Trusting Your Instinct | WTCTW 2

Writing To Change The World, Part 2

I’ve never been a house burglar, but I imagine that it’s easier to ransack desk drawers and jewellery boxes if, instead of being let in through the front door, you climbed through a window at the back.

Totally unrelated picture, by me. You’re welcome.

Hi, this is the second in a shortish, time-limited series about How To Write. It’s loosely based on my own experiences, particularly on writing my most successful book, How To Change The World1, ten years ago – but with lots of other things thrown in.

One thing I’ve noticed as I prepared to write this series is that I find it difficult to approach the book through its “front door” in a creative frame of mind. It feels so finished: nicely published, well edited, and – well, it seems almost unassailable2.

So I broke in at the back.

Obviously, people who had nothing to do with writing or publishing How To Change The World will have less difficulty finding fault with it, or just engaging creatively with it – scribbling comments and ideas in the four lined pages provided. But I mention my difficulty because I daresay it’s common to all writers:

  1. How to “see” what I have written with fresh eyes?
  2. How to make it better?
  3. When do I stop tinkering?
  4. When is “good enough” good enough?

These are questions without correct answers. Finding any answer at all requires a willingness to experiment, get things wrong, and keep monitoring our instincts – our thoughts and feelings.

Back to top


Learning to understand and trust our instincts is not taught in schools – because it can’t be assessed, measured and scored by anyone but you. There can be no exam. There are no university courses. Schools can’t move up league tables by getting better at teaching pupils to trust their (our!) instincts.

And if it’s not taught, the assumption seems to be that it’s not important. It might not even be A Thing.

For many people, it’s not. Many people seem to grow up, and venture into the world, trained by the education system to believe that we are either right or wrong, and should be right more often than we actually are, so we can be graded more favourably in comparison with others.

With such a mindset, the only people who would ever dare to write a book are people who believe they are better informed, wiser, and more eloquent than anybody else. And I daresay that some books are written in that spirit. But most of the authors I have met don’t see things that way.

The authors I like being with, and whose books I most enjoy, seem to take pleasure in writing to find out what they think. And refining what they produce in a dogged but essentially cheerful manner until they recognise that the written words before them capture, reasonably accurately and elegantly, what they happen to think and feel right now.

In other words, they’re connoisseurs of their own instincts.3

Which brings me back to How To Change The World, an accurate and reasonably elegant account of how I thought and felt ten years ago.

I’d be a strange kind of human if I hadn’t changed in a decade. The world has certainly changed.

So, if I were writing it today, how would I change the book?

Back to top

Back Pages

Climbing into the book through the back window, I find, first, an ad for The School of Life, and the other five books published alongside mine.

At the time I was writing, ten years ago, I knew nothing about who the other writers were, or what they were writing; though I did know that one would be written by Alain de Botton, who founded The School of Life. I came to know well the others, Roman Krznaric, Tom Chatfield, John Armstrong and Philippa Perry, after publication, because we went on a tour of cities, and a couple of other countries, giving 15 minute talks about each of our books.

We heard each other many times, and I remember getting some brilliant feedback.

I’ve been in touch with them all this week, asking if they might be willing to do something with me to commemorate the passing of 10 years. More on that soon, I hope.

Next, working backwards through the book, I come to those four lined pages for readers to make notes, then a couple of pages of picture and text acknowledgements. This is more promising than I expected, because it gives a sense of the book’s content untethered to its argument, making it easier for me to imagine replacing things.

Scanning the list of pictures, I remember that they included
  • the Berlin Wall
  • a dog walker
  • a man collecting rubbish
  • the anonymous man who stood in front of a tank, holding shopping bags, in Beijing in 1989.

As this suggests, I was attempting to show that changing the world includes both the big geopolitical forces, ordinary everyday actions, and instances of remarkable individual bravery. Clearly, I could replace those with any number of things – so long as I made them specific, instead of general.

A book that generalised about big geopolitical forces, ordinary everyday actions and instances of remarkable bravery would be a very dull book.

Back to top

Content v. Format

What I’m driving at here is my old favourite device of playing with content v. format. You can take any particular content and deliver it through a variety of formats. And you can take any type of format and fill it with all kinds of varied content.

A motivational book encouraging readers to do something to make the world better can be filled with the examples I’ve just given or other examples. (Take your pick, there’s a whole world and lots of history to choose from.)

And / Or the examples I’ve just given could be used to write a book intended to demoralise readers, and leave them feeling powerless: “You can pull down the Berlin Wall but another will be built in Israel, why bother picking up litter when you know there will be more tomorrow, etc etc.”

Not a book I’d choose to write, but it’s certainly possible.

Moving on from the pictures, I note that the text-related acknowledgements show a slight bias towards the Left, the Green, the New Age. That’s fine, by the way. Tells you something about the person I was 10 years ago.

But the book should be useful to anybody wanting to make the world a better place: I really believe and want that. Could the particular people I cite reduce the chance of that?

I already know the answer: yes.

In the last ten years, (at least) one of the people I refer to in the book has experienced a significant loss of esteem. I’ve seen a generally positive review of the book which draws attention to this fact, as if the book could have been better if only I’d been more careful choosing case studies and experts.

Well, that’s OK. Or even: good point. But if I re-wrote the book, would I remove the person in question?

More on that soon.

Back to top

Up next

I’ll share the full story of one of the people who inspired me when I was writing.


1 How To Change The World is available here on Amazon. It was published by Macmillan/The School of Life in 2012. ↩︎

2 It should probably go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: “unassailable” is a quality books aspire to. The packaging lends credibility to authors, regardless how many qualifications they have, and experience. ↩︎

3 Please note that becoming better acquainted with instincts does not mean accepting everything that you hear from the nagging critical voice inside you. That voice could have stopped some great writers. ↩︎