Writing a Book: Wrestling Meaning onto the Page

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I purchased the book Peak: Secrets from The New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool because I wanted to learn more about deliberate practice and Ericsson’s research about improving performance. I didn’t expect to learn something about writing a book.

Writing a Book Is a Learning Process

Pool and Ericsson describe writing Peak as a learning process. They started with a conceptualization that they call a “mental model.”. As they went along, they learned more about the topic and how to explain it and they modified their original model.

“There was a steady interplay between the writing of the book and our conceptualization of the topic. As we looked for ways to make our messages clearer to the reader we would come up with new ways to think about deliberate practices ourselves.”

Learn by Writing

Many writers think that what they imagine is precisely how the book will come out. That rarely happens. Our conceptualization leaves gaps that only show up when we try to actually write about them. I call that “wrestling the angels of meaning onto the page.”

Get It Out So You Can Wrestle with It

Sometime early in the process you need to get everything you’re thinking about your book out of your head and into a file or onto a page. That’s the only way you know what you’ve got and what you don’t. It’s the way you find out what you are able to explain and what you need to learn how to explain. You can’t wrestle meaning onto the page until it’s out of your head.

Develop Your Own Feedback Loops

As you begin to write your book, you’ll sharpen your concept of what the book is about and in the process you will develop your own feedback loops. There will be sessions when you won’t make things better, but if you keep working, after a while, the book will start to emerge.

Try Out Your Material On Real People

Alas, we often fool ourselves and image our writing to be better than it really is. Try explaining your concepts to an intelligent 15-year-old. He or she is smart enough and educated enough to understand anything important you’ve got to say. Not only that, 15-year-olds are fearless and they already know that you don’t know anything.

Get some beta readers involved, too. Find people like the ones you think will buy the book and try your material out on them. Just be prepared for puzzled looks. Very often what is super clear to you is absolute muck to them.

Sometimes Your Book Will Blow Up

I’ve had clients who were about a third of the way into writing their book when suddenly they realized that their original concept and the way they thought to present it wasn’t going to work. Occasionally, it was possible to make some changes in the plan and keep moving. More often, it was better to start over from scratch.

Bottom Line

The book in your head is just your imagination. Wrestling the angels of meaning onto the pages of your book is hard and sometimes frustrating, but it’s the only way to write the best book you can.

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