Shaping A Writing Project As You Go Along

I recently finished working with someone on his book, which is now with his publisher. I thought it might help to share a process that gave us both clarity about the book’s structure and purpose.

For what it’s worth, we did this after he’d written the bulk of the book but I think it could be helpful even early in the process.


Making Lists

It’s worth emphasising the value to be had from making lists. The first was written rapidly, and contained basically anything and everything the book did or should contain. (I go into the how of my list-making below.)

After finishing the first list, I stared at it for a while. I noticed patterns – particular types of entries – and created separate lists for each one.

Here’s a list of those lists, with further detail about each one below:

- Individual people
- Specific places
- Periods of time
- Tech disciplines and procedures
- Physical objects
- Experiences of the author
- Mysteries to resolve


Anxious woman

Individual people. In that particular book, these included:
- prehistoric individuals with no known name,
- the author’s brother
- several well known authors
- a Hollywood actor
Other books I’ve helped people with included (variously) family members, a 1970s TV director, Japanese soldiers in WW2 Burma, and the patients of a psychotherapist.
Note: A large “cast of characters” gives a sense of an entire world. A smaller one can feel more intimate/claustrophobic.

Specific places. These included:
- generalised areas worldwide (“Northern Europe”)
- specific sites (an office basement in London)
As above, a book with wide coverage implicitly claims to have something universal to offer – but if it doesn’t also include glimpses of particular sites readers may experience such a book as abstract and vague.

Periods of time. This particular book covered a vast range, including:
- epochs
- centuries
- decades
- seasons
- “the future”
Other books I’ve worked on had much shorter timelines – a person’s childhood, say, or a decade of professional practice.
Whatever the overall period, zooming in and out can create interesting variety – and by zooming in and out I mean speeding through a century in a sentence, then lingering over a cup of tea in slow-motion over several pages (or whatever).

Neural pathways

Technological and scientific disciplines and procedures. These happened to include:
- pathology
- architecture
- the dating of trees
In other books, the “technologies” included different approaches to psychotherapy and photography.
Every book is built upon some external intellectual framework, and each part of that framework it invokes creates a different effect on the book as a whole.

Physical objects. Like specific locations, physical objects help to stop a book from becoming too abstract. In the book I just finished working on there were:
- bones with the marks of injury
- a pair of “winklepicker” shoes
- items on a mantelpiece
- sand at the bottom of a boat
A book I greatly admire starts with the author describing some photographic prints. He goes into great detail about the people pictured, but doesn’t actually reproduce the photos anywhere in the book. It’s a terrific – and subtle – effect. By describing the physical artefacts (the printed photos), he makes it all somehow more real.

Experiences of the author and of people like him (ie, working in the same field):
- professional routines
- professional struggles/successes
- personal memories
- emotional highs and lows
These things are easy for an author to skip past, because they can seem too obvious to mention. Who cares?
To me, they’re a compelling source of stories – and even the most drily analytical book needs stories here and there.


Mysteries to resolve, or not.
- questions that a reader might expect a book like this to address.
- questions the book did already address
- questions it didn’t (yet?)
But “questions” isn’t quite the word. It suggests abstract intellectual content: I use the word “mysteries” because, on behalf of that hypothetical general reader, I wanted to be moved by stories as well as curious about propositions.
I wanted the author to let me share what it feels like to operate in his world – to experience, with him, the highs and lows.
To be clear, this doesn’t necessarily mean spilling his guts and revealing things that are deeply private. It means allowing glimpses of the struggle to achieve the clarity that the book would, eventually, provide.


How I made those lists

Some people reading this may possibly wonder how I wrote the lists. I started with large (A5) index cards, and freely scribbled all over them.
Then I typed up the content into Apple’s “Notes” app, which syncs automatically across my phone, tablet and desktop computer.
This enabled me to sort the entries – alphabetically (for individual people), by scale and distance (places, times) and importance (mysteries).


Writing “teasers” for a blurb

Having written these lists – compiled this wodge of data – we were able to write some paragraphs of the kind that might conceivably be used as blurb on the back of the paperback.

These teasing paragraphs described what the reader could look forward to: where we will go, who with, what we’ll see, what we’ll learn, what kind of old and new wisdom we’ll draw on, and the burning questions we will answer.

I recommend that authors think about the book cover early, as a target to aim at as you write – like a dart board to a dart player.

And not just the words: consider what kind of image, colour, and typography would work best. And if you could get anybody in the world to endorse your book, what specifically would you like that particular person to say about it?

“Nobody ever wrote so honestly about leading a nation: from waking up anxious in the small hours of the morning to falling asleep at important – but boring – international conferences.” – Barack Obama

“The first book to explain in lay terms how to mine bitcoin without access to vast computer power.” – Eddie George

“The funniest book I ever read.” – Woody Allen

Or whatever.

The nature of the quote, and the person saying it, varies from one book to the next. I wouldn’t be particularly inclined to buy a supposedly comic book if it had an endorsement from Eddie George, a former governor of the Bank of England – not unless it was a breakthrough, cross-genre title that aimed to make bitcoin funny.

(In that case, I’d also want a quote from a well-known comedian who had learned a lot from the book about finance.)

I’ve gone into some detail about writing teasers. Too much? Maybe, but the value of all those lists is that they create clarity for an author. The more clarity you have, the more easily you can describe what you’re writing – and then write it.


Mapping the content

Books are dynamic, and a reader’s experience changes over the time spent reading. But they’re also physical objects and curating that dynamic experience can be done by creating a map of what goes where.

Once again, I use index cards.

Some of the index cards I used for my book The Family Project.

I start by writing on each card – just a few words, in large letters – then lay them out all over the floor in a large room. I might use different colour pens for (say) individuals, places, technologies, mysteries etc.

I stand back and look at it all, to take in the rhythm of the book. This tells me what needs to appear sooner, what should be delayed.

Typically, at this point, I find myself grouping the index cards into “sections” of the book as a whole, or even into specific chapters. Each section and chapter has its own internal rhythm, so I reshuffle the cards within each one until I’m more or less satisfied.


Planting seeds, weaving threads

If you’ve planned something remarkable for the end of the book – how can you lead up to it, rather than just plonking it there, out of the blue? It needs to earn its place. What seeds do you need to sow, earlier in the book, to make readers care about it?

To put that another way: at the end of a movie, if a character reaches into a desk drawer to pull out a gun we’d feel annoyed – as if the director had “cheated” – unless we know in advance that the gun is there. Which means that at some point earlier in the film we need to glimpse the gun. And what that means is that movie-goers who glimpse guns in drawers, even if they don’t think about it consciously, know the gun is going to be important later. As an element in the film, it’s unresolved, and that keeps viewers on the edge of their seats.

Believe it or not, the same applies to relatively dry non-fiction books. Instead of waving guns around, you mention something and leave it unresolved to create curiosity. This keeps readers turning the pages to find resolution (assuming they are interested in the subject in the first place).

Topics and Mysteries as dots and hooks.jpg
Topics and mysteries as hooks and dots.

Even the most technical ideas can be turned into a “cliffhanger” – of the kind soap-operas build around, say, marital infidelities. Where TV dramas get viewers excited about whether an adulterer will be discovered in bed by his / her spouse, technical writers might build up suspense about whether – and how – a certain engineering challenge can be accomplished.

In storytelling terms, the process is identical. The main difference is tone: technical writers usually avoid writing cliffhangers that are too desperately breathless. You could be as low-key as this:

“The cantilever problem will be addressed in a later chapter…”

Slightly more thrilling:

“Later in the book, you’ll see how Professor X was finally able to resolve the question…”

More thrilling still:

“The bridge seemed certain to collapse – until Professor X, driving home one evening that winter, came up with a remarkable plan…”

These kinds of sentences, which I described above as “seeds” to be sown, can also be regarded as threads in the overall fabric of the book. They show up when you refer to something that’s coming later, and they reappear when you refer back.

By slipping them in here, and pulling them out again there, you weave fabric that is sturdy and beautifully patterned.

Mind you, these threads can’t be planned entirely in advance. You’ll see opportunities to weave them in as you write.



Ceiling behind my computer, showing thumbnails of my own next book.

That’s all for now! Thank you for reading.


If you want to know any more, please ask. I may be able to add something useful to others.