Writing a Book: The Forest and the Trees

Aug 29, 2017 | Everything Else

According to common wisdom, you’ll get in trouble if you “can’t see the forest for the trees.” That might be good advice for most of life, but when you write a book you must pay attention to the forest and the trees and also the bark, the leaves, and the branches.

The Forest

When you’re writing a book, the forest is the big stuff. That’s what you pay the most attention to in the planning stage and in the first couple of drafts. In the first draft, your challenge is usually to get your main points in the right order. When you create the second draft, you’re usually leaving that order in place and paying attention to key themes and carrying them through the entire book. It’s usually the third draft when you start paying some attention to the trees.

The Trees

In the third draft, you’re starting to revise, to sharpen the expression of your main points and key themes. This is where you’re paying close attention to the stories and examples and choosing the best ones to make your point. If you’re going to use graphics or charts, this is the place where you normally start putting them into the manuscript.

By the end of your third draft, your book should be in essentially the form it will end up. You’ll have the major points and scenes in the book in an order that makes for effective presentation. You’ll have identified your key themes, what I call the red threads, in your manuscript, and started to carry them through the entire book. With most of my clients, this third draft is the draft that goes out to beta readers.

What the beta readers tell you determines what happens next. Most of the time, you can keep concentrating on the trees. You do that when the feedback from your beta readers is essentially “Yes, this is pretty good, but you could fix this part and that part and the other part.” You won’t accept all the suggestions that your beta readers make, but they’re all valuable because they get you thinking about your manuscript and how to make it better.

Sometimes, though, the beta readers blow up your concept. When I sent a draft of my e-book, Become A Better Boss One Tip at A Time, out to the first group of beta readers, they gave me the awful kind of feedback that’s emotionally hard to take, but absolutely necessary if you want to write a great book. They told me there were some key things missing. They suggested some things about the order of presentation. In other words, that group of beta readers was telling me to look at my forest again and see if I wanted to do it the same way.

It took two more major revisions and two more groups of beta readers for me to get that book right. It was a gut-wrenching experience, but the quality of the book is remarkably better because of the feedback from the beta readers.

The Bark and Branches and Leaves

When you’ve incorporated the feedback from your beta readers, you’ve got a pretty good book, but there’s still one more thing to do. Now you’re not looking at the forest, you’ve got all the big parts in the right places and you’ve got the key themes accented throughout the book. You’re not looking at the trees either. You’re sure of your stories and examples and graphics and charts. They all work to make the book better.

Now it’s time to take one more pass through and see what you want to change. The bark and branches and leaves are spelling, grammar, and usage. At this point, you’re usually not making choices about the right way or the wrong way to do something. Usually your choices are about picking what you prefer from choices that are essentially correct. Once you’ve got that done, it’s time to hand your book off for the start of the production phase. It’s time to send your book out for a professional edit.

Bottom Line

Writing a book is an iterative process. You create a draft and then revise it until you have the book that will help you accomplish your goals.