Learning through doing – lessons from writing my first book.

I believe that one of the things that you learn when you write a book is how to write a book; and how not to. Another thing that you learn is who you are as a writer.

Finding your voice

Sustained writing requires the writer to find their voice, to decide how they want to write. This is partly a matter of style but it is also a matter of how much, and what, of yourself you decide to disclose. Will it be an academic tomb or a highly personal account; researched and evidenced or anecdotal?

The voice you choose in many ways follows from your purpose and your intended audience. Being clear about the “why” – both the benefits to the reader and the things that drive you to write – enables you to answer the big “so what?” Why does the world need this book? This is a tough, daunting but crucial question to answer.

As you write you find yourself as a writer. You find what you have that enables you to write. You draw on your knowledge and experience but your traits and preferences, your skills and strengths, are also evident. You are also reminded of what you bring that might get in the way: your blind-spots, habits and attitudes that are evoked, particularly when writing gets tough.

Managing your energy

Those enabling and limiting aspects of yourself are particularly important when it comes to managing your energy and dealing with the times when the task feels Sisyphean. In my experience, managing your energy requires good self-awareness, honesty, discipline and self-generosity. It’s easy to write when the muse sits on your shoulder and the words just flow. What do you do when you just don’t feel like it, no words will come and the structure and sense of what you want to say is elusive?G

This is one of the big dilemmas in writing. If each word is a battle, then it shows on the page. What you write becomes a pale echo of your signature voice. So is it better not to force the process? Well, sometimes; and other times pushing through the discomfort and the lack of ease removes the block, generates energy and the words start to tumble onto the page. 

How can you resolve this dilemma? I’d like to offer a few contradictory principles that served me well:

  1. Decide positively what you feel able and energised to do. When flow happens, simply write. You can refine, edit or add quotes later. Have a range of tasks on the go so, if creating new content feels too difficult, you can do something else constructive.
  2. Experiment when you get caught by inertia, lassitude or procrastination. For example, take the pressure off yourself by deciding only to make a start or do a 30 minute trial run. Build up by ‘reading in’, recalling what you wrote last, maybe editing it a bit and see where that takes you.
  3. Try mechanical or simple tasks if your energy or appetite is low. If that fails, go for a walk, do something else. I found that I often then returned with increased vigour and focus.
  4. Notice your effective and ineffective habitual behaviours. For example, I know that I start a working session well if I finish my previous session having made a few notes about next steps or sketched some ideas for the next section of writing. Equally, if I am less focused, I might interrupt myself and switch tasks frequently and lose the benefits of absorption.

Managing your energy depends on learning about your own energy cycles and being aware in the moment. One thing that I learnt – and it’s partly about me and partly about the process of writing – is that my energy follows a bell curve. It takes a while to reach the peak and I need to allow myself to come down and complete. That means that the odd hour or two here and there doesn’t work for me: a day wholly focused on writing is the minimum and two or three days together is much better.

How do you know if you are making progress?

I also noticed how the stories that I told myself as I wrote also impacted my energy. Writing is hard. So any progress, even if it only involves discarding material or ideas, is laudable. The peak times, the times of flow, creativity and elegant creation are rare. It helps to regard them as fleeting and special, impossible to sustain and accept that a day may have no periods of flow and still be a good day. It’s important to value and celebrate each increment, each step, and each piece of the jig-saw. Tell yourself a positive story.

A further piece of the energy equation is how you gauge your progress. Targets are an obvious way, but I learnt that setting targets that energise, motivate and bring discipline is difficult:

  1. Be wary of a target word count. Writing a thousand words one day might be easy while, another day, writing a hundred is a triumph. But do log what you do – progress can only be assessed retrospectively. And your accumulating output can support a positive story.
  2. Don’t mistake time on task for progress. Aiming to do 6 hours a day could be a burden that is unrelated to output. Do allocate time, and put it in your diary, but aim for quality time, not just time spent.
  3. And do commit to a completion deadline.  Once I had a publisher and had committed to a deadline my productivity increased. But I found that best as a spur, not a constraint: I renegotiated my deadline by a few months rather than compromise on quality.

A final obsession

Finally, getting over the line, resisting the urge to add more or edit further, can be hard. It may be my preference rather than good practice, but once the end was in sight I became obsessive, and did little else until it was done. This harnessed the energy, and anticipated relief of finishing, and made it easier to let it go, even though there was more I could say.

If you do decide to write a book, I hope these reflections help. And please, do better than me and try not to bore your colleagues, friends, family – you are writing a book but they may still have a life.

‘The art of listening in coaching and mentoring’ will be published by Routledge at the end of June.

You can order it here:  https://www.routledge.com/The-Art-of-Listening-in-Coaching-and-Mentoring-1st-Edition/Burt/p/book/9781138609037

This article was previously posted on my linkedin page on 7 June 2019

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