Your Brain versus Your Book

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Cherry Pie

What did you think of when you read that phrase? My first thought was of the little cherry pies I get at Wal-Mart. I love cherry pie. That was my next thought. But that triggered the thought that those little pies are different from the ones my mother used to bake. Ah, more memories! My memories included eating cherry pie at the kitchen table in the parsonage we lived in in upstate New York. That got me thinking about the bright yellow color of the kitchen and reminded me that my mother loved it, in part, because all the church women told her that it was an inappropriate color for a pastor’s kitchen.

I don’t know what you thought of, but I sure know that it was different from what I thought of. What I do know is that you thought of lots of things and you followed chains of connections from one idea to the next. That’s your magical, mystical brain at work.

Human brains are marvelous. They store millions of ideas and connect them to other ideas. Your brain has something like one hundred billion neurons, each of which can handle upwards of five thousand connections with other neurons. They summon up memories from decades ago and ideas about what the future will bring.

That’s great. But the way your brain works is completely different from the way a book works.

The Brain and The Book

Your brain is random and spontaneous. The thoughts you put on the page need to be structured and linear. That’s a problem.

All those ideas you have for the book are great. In fact, there are probably things in your brain that will help the book that you haven’t thought of yet. But, when you put those ideas and stories into a book, you must put them in linear form.

You can try to do it with one of those outlines that your elementary school teachers taught you. You’ll have lots of Roman and Arabic numerals and small and capital letters, but you may not have something you can use.

There are some people who can use an outline, but most of the people I’ve worked with can’t. What happens is that they put together an outline and start to write the book. Then, usually about a quarter to a third of the way through, they realize that this next idea could appear in six different places. Or, they get three-quarters of the way through the book and start putting in a point, only to realize that they haven’t laid the groundwork effectively.

An outline is an unnatural act, but if it works for you, by all means use it. If it doesn’t work for you, here are four things you can do to use the amazing output of your brain and turn it into a high-quality book.

Embrace the Randomness

Your brain is great at making connections and bringing up memories and sparking ideas, so let it do that. If you keep your decision-making engine in the off position for long enough, your brain will give you all kinds of options for organizing your book. I call it “circling the topic.”

Don’t make any decisions on the way you’re going to put the book together for a while. Instead, capture all the thoughts and ideas that you get. This will be more effective if you use visual organizing, like a mind map or sketch notes. They’re much better at capturing connections.

If you’re used to using outlines, you may find yourself outlining without setting out to do so. If you’re like most of the people I work with, you’ll get several points that you want to make and some idea of the order you want to put them in. That’s fine, capture it, but do one more thing. Try to put in the transitions between the different points. You’ll get some which will work superbly, but you’ll realize that other ideas won’t work in the order you’ve thought of them.

How long should you do this? The answer is like one of those recipes that tells you to “cook until done.” I say keep doing it until the ideas and the order start to gel.

Organize in Bigger Chunks

When most of us try to put things in order, we do it in the form of those old-school outlines. Those usually are too fine-grained for getting the initial structure of a book. So, don’t cut so fine.

Organize around the big ideas. What are the three big ideas or the three main points you want to make in your book? Put them on index cards or slides in a PowerPoint presentation. Start adding detail. What’s the specific point and what stories and anecdotes will you use to illustrate it? What kind of research do you have or can you get?

Just like with embracing the randomness, do this until things start to gel for you. You may wind up with five or six or seven collections of main points and different orders. That’s okay. When you’re ready to write, you can pick one or combine them.

Organize Around Stories Instead of Points

This is a technique I learned from the humorous Jeanne Robertson. When Jeanne starts to organize a talk or some writing, she starts with the stories that seem best for the audience. Start by just thinking of the stories that you want to tell. Then start adding points to each of the stories. Add notes on research that you have or need.

The Dwight Eisenhower Method

Between the time he was helping the Allied powers win World War II and the time he was President of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower was the president of Columbia University for a bit. I’ve heard a story about his time there that’s appropriate for organizing naturally-occurring thoughts into something productive.

The story goes that there had been construction at the university and there was some argument about where new sidewalks should be placed so that the students would walk on them when going from one building to another. Because other people couldn’t resolve the issue, they brought it to Eisenhower. His response was simple and helpful.

“Wait a while,” he said. “When the students walk between buildings, they’ll wear paths for the most effective routes. When we’re sure we know what paths they’re using the most, pave them.”

A zero draft is the way to do that with your book. Just start writing. Don’t worry about what you haven’t got, make a note and keep on going. Write the whole book. When you’re done, there will be lots of things you’ll want to change, but the basic order of the book will be right there in your draft.

Bottom Line

Your brain is, to quote Bill Calvin, “nature’s connection-making engine.” To turn the random and interconnected ideas in your brain into a serviceable book, try embracing the randomness, organizing in big chunks, organizing around stories, and just writing the book straight through.

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