Writing a Book: How to Keep Track of the Details

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A couple of decades ago, a reporter asked a senior executive what it took to manage General Motors. I still remember his reply: “I don’t think you can actually manage General Motors,” he said. “I think the best you can do is keep track of it.”

I’m sure that Mary Barra would disagree with that. She’s doing quite a fine job of managing General Motors, much more than just keeping track of it. But if you’re writing a book, you’ve got a challenge that may seem as daunting as managing a large automobile company.

You must keep track of all the things that you want to say, and all the things that you’ve said, and all the ways that you’ve said them. As you’ll write, you’ll think of changes you want to make and how to do things differently. You must keep track of those, too. And there are some things that are unique to your book. Yep, you should keep track of them, too.

Chapter Planning Form

My chapter planning form lets me keep track of the stories, examples, research, and explicit points we’ve already made in the book or we’re going to make in the next chapter. That’s one file that grows until the book is done.

Writing Notes

I really believe the adage that “The palest ink is stronger than the strongest memory.” So, I try to capture insights and ideas as I think of them and put them in a file. I keep a file of writing notes for every book I’m working on. It’s where I capture my thoughts and ideas about what we’ve done, what we could do differently, and what we might want to do instead.

That way all the ideas and insights are in a single place. That way, when we get to the end of a draft and are ready to move on to the next draft, or when we get to the end of the book and are ready to hand it off to an editor, we’ve tied up as many of the loose ends as possible.

A Style Sheet

You’ll make a professional editor’s job easier if you give him or her a style sheet when you send them the manuscript of the book. Try to describe everything in your book that’s different from common usage.

One of my clients wrote about a man named Shirley. On the style sheet we noted that Shirley was a man, so the editor would know to use the masculine personal pronoun without having to figure it out from context.

I note the characteristic phrases my client uses. When one of my clients was speaking, he would use the phrase “let me put that another way” a lot. The style sheet informed the editor that we wanted to keep that phrase wherever it appeared because it was part of the author’s unique voice.

There are several different ways to render numbers. One of my clients had strong preferences, so we shared those with the editor by putting them on the style sheet for his book.

Almost every book includes people’s names. I keep track of every person’s official name and also their nickname. Don’t make your editor guess.

Bottom Line

You’ll write a much better book if you keep track of things along the way. Use a chapter planning form to keep track of the stories, examples, research, and points that you’ve made and plan to make. Keep a file of writing notes to capture your ideas of what to change, what to add, or what to delete. And track special spelling, phrases, and usages that are important to the book.

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