Writing a Book: Systems, Through-lines, and Red Threads

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Writing a book is hard work, and it’s different from any other writing you’ve done. You may write the parts well and still mess up the book if you don’t pay attention to some very specific things that make writing a book different.

The Book is a System

The word “system” is bandied about a lot these days. So, let’s make sure we know what we’re talking about when we talk about a book being a system. The definition I like is the one that Fritjof Capra uses in his book, The Web of Life.

“An integrated whole whose essential properties arise from the relationships between its parts.”

Let’s break that down. Your book should be “an integrated whole.” Everything you put in the book should add value to the whole. There should be nothing in the book that doesn’t meet this test.

The relationships between the parts matter a lot. Where you place things and how you relate them to each other are critical in a book.

Because a book is an integrated whole, if you change one part of the book, you will probably need to change other parts of the book. Be diligent about finding what else needs to be changed because of what you just did.

A Book Has a Through-line

No matter what the book is about, the presentation of a book is linear. That’s why your book has a through-line, a term filmmakers use, that lays out the elements in a sensible and thoughtful order. Most business books have a single through-line that indicate how most people will read the book, but that’s not always true.

Bill Taylor’s excellent book, Simply Brilliant, has more than one through-line. Taylor wrote the book in sections, and says at the beginning of the book that there’s no necessary order in which you need to read them.

The through-line is also one of those things that separates writing in a book from writing on the web. On the web, you can use links to connect parts in whatever order the reader chooses to take them. In a book, it’s page after page in a straight line.

A Good Book Should Have “Red Threads”

I love tapestries and I enjoy looking at the back of them. That’s where you see that certain threads are visible throughout the design. The red ones really catch your eye. That’s why I call the key ideas in a book, “red threads.”

Sometimes you, the author, know what your red threads are going to be when you start writing. More often, you’ll discover them as you work on the manuscript. Then, you write the first draft and review it. As you review, you notice several ideas that occur again and again. To make them red threads, you make sure that they appear consistently and throughout the book.

Bottom Line

As you work through the writing and rewriting of your book, remember these three things. Your book is a system, so any change you make will probably affect other parts of the book. Your book should have a clear through-line so that the reader follows your train of thought all the way through. Your red threads are your important ideas that will appear in several places in the book. Make conscious choices about where and how you highlight them.

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