Advice to a Friend about Writing a Book

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Ed Batista describes himself as “an executive coach, a change management consultant, and a Leadership Coach at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.” I describe him as one of the best and most thoughtful bloggers around.

I’ve enjoyed his posts, which have titles like “Hammering Screws (Bad Coaching)” and “Boundaries, Not Balance.” I’ve thought he should write a book, so I was thrilled when he shared the news that he was doing just that in his post, “Self-Coaching and Harvard Business Review Press.

After jumping up and down and gleefully clapping my hands and after Tweeting the news, I sat down to craft a bit of knowledgeable and friendly advice for Ed. This is his first book and so it will be a great learning adventure. I offered three bits of advice suitable to the occasion.

The advice is not new. It’s not uniquely mine. But it includes things that have worked for me and for my clients. Here it is, with the personal parts stripped out.

Write a full draft, from start to finish, no stopping for in-depth research and no referencing any outlines or book plans. What will result is a clear idea of what research is truly necessary and the beginnings of a book with great flow and readability.

I call that the “zero draft,” the one before the first draft. I got the name and concept from Peter Drucker who wrote all his books that way. Write the zero draft. Throw it away. Start over. It works for me.

Find some intelligent fifteen-year-olds to test your explanations on. They’re educated enough to understand just about anything you need to explain and fearless about telling you when they don’t.

Write your book to a single person. No demographic descriptions are allowed. This should be a real person with a name, a life story, and bad habits. Writing to a single, real person will result in more powerful, useful, and conversational writing

There’s no one way to write a great book. Try things out until you find what works for you.

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Ed Batista   |   16 Jan 2013   |   Reply

Wally, I’ve truly appreciated not only your support for my work but also you taking the initiative to offer your advice–thank you. It’s been very helpful to reflect on your suggestions, so I thought I’d offer my perspective and add a tip of my own.

Zero Draft: This is a fantastic idea, specifically for me as someone who tends to write in smaller chunks (both literally and conceptually). A zero draft will compel me to think through the book’s entire gestalt, the sum total of its underlying idea and purpose. That said, one of the reasons I write in smaller chunks is because I can often get distracted by a novel perspective, or some additional research, or an entirely new project. Chunking things helps me get work done. So my approach to the zero draft is going to be in 3 iterations, each building on the other. I’m going to distill the book down to a single page, then re-write it in 10 pages, and then finally re-write it in 100 pages. The same basic principle–no research or outlines, just raw text–but employed in a way that’s easier to get my arms around.

15-Year-Olds: Very timely, particularly as there’s research emerging about the value of helping kids self-coach at school. My biggest challenge will be rounding up a group of teenagers–my peers’ kids are too young, and my MBA students are too old!

A Single Reader: I’ve been doing this without fully realizing it over the past few years. Most of my writing on coaching is informed by experiences with clients in my practice and students in my classes, and I’m typically motivated to write to document a client’s or student’s success and/or to help them tackle a challenge more effectively. These pieces only have value if they’re relevant to the individuals who inspired them, and those people are always in the back of my mind as I’m writing. Your advice helps me be even more mindful and explicit about this practice.

One additional tip:

Don’t Break the Chain: I’ve written a number of times about <a href=""Don't Break the Chain, a very simple site that allows users to track whether they completed a given task on a given day. I’ve used it for years to track things like exercise, meditation and a good night’s sleep. I’ve also used it to track whether I write on a given day. My natural rhythm is to write intensely for a few weeks or months and then take some time off, and while I’ll continue to give myself breaks from time to time, I know that this sporadic method will make it harder to complete the book. So I’m changing things up by setting a goal of writing a little bit–even just a few sentences–every day. Graham Greene, who published 28 novels in his lifetime (and wrote many other works as well) reputedly wrote 300 words each and every day, and was supposedly so precise about this practice that he would stop in the middle of a sentence once he hit that figure and fulfilled his commitment to himself. That level of exactitude wouldn’t quite work for me, but trying this new approach has caused me to look at writing less as something that I make time for when inspiration happens to strike, and more as something that I dedicate time to in order to create more space for inspiration.

Thanks again, Wally.

Wally   |   17 Jan 2013   |   Reply

Wow. Thanks for the value-adding comments and the additional resource. They give readers an example of why I make it a point to read your posts and why your book will be on my pre-order list.