Sometimes you should look at the forest, not the trees or the birds

May 16, 2016 | Writing A Book

Some of the best advice for people who want to write a book is this wisdom about how to handle a big project.

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

That’s the money quote from Anne Lamott’s great book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. It’s great writing advice, but not for every writing situation. Sometimes you have to stand back and check out all the birds singing in the forest.

Look at the whole book

After you’ve got that first draft done it’s time to look at what you’ve got. That means the whole book. So start at the beginning read all the way through. As you read, make notes on the things that will make your book better.

Mind the gaps

What’s missing? You may have left out an important point. Perhaps you’ve shared a conclusion without letting the reader know how you reached it.

Spot the excesses

Some parts of your book will probably need to be cut. One client of mine found that he had used almost the same exact words to make a point in two different parts of the book. One of them had to go.

Big changes can make a big difference

Don’t worry so much about the details of wording at this point. There will be a time for that. Instead look for big changes you can make that will make the book better. Ask yourself: Are there any chapters or sections that I just don’t need? Could we make the book better if I moved the pieces around?

Think critically about how you make your points. Do you have a better story? Do you need a more compelling or more current piece of research? Would a chart or graphic make it better?

Identify the red threads

“Red threads” are what I call the themes that run through a book. Sometimes you know them from the beginning, but sometimes they emerge from your writing.

One of my clients realized that he talked about “trade-offs” often in his first draft. Once he realized that he was able to make them a key theme of his book. They became a red thread that ran through every chapter.