Shaping A Writing Project As You Go Along

I recently finished working with someone on his book, which is now with his publisher published (hurrah!).

I thought it might help to share more widely a process that gave us both clarity about his 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).

What happens next?
Keep reading. . . >>