of letters and correspondence are all rightly authored by him, yet he “wrote” none of the actual words down.
The Book In A Box Method uses the exact same principles, and updates them with modern technology and storytelling techniques, to enable you to write your book much faster than the “normal” process.
Step 1: Position Your Book
The first place to start with your book is the positioning. Generally speaking, positioning is figuring out where in the market the book fits–what the book is about, who the book is for, and what result you want from the book.
For traditional publishing companies, the only positioning they care about is what a reader would buy. In essence, publishers only care about books that have the potential to sell a lot of copies, because that’s the only way they make money.
But that’s not true for entrepreneurs. Now, most books are published outside of the old traditional models, and most non-fiction books are not monetized directly. In fact, quite the opposite; most entrepreneurs and business owners don’t make their money from book sales, they make money from other things their book gets them.
For entrepreneurs and business owners, a book can be used to get you:
- Attention, authority, and visibility
- Leads for your business
- Paid speaking gigs
- Consulting jobs
- Coaching clients
For the Book In A Box Method, we’ve adapted the positioning process so that instead of serving the needs of the publishing company, it serves your needs.
To position your book, you must answer these three questions:
- Why are you writing this book? In essence, what result are you looking for the book to produce for you?
- Who will care? In essence, what audience must you reach for the book to achieve your results?
- Why will they care? In essence, what will your book say that’s interesting and valuable to that audience?
I’ll walk you through each one:
Question 1: Why Are You Writing This Book?
You probably aren’t writing your book just to write it. You are writing a book because you expect it to get something for you.
Thus, your book topic is wholly dependent on what you want it to get for you.
For example, if your goal for the book is to help you keynote speeches at major HR conferences, then the requirements for your book are very different than if your goal is to write a book that establishes your credibility and authority in a specific field so you can build a consulting business.
By knowing specifically what you want the book to accomplish, you won’t get bogged down by trying to be everything to everyone, and you can then focus on a specific plan of action that will get you what you want.
This is not a small point, and in fact, this is possibly the most crucial part of this process:
You MUST be honest with yourself about what results are important to you, or your book will fail—commercially, personally, or both.
Part of the problem here is that some results are things people feel uncomfortable admitting to. It might feel embarrassing or weird to say you’re writing a book to be recognized for your contributions to a field. But you’ll never get that if you don’t acknowledge it first.
A key point to understand (before you get discouraged) is that there is almost no such thing as a wrong or bad goal. There is only a wrong or bad book for certain specific goals.
If you’re unsure about what your goal for the book is, read this piece about the mistakes that authors make when framing the results they are looking for, and how to better frame them.
Answer These Questions To Know Why You are Writing Your Book:
Why do I want to write a book?
It is easy to fool yourself here, so be careful. You can list more than one reason, but make sure you are listing the reasons you’re writing the book, not wishes you have that it will create.
What specific result(s) must I have to make this book a success for me?
This question forces you to nail down a specific, definable result you want from the book, one that will make it worth your time to write. Often you’ll have many different results you are looking for, and some take a while to come out. The more you are clear about the specific results you are looking for—business leads, client consulting gigs, attention—the more you can guide the book to get that result.
The Double Check Question: Create a worst-case scenario.
A good way to really nail yourself to a specific result is to create a scenario that meets your stated goals, but fails in all other regards.
For example, if you say your goal is to just have a book that you can put on your résumé and maybe sell at your current speaking gigs, then a question you need to ask yourself is something like this:
“So if the book comes out, sells no copies, and gets no attention, but it looks very professional and I can sell it at speaking gigs and put it on my résumé, would I be happy with that result?”
If you can honestly say yes, great, you’re done.
If you hem and haw and equivocate, then you need to drill deeper and make sure you nail down precisely what other goals must be included in this scenario for you to be satisfied with the result.
Question 2: Who is the audience?
In order to get the results you want—no matter what they are—the book must find some sort of audience. The audience you need to reach is directly tied to the results you picked, and you can reverse engineer precisely who your audience is by understanding who literally needs to know about your book to make your results happen.
For example, if you want to speak at a major oil and gas conference, then your audience is the people who book the speakers for that specific conference (and possibly the attendees).
If you want clients for your CTO coaching business, then chief technology officers (and the people who know them) are your audience.
If you want your book to establish you as a thought leader, then your audience is the people who care about the issues relevant to your space or who are influencers in your space.
If you want to drive business to your consulting firm, then your audience is potential clients for your consulting firm.
If you want to develop a speaking career, then your audience is the people who book the events where you want to speak.
This process is not much more complicated than asking yourself a very basic question:
Who has to know about my book in order for it to get the results I want?
This might only be one group, or it might be a few related groups of people. But the answer to this question is generally pretty simple, assuming your goal is clear.
You can absolutely have multiple audiences that the book will appeal to, but generally speaking, the more audiences you try to reach, the worse your book will be.
A focused book that is very appealing to a small audience is usually much more valuable to an entrepreneur than a broad subject book that is only marginally appealing to a lot of audiences.
This is because broad subjects, like general life advice, tend to not only be well-covered already, but also tend to not be very actionable for people.
Most people read non-fiction because they expect it to provide a positive impact or ROI in their lives. It is clear who the audience for a book about how to set up a pop-up retail experience is. Even though it’s a small audience, the audience is very interested in it.
Compare this to a book about a broad, general topic, like “how to be happy.” You might think everyone cares about being happy, and that is true to some extent, but unless you are really knowledgeable and already an expert about this subject AND you have an angle that has never been explored, it will be very hard to convince people that your book about happiness—as opposed to the seventy already out there by experts—is the one to read.
Also, please do not think that “everyone” is your audience. That is never an answer to this question; no book idea appeals to everyone, not even Harry Potter or The Bible. You must be specific.
Question 3: Why will your audience care?
Once you know what you want from your book, and who the audience for your book is, you can determine precisely what your book has to be about in order to both reach your audience and thus get to your results.
What you know that your audience will find interesting and take value from is what determines the content of your book.
Think about yourself as you decide to buy a book. Do you ever think about the author’s concerns? Of course you don’t. You think about why buying this book might help you.
Well, that’s precisely what your audience is going to do when they see your book on a shelf or Amazon or their friend’s Facebook page. So you had better be able to answer that question:
Why does your book matter to them?
Answer These Questions To Know Why Your Audience Will Care About Your Book:
What are the main points you want the audience to take away from your book?
This should get all the main points you want to make in your book out of your head and onto a list (from this list, you will later organize and create the book outline).
What, specifically, will your audience get by reading your book? How does your book help your audience achieve their goals?
Push yourself to focus on specific statements of value that the book will deliver to your specific audience, not broad, oblique wishes. The answer to your questions should be something clear and definable, not ambiguous.
You have to remember that your book is competing with an infinite amount of other media, much of it free. To overcome that, you must appeal to the self-interest of your potential reader, and identify what about your book will interest them.
What does this mean your book should be about?
This should be a very short statement that summarizes the book subject at its core. This should be no longer than a sentence or two.
The Double Check Question: How will people describe this book to their friends?
We use this when an author will insist on a certain angle or idea that we know will not work. Instead of arguing with them, the best way to get them to understand is to ask them this question:
“Picture your ideal reader describing your book to their friends at a party? What do they say? How do they talk about it?”
We’ve found that this question helps the author see the content in the book from the reader’s perspective, and not just their own, and thus helps the author to position the book in a way that serves the interests of the reader.
Generally speaking, people actively share books (or anything) if:
- The book makes them look smart, successful, or high status, and / or
- They took a lot of value from the book, and / or
- In some way they associate the book with an identity they desire, and want to broadcast to the world.
For example, if the book has a whole new take on an old industry, sharing it with their friends will make them look smart, educated, and well-read.
If the book helped them lose fifty pounds, they’ll talk about it because people will praise them for losing all that weight, and sharing this information will raise their status among their friends.
On the other hand, people actively do not share things that:
- Make them feel stupid, and / or
- Make them look low status to their friends, and / or
- Are hard to explain.
Think about how people will talk about it, and position it so that they will be not only likely, but eager to do it.
Step 1: Conclusion
Do NOT proceed to the next steps until you have the answers to these three questions:
- What result must the book produce to make it a success for you?
- What audience must you reach for the book to achieve this result?
- What will your book say that is interesting and valuable to that audience?
Step 2: Create Your Book Outline
The next stage in the process is organizing your book positioning into an outline. The more effort you put into the outline, the less the reader is going to notice or be conscious of the organization of the book, which is what you want.
First, I’ll show you an example outline, then explain each section and what needs to go in it so you can apply it to your own book, and then link a template you can use.
And here is the Book In A Box Outline Template. It’s a simple Google Doc that has a complete outline template. This doc is not editable, but you can copy and paste that template as many times as you want and put it anywhere.
This explains each section of the outline, the purpose it serves, and how best to set it up.
The Promise / Value Proposition / Quick Summary
This is the answer to the third question, which is what you say that is interesting and valuable to your audience, and why someone in your audience would want to read this book.
This is the answer to the first question; the results you want from the book.
Anticipated Audience(s) (And Their Benefit From Reading The Book)
This is the answer to the second question; the specific audience you want to reach.
Table Of Contents
Having a table of contents in the outline helps you organize your thoughts and see the progression of the ideas easily.
Divide Into Chapters, Subpoints And Prompts
This is where the outline starts to really take form. Chapters divide your information and wisdom into digestible chunks for people.
Each chapter needs to be broken down into subpoints, questions / stories, and (optional) support. This makes it simple for you to talk through your ideas in the interview part, and provide the content for your book. Here is the organizing concept for understanding what a chapter is:
If you were teaching the ideas in your book to someone else, what would the major steps be?
That’s all a chapter is; a singular, distinct point you are making.
On the outline, the chapter will include all the discussion and explanation you need for that point, divided into subpoints and stories you want to make about that specific point.
The subpoints are the pieces of explanation and support for the point you are making.
There are two standard ways we create the subpoints:
- Obvious subpoints of the chapter: If the chapter covers some set of separate but related ideas, like Ten Ways Doing Handstands Improves Your Health, then the subpoints are those ten reasons. Oftentimes, it’s not quite this obvious, but when the purpose of a chapter is to make a point, the subpoints are usually the support for that point.
- The sentences that make up the logical flow of the argument: This one is a little trickier, but it works really well. If the purpose of the chapter is to make a more subtle argument, the easiest way to arrive at the subpoints is to write up a short paragraph that explains that argument. By breaking up that paragraph into its constituent sentences, you’re left with the ideas that must be explained and proved in order to make that argument—which are the subpoints.
Note: These arguments do NOT need to be complicated. Often, they are only about two to three points, but when each is broken down, they make the point effectively.
Question / Story Prompts
Simply put, the questions and story prompts are what you put in to prompt the interviewer to ask you the right questions, to make sure you can talk about your topic.
This is VERY different from most outlines. For most outlines, nothing about questions is mentioned. The reason we tell you to structure your main points below the chapters as questions is because this is how you will create the rough draft of your book through talking instead of typing. For each questions, ask yourself:
What questions need to be asked and answered in order to prove the point that the subpoint is making?
Often, these are focused on “Why is this true?” and “Why is this important?” It’ll also include any questions necessary to pull the relevant details.
Story prompts are much simpler. We use the syntax “Story: [INSERT PROMPT]” to indicate the appropriate place for a story. This is a prompt for you to tell a story that is relevant to that section.
Note: You should make sure the stories are specific and highly relevant. You are not looking for a generic story in these points; rather, this should be a story that fits precisely here and shows something you are trying to display.
To do this, you really need to talk about specific times something happened. For example:
What’s the best time you ever [insert topic]?
What’s the worst example of [insert topic]?
What’s the first time you did [insert topic], and what happened?
What’s the most scared / happy / etc. you ever felt doing [what your book is about]?
Make sure you tell your best stories, and sometimes you have to use specific modifiers to remember them. The more honest and emotionally intense the story, the better.
Once these are all plugged in, we should have the logical flow of the chapter.
What Is Support?
Support is just some fact or set of facts that helps you remember what it is you want to talk about in that section.
In many cases, everything you have above will be enough. This is why support is optional.
But in some cases, you may need a prompt in order to remember everything you want to say in response to a question. This is especially true for things that include lists, details, or very open-ended questions. In other words, support is useful when the answer isn’t something that you’d be comfortable explaining off the cuff.
Here’s the thing about conclusions: not all books need them.
But you should have one.
A clear summary of your points is possibly the best thing you can do to not just deliver value to the reader, but also make the book memorable, which helps you sell more books (through creating value for the reader, which creates word of mouth).
That’s why we, as a general rule, want our author clients to restate the thesis from the introduction, and then summarize each main point in the clearest, most concise way possible. Give the reader an easy-to-understand and repeat summary of your book to leave with.
What Is A Call To Action, And Why Use It?
But with some books, you might want to go even further here and end the conclusion with a “call to action.”
With the call to action, the author usually adopts a different tone, not just more explicitly inspirational, but also framed as an imperative. The underlying message of the call to action is: now that you have all the tools, go out there and use them!
Some authors may feel uncomfortable including such a direct appeal to readers. The approach can be at odds with their usual professorial manner. A call to action doesn’t have to come across in a superficial pep-rally way. It can be whatever they want it to be; whatever feels natural.
In fact, this is an appropriate place to direct readers to specific resources. Keep in mind, you don’t want to make it seem like the whole book was a lead-up to a self-serving pitch for the author’s own company or services. But you do want to take the opportunity to send off the reader in all the right directions and equipped with all the information they would need.
Step 3: Interview And Record Yourself
You’re finished with the hardest part (the outline process), and now you’re ready to start with the fun part: the interviewing.
Instead of sitting at a computer and typing, you will now be interviewed. Your interviewer will use the outline as a guide, and ask you questions about the content of your book. You’ll literally get interviewed, like you would for a news article, except it will take longer.
You will record this set of interviews, get it transcribed, and after some editing, that will end up becoming the rough draft of your manuscript.
Like I said before, laying down your first draft this way (instead of typing) has two benefits:
- Much faster: A normal conversation is usually about 8k words an hour. Even very fast writers are lucky to get 500 usable words in an hour.
- Much easier: A lot of people have writer’s block. No one has talkers block. Having a conversation about things you know is almost never a problem.
Ideally, Someone Else Should Interview You
You may think, “Why do I need someone else? Why can’t I just record myself talking?”
You can. It is possible. But it’s not easy to talk at length about your ideas in the best way possible.
Even the most long-winded among us are prone to mental shortcuts in our speech. We assume far too much knowledge on the part of the reader, and we oftentimes forget basics because we’ve been doing something so long. Having someone else interview you forces you to elaborate and explicate, and makes you calm down and talk more casually, which leads to a better book.
Think carefully about who you want to help you with this task. It’s preferable to call on someone who doesn’t know the subject matter in and out. You want an interviewer who is interested in the topic, but doesn’t already know too much about it.
That way, they’ll prod you and ask questions to make sure your words are clear for a layperson. In fact, even if your friend is a brainiac, you want them to “play dumb,” so to speak. The goal is for them to get more information out of you than they need.
What Do You Use To Record The Audio?
In terms of the recording process itself, technology these days makes it incredibly easy. There are nearly an infinite number of ways to record yourself, and a number of services you can use to get that recording transcribed.
Almost every smartphone enables you to record yourself talking. We recommend you use this method. It’s dead simple. You can just set the phone in front of you on a table, or put in the earbuds that came with it. Either work fine.
If this is not possible, we recommend using your internal microphone on your computer, and the software that came with it. Don’t make the recording more complicated than it needs to be. This is not a song, the audio does not need to be perfect.
Interview Best Practices
Here are some tips and ideas to keep in mind while interviewing.
These instructions are intended for the INTERVIEWER, so have the person who’s asking your questions read this section. If you are interviewing yourself, then these same best practices apply, they’re just more difficult to implement:
Plan out multiple interviews ahead of time
You should break this up into multiple recording sessions. Do NOT think you can finish the recording in one long session. It will wear you out, and you’ll end up skipping things. Assume this will take between three to six sessions of no more than two hours each session.
Staying with the outline is crucial
Interviewing using the Book In A Box method is different than the way a journalist would interview a subject.
You’re interviewing to turn your spoken words into content, not just to get the information.
It’s crucial to try to stay in sync with the outline. If you stay with the outline as you ask questions, then your answers will generally be in order in the audio recording. This allows you to easily sync up the audio transcription and the outline, which will make editing substantially easier.
If you don’t stay with the outline, and just haphazardly jump from random thought to random thought, you might get great material out, but when it comes time to put it in the right order and into a book, it will be a mess.
Make sure you explain everything completely
If you were interviewing just to understand the point yourself, you could do it very quickly. But when it comes time for writing, you want a long transcript of explanation to work from, to give you more context. It makes things easier, and results in a better book.
Even if you’re capable of extrapolating the point of what you’re saying, it’s worth having it on the recording so that the detailed explanation comes through on the transcript. So be sure to ask “Why?” and “Can you explain what you mean by that?” or “Can you be more specific?” often.
Make it feel comfortable
The most important part of the interviewing is make it like a fun conversation. Remember:
- There’s no pressure since all of this will be heavily edited, so don’t try to filter your thoughts.
- More content is better than less, so it’s okay to be repetitive; just cover each answer thoroughly.
- Feel free to explore any tangents you’re feeling (just come back to the outline if it gets off course).
Use simple questions (or pretend you’re an 8 year-old):
The best place to start is with questions that are very simple, open-ended ones. Questions like, “Why did you do it that way?”, or, “How exactly did you do that?”, or even, “What was the purpose of that?”, create great prompts. Yes, they are simplistic, but in all seriousness, simple questions work the best.
We found that pretending you are an eight-year-old is a great way to get in the mindset to ask these types of questions. Obviously you should not literally act like a child, but it’s crucial to get into what the Buddhists call “beginner’s mind” and forget all of your assumptions. When they are making assumptions, don’t be afraid to ask obvious and simple questions that a child would ask to get the right information out of them.
It is actually an empirical fact that when people are in the mindset of talking to a totally inexperienced audience (i.e., an eight-year-old), they give their best, clearest explanations.
If you feel like you’re being too obvious, always remember this quote by cartoonist, animator, and activist Nina Paley:
“Don’t be original; be obvious. When you state the obvious, you actually seem original.”
Get the best stories by asking about specific trigger events
Don’t be general. Tell specific stories. The best way to get specific stories out of people is to ask about specific events.
For example, don’t say “Why did you become an entrepreneur?” That will usually only get a broad, generic answer that doesn’t get into specifics.
By asking about specific events that triggered important changes (e.g., “tell me about the day you couldn’t pay your rent, and it caused you to sell your ideas on shirts”), you push to recount the specific incident that created the decision, not the rationalized story they have constructed afterwards.
That’s the way to get stories. Ask them about the one interaction, the day they had to stop, the worst, the first, the best, the one time. Questions that can get at specific stories:
Tell me about the time when….
Tell me about the day when….
Tell me about the moment you realized….
Tell me the story of….
When was the first time you ever [insert activity]? What happened?
What was the first / best / most memorable time that you [insert activity]?
Can you give me an example of a time that you [insert activity] that didn’t work?
What day did you decide to [insert activity]? What happened on that day?
Steer into difficult emotions, not away from them
Famed entrepreneur, radio journalist, and producer Alex Blumberg says it better than we can:
“When someone starts talking about something difficult, when they get unexpectedly emotional, your normal human reaction is to sort of comfort and steer away. To say, ‘Oh I’m sorry, let’s move on.’ What you need to do, if you want good tape, is to say, ‘Talk more about how you’re feeling right now.’ It feels like a horrible question to ask. It feels like you’re going against your every instinct as a decent human being to go toward the pain that this person is experiencing.”
Put yourself in the reader’s mind
At all times, you should think like a potential reader. What would they want to know next? What do they have to know in order for them to understand what your friend understands? What questions will they have, and are you asking them?
Make sure that everything makes sense. Don’t just smile, nod, and move on. This is wrong. If it doesn’t make sense to you, it won’t make sense to the reader, either. This is so, so important:
If you are confused at all, the reader will be too, so make sure you ask for more information, because they can’t.
Make small answers big and big answers small
People need to understand the big picture and they need examples. When your friend is talking in the clouds and very theoretically, ask for examples, especially personal ones. We emphasize this—ask for examples—several times, because it is very important.
When they’re just telling stories, or just giving you specifics about step by step processes, then pull back and ask about the bigger lessons, about how this fits in with the rest of the book and the lessons it’s teaching. Even if you already get it, ask them to make the connection explicitly.
Both high level theory and specific details are important to books, so make sure you get the author to provide both.
Use questions that elicit emotion and personal reflection
Again, mostly paraphrased from Alex Blumberg:
“You want answers that are real and authentic. To get these sort of answers, you need to ask questions that make people answer your questions using stories or emotion. Questions like:
How did that make you feel? (Sometimes you will need to encourage people here, especially if people aren’t used to talking about their emotions.)
If the old you could see the new you…. (The transition: What did it mean to them?)
If you had to describe the debate in your head, what would each side say? (This will give voice to the interior drama and break away from the “canned conversation” type answers.)
What do you make of that? (This is a question Ira Glass uses all the time.)
Example of a powerful question: Would you have loaned yourself the money?
Then shut up and let them answer the question.“
Transcribe the Audio
You can transcribe the audio yourself, but we do NOT recommend that. It defeats the whole purpose of saving time.
There are many services that transcribe audio. We recommend one service specifically, simply because they make everything so simple: Rev.com.
They actually have an app you can download on your smartphone. You simply open the app, start the recorder, talk into your phone, when you are done hit save, and then send it to be transcribed, all from your smartphone. The cost is $1 per minute (which is standard in the industry).
We’ve used them for two years and they do an incredible job.
Step 4: Creating Your Rough Draft
Once you get the transcript of your audio recording from the transcription service, then you will start the process of turning that audio transcript into readable book prose.
This is the closest thing you’ll do to conventional writing in the process, but it’s more like translating.
What’s great about doing it this way is that you’re not facing the “blank page” problem. You never have to sit down and figure out how to not only get your ideas down, but also structure them and refine them, all at once. This process allows you to break it out into easily achievable steps.
First, Get Organized
Now that you have your transcript, your first order of business is to take that master document and organize it into easily workable chunks.
You do this by cutting and pasting each part (or chapter) into its own separate Word file. The entire book is far too unwieldy at this point to try to do all in one place. You’ll feel overwhelmed. Usually, the individual transcriptions corresponding to each chapter should run anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 words. These are easily manageable chunks to put in one Word document.
You should know how many different documents you’ll need, using the outline as your guide. For example, if your book has an introduction, six chapters, and a conclusion, then you should end up with seven different files.
Follow these steps:
- Open up all the new documents
- Title each one with the title of the chapter
- Copy and paste the outline sections from each at the top
- Put in the entire audio transcript for each chapter below that
This way, you have the structure on the top to always remind you of what your basic point is, and the text below, so it makes it very easy for you to do the next step.
“Translate” This Audio Text Into Book Prose
Now that everything is organized, you’re going to turn your audio transcript into book prose.
There are a number of ways to do this, but there is one process that has tended to be most effective for us and our professional editors. It’s counterintuitive, but the trick is to go slowly in order to finish more quickly. These are the exact steps we recommend going through for each chapter:
- Read through the outline for the chapter in order to refresh your memory about exactly the point the chapter is making.
- Read through the transcript quickly, to recall exactly how you made all your points.
- Go through one paragraph at a time, read it, and then rewrite the paragraph.
We recommend you go paragraph by paragraph, rewriting each one above (literally on top of) the transcription of the same passage.
Some people prefer to do it side-by-side, in two separate Word documents, which is fine too. The point is you need to physically type your new chapters, paragraph by paragraph, and not just edit the existing chunks of raw transcription.
Why not just edit the transcription directly?
Because the spoken word does not work well on the page, and trying to edit it actually makes it harder.
You’ll soon see that transcribed audio is not English. It’s very far from what you’ll wind up with ultimately. Attempting to edit it will drive you crazy. Transcription tends to jump schizophrenically from point to point, and it reads very differently than it sounds, so trying to bridge those gaps can be awkward.
It’s much better to read and absorb the spirit of what each paragraph of transcript is trying to say, and then start fresh with sentences that make sense on the page. Look for the points you are making, and rewrite the content based on those points.
Think of it this way: the purpose of the transcript was to lay out all the ideas in the right order, so you always know what to say next. The purpose was not to do the writing for you.
I know this seems really counter-intuitive, but we aren’t telling you the process that sounds best. We’re telling you the process that works best.
Again, don’t worry about being perfect as you’re going to come back and do a full edit later. This is just getting to the rough draft stage. Just get something down that you can come back to and perfect later.
Note: In some cases, this may include adding content that isn’t in the transcript. Some ideas require some expansion to connect properly, and you may need to add transitions or connections that aren’t part of the transcript. This is totally fine, of course. They’re your ideas, after all.
The special problem of the “introduction”
The meat of your book should be pretty easy to write, as it’s just you explaining things you know, telling stories, and talking about what you have talked about many times.
The hardest part of your book to write will be the introduction. We actually recommend that you do the introduction LAST, after you’ve done the rest. This will make it much easier to do the intro.
Most authors think the purpose of the introduction is to lay out and explain everything the author will talk about in the book. That is boring and wrong.
The actual purpose of a good introduction is to engage the reader and make them want to read the book. It should be framed more as an interesting sales pitch rather than an informational piece (though it does serve both purposes).
To achieve this goal, you need to generally do three things in the introduction:
- Hook The Reader (what is interesting about the book?)
- Show Them Pain and Pleasure (explain orientation material)
- Tell Them What They’ll Learn (make thesis statement).
This is a simple formula, and virtually all the best books you’ve ever read have an introduction that follows this exact process. Here’s how you can do it:
Hook The Reader (Attention Material)
From the first sentence, the author should hook the reader into the book. This means literally beginning the book with a hook line, even if the reader doesn’t understand how the line is relevant to the book.
For example, in James Altucher’s bestselling book Choose Yourself, he begins with these lines:
“I was going to die. The market had crashed. The Internet had crashed. Nobody would return my calls. I had no friends. Either I would have a heart attack or I would simply kill myself.”
What does this have to do with the topic of the book (finding success)? And why does James want to kill himself? I have no idea, but after that beginning, I’m interested and I’m going to keep reading to see what he does.
Though the first sentence must be good, the rest of the page and initial story must do the same thing. Starting with an attention grabber—a short story, example, statistic, or historical context that introduces the subject in a way that is interesting and exciting—will engage the reader and compel them to read more, and help lead into the rest of the material.
How To Find Hook Material
Remember: it may not be easy to see what the hook should be.
If nothing jumps out, look through the clarification material and ask yourself a few questions:
What is the most interesting story or claim in this book?
What sentence or fact makes people sit up and take notice?
What is the intended audience going to care about the most, or be most interested in or shocked by?
Then, you need to find a way to start the introduction with any of those points, preferably in a way that is interesting, reverses some common idea, or makes the reader take notice in some way.
In fact, many authors wait until their book is at the rough draft stage to finalize what they will use as hook material. If you do this, look for sentences, stories, claims, or other statements that jump out at you. The attention material will probably be difficult to identify if you think about it directly, but you can see it by noticing when you personally react to something, or when you notice someone else reacting.
Show Their Pain And The Pleasure
Once you have the reader’s attention with hook material, the introduction should show why the information in the book matters to them and why they should be paying attention. You do this by orienting them to the material you are about to give them. This means you explain to them why they should care about what you are about to tell them in the book, and how it relates back to the emotions they felt from the hook.
But this is not about just giving the reader simple information. It’s not enough to list facts and figures. No one pays attention to that. People pay attention to stories, especially stories that resonate with their personal pain and conflicts, and solutions that provide relief and pleasure.
The orientation material should not just be factual, but also personal, and should start by showing the reader the massive pain that accrues from not taking the advice or lessons in this book. Pain induces action.
For example, if you were an author writing a book about how to drive traffic to a website, you need to ask yourself:
“What’s an example of how my business suffered when it didn’t have traffic to its site?”
Once you’ve established the pain, then the orientation material should show them pleasure that comes from taking the action. Show them why the results are so amazing and that the goal is worth the pain.
In the same example, you could ask yourself something like, “Tell me about something you can do now because you have so much traffic.”
Tell Them What They’ll Learn (Thesis Statement)
The introduction should end with a very clear and concise statement of what the reader is going to learn in the book. There are many authors who like to be subtle about this, or “bury the lede.”
DO NOT DO THIS.
Clarity is the key to non-fiction, and your job is to make sure your wisdom is clearly understood by the reader. Make sure that your thesis statement is so clear and simple that even a seventh grader could identify and understand it. You are telling the audience, here is how you are going to do this, I’m going to walk you through it, step by step by step, until you understand how to do it.
Another thing to watch out for is trying to accomplish too much with the introduction. Yes, you want it to achieve all of the goals outlined above. But you still want to keep it as concise and streamlined as possible. Nothing turns off a reader more than an introduction that never ends.
Once you get them excited about what they’re going to learn, which is the point of the introduction, your job is done. They want to dive in, so end the intro and start the book.
Step 5: Edit Your Book
It will feel amazing to get through the first rough draft. You should congratulate yourself, and should take some time to rest and relax.
When we say take some time to rest and relax, we’re actually very serious. Set the manuscript aside for at least a week, ideally two weeks. This will give you a fresh perspective when you come back and begin the final edits.
The Two Step Editing Method
We recommend a two step editing process:
- Read Aloud: Read the manuscript out loud–preferably to another person.
- Manually Edit: Make changes directly in the document.
We’ll explain both processes:
Read Aloud Editing
We start with an editing process that’s not commonly taught, but is a secret trick of numerous bestselling authors.
You read your manuscript out loud, and mark changes as you go.
This sounds crazy, but it works. Paul Graham explains very well why:
Written and spoken language are different. Does that make written language worse?
If you want people to read and understand what you write, yes. Written language is more complex, which makes it more work to read. It’s also more formal and distant, which gives the reader’s attention permission to drift.
If you simply manage to write in spoken language, you’ll be ahead of 95% of writers. And it’s so easy to do: just don’t let a sentence through unless it’s the way you’d say it to a friend.
The reason that reading your manuscript out loud works so well is because you will catch dozens of things you would have otherwise missed. Like Paul says, hearing yourself speak forces you to notice bad or strange phrasings–even if you don’t know why it’s off, you know it’s off.
Basically, if it’s something you would say out loud, then it usually reads clearly on the page. If it’s something you would never say to another person, it tends to not read as clearly.
How To Do Read Aloud Editing
We don’t recommend that you do this reading off your screen. We recommend you print out each chapter, and read it out loud, to another person, off of that page.
You (and the other person) will inevitably hear errors, phrasings you want to change, sentences that sound off that you want corrected, etc. Mark any clear mistakes you see, or places you want to possibly edit, with a pencil.
If you “feel” something is off, and you aren’t sure how to change it, that’s fine–just mark it the first time through. The first time reading it, you just want to hear the problems, so you can go back and fix them on the page later.
How to Do Manual Editing
Once you’ve read the manuscript out loud, marked the changes, and done one full revision pass, then stop thinking about it for a few days. Give yourself at least 2-3 days away from the manuscript to clear your mind.
We are serious about this; it makes a huge difference. If you obsess over the manuscript for days on end, without giving yourself time away, you won’t do as good a job at revisions.
How To Do Your Final Editing Pass
Now that you know it sounds good and reads well, you have one job:
Make sure the book says exactly what you want it to say.
As you read every sentence, ask yourself these basic questions:
What point am I trying to make in this sentence?
Is it clear?
Is it as simple as possible (without losing meaning)?
Is it as short as possible (without losing meaning)? (Note: You can break this down even further, with questions like Are there unnecessary words that could be eliminated without any effect? If so, there’s no reason for them to be there, so cut them. Are there phrases that serve no purpose other than to draw out the sentence, like, “in essence” and “basically”? If so, cut them.)
Did I leave out anything necessary to understanding my point?
Apply the same basic questions to the paragraphs. Then apply it to the chapters. We mean this literally—ask yourself these questions, each time.
Yes, this is tedious, but if you do this exercise, you’ll find that you can not only cut a lot of fluff out of your book, you can also make your book sharper and more refined, and you’ll be able to really hone in on what you are trying to say, and nail it.
Some other editing notes and things to keep in mind as you edit:
Openings matter: In the same way that the book’s introduction is vital, pay special attention to your chapter openings. Each chapter should have a clear goal that is stated directly for the reader (in the same way the overall book does in the introduction).
Transitions are key: Think of your writing like a mathematical proof. In math, there is no obscuring with pretty language. If you are attempting to make a mathematical statement, one theorem or axiom has to set up the next. In your manuscript, you want each chapter to connect to the following one, but you also want each section within a chapter to connect. Ultimately every paragraph, and even every sentence, should serve a purpose.
Rewriting Is OK: It’s OK if you need to rewrite certain passages again. That’s part of the editing process.
Always do one last read through of your manuscript, make your last minute changes, and then move on.
We see this all the time at Book In A Box. We finish the rough draft and give it to the author for their edits and feedback. And they spend six months with it, not really making substantive changes, but instead get lost in details, like fretting over very small word choices. We have to almost pry the book out of their hands so that we can finish it, even though they don’t really have anything left to change.
This can be driven by many different forces such as perfectionism, fear of publishing, fear of success, fear of failure, etc. There will always be more to work on, more to change, more to perfect. But that thinking will kill you.
What causes it doesn’t really matter. What matters at this point is that you stop editing and put the book out.
At least one person, and probably many more, want to learn what your book can teach them. You have an obligation to yourself and to your audience to stop editing and put the book out.
Get your book out, even if it’s not perfect. It can only help you, and your audience, if it’s published.