OK, I’m back from my tangent. This thread is about how I go about writing a trade book. So far I’ve discussed how I decide what to write on, how I imagine communicating with a popular audience about it, how I know where to begin reading, how I go about acquiring bibliography once I start, and how I try to read everything of relevance and take notes on it all. Now I can get to the writing process itself.
For years I used to tell my graduate students what, in my opinion, was the best way to go about writing a book (when they were starting to work on their dissertations). To my knowledge, none of them ever took my advice. So I quit giving it. Not so much because I was disappointed but because I realized that everyone works differently. Then I met my now-wife Sarah and realized that some people work *completely* differently.
Sarah could never do what I do (I’ll explain what that is in a moment). Her mind doesn’t work like mine. I have a very linear mind that goes from Point A to Point B to Point C to the Conclusion. Her mind circles around a topic, plays out its variations, approaches it from different angles, considers its unexpected nuances and brings them to light. For her, writing is a thinking process. She actually thinks through a problem when she’s at the keyboard writing about it. That means writing is creative and generative of knowledge. For me, writing is not that at all. For me, writing is putting down what I already have thought through from beginning to end, and in detail. That’s not good or bad. It’s simply different.
For me, the key to writing is knowing advance exactly what I want to say, in the sequence that I want to say it. And that means making outlines. I am a very big fan of outlines. They dictate my writing process.
Early on in my reading of all the material I need to read, ideas start forming about how I want to approach a subject. And so I’ll sketch an outline about how I imagine the book being structured – just a very basic outline, that might have, say, six major points that would be the six major chapters, with a very brief explanation of what would happen in those chapters, possibly in a couple of bullet points.
Then I read some more. And a different structure strikes me – and I make another outline. And I read some more and possibly make yet another outline. Or I become convinced that the first outline makes a lot of sense. So I read some more and some more and some more.
When I have basically read everything that I need to read in order to get serious not about acquiring knowledge but about organizing it, when I really don’t need to read much more to know what I want to argue in the book and how I want to argue it, then I get to a serious outlining stage. I begin by expanding the basic outline that I have decided to follow. In doing these outlines, I produce an actual true-to-god outline, with Roman numerals, Capital letters, Arabic numerals, lower case letters:
My rule is what I was taught: if you have one sub-point under a point, you have to have at least two. Otherwise it’s not a sub-point but a point.
My major points are the major sections of each chapter, my sub-points are the topics I need to discuss in order to get there. I make the outlines fairly detailed, usually off the top of my head, based on everything that I’ve read and thought about in the months or years in preparation for the writing of the book.
Once I have a fairly long outline (say a couple of pages), I then break it into separate files, a different document for each chapter and its points and sub-points, since things are going to get longer.
And then I reread every single note that I’ve taken on every single book and article I’ve read. And as I read my notes, I plug in my thoughts and ideas and the content of the notes, as necessary, and any quotations I’ve made from my reading, into the outlines of each chapter. So they are expanding. And the entire time I’m asking whether the flow of the argument is making sense, whether I need to include a different section here or there for the logic to work, whether I have to add material, or take away material, whether I need to move that point to this place and this point to that place. The chapter takes its shape before my eyes as I put meat on the bones of the outline.
By the time I’m done with doing all that, I know perfectly well what the “holes” in the argument are, and I spend time then thinking about how to fill them. Often that means doing more reading on certain topics. And so I repeat the process: I do all the additional reading I need to do, looking at the relevant chapter outline, reviewing my notes from my reading, and adding the additional points into the outline.
When I’m done, I have very full outlines of every chapter – sometimes three to four or more pages single spaced. These outlines hold together logically, moving from one point to the next, all working together to back up the thesis of the chapter, and each chapter’s thesis working to back up the thesis of the entire book.
Once I’ve gotten that far, the book pretty much writes itself. Or so I’d like to think. I’ll discuss the actual writing process in my next post.