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Innovation Insights
by Stephen Shapiro

book iterations

Is Your Writing Style Color-by-Numbers or Puzzle-Assembly?

There are two different ways to write a book. Be sure to choose the best one for your style…

Writing a book can be intimidating. For some, it may seem like an insurmountable endeavor. But I assure you it is not.

Over the years I’ve met hundreds of authors. And one thing I’ve discovered is that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach used by writers. Choosing the right strategy for your writing can be the difference between only having an idea for a book and actually publishing a book.

Although I know there many different approaches authors use, there are two I’ve seen used frequently.

  1. The Paint-by-Numbers Approach
  2. The Puzzle-Assembly Approach

The Paint-by-Numbers Approach

From my experience, this is most common approach to writing. You start by creating an outline. There is no rule-of-thumb for the structure. My first book had nine chapters broken into three parts, my third book had 12 chapters broken into five parts, and my previous book had 40 chapters lumped into five sections.

Then, for each chapter, identify the points (aka headers) you want to address. Three to ten headings per chapter is a reasonable number, but some people prefer more (or less) granularity.

Finally, for each header, identify the three or four supporting messages that you want to make about that topic.

The outline for my first book had nine chapters each with an average of seven headers per chapter and 4 supporting points per header for an 80,000 word book. Doing some math, you will see that I had approximately 250 parts (9 x 7 x 4) of the outline to “color in” which was on average 320 words per part. This is not a lot of words to write. For example, this section is over 280 words and the article is over 800 words.

Using this strategy, once you have the outline, it is simply a matter of “coloring inside the lines.”

This approach appeals to most people because it is linear, predictable, and relatively efficient. You know where you are going from the beginning. For many authors they do one pass through and they are done.

The downside is, you need to know the structure of what you want to say before you get started. And for some people, like yours truly, this is difficult. Although I used this first strategy for my first book, I used the second strategy for my last five books.

The Puzzle-Assembly Approach

Given some authors don’t know exactly what they want to write until they actually write it, there is a second approach. Think of this as the process for assembling a puzzle. You have a big box of pieces and you dump everything on a table. You then start fitting everything together.

This is my preferred writing style.

In the beginning, I don’t focus on structure. Instead I identify the puzzle pieces without worrying about how they fit together.

I use Scrivener (a Mac-only book writing tool) to capture these pieces into “cards.” Think of them as index cards that can be moved around. Any idea I have that may fit in the book, I create a separate card for it. What are all of the different points I want to make? What problems does the book solve? How do I solve them? What research nuggets do I have? What examples can I include?

Basically I include anything and everything I think might be relevant to the book, knowing that a percentage of the content will not make the final cut.

And then, just like assembling a puzzle, I dump out all of the pieces and start looking for patterns. I look for themes to emerge. What are the key themes that I see shared across the content? The advantage of using Scrivener, or a similar tool, is you can easily move and group the cards together.

Once I do this, a first pass, I print out the manuscript. At this point, nothing flows, the segues are non-existent, and the content isn’t logically organized. But I have all of the content done for a first draft. And because I know my content really well, I am able to create this first draft quickly. Then I iterate. I mark up the manuscript and move content around. I eliminate content. I look for gaps that need to be filled in. I work on the segues. I do this about a dozen (or more times) times until I am happy with the flow. (this is the picture of the manuscript iterations for my next book – Invisible Solutions – and there were MANY more iterations since this picture was taken)

Iterations of book writing

Although this approach may not seem efficient due to the multiple iterations, I find it to be quite effective. With this approach, the content drives the premise, not the other way around. I don’t try to force my content into an outline but rather I allow the patterns to emerge. I almost always end up with a very different book than I expected to write.

Find your own writing style. Maybe there is a completely different approach. Regardless, choose the style that best fits your personality.

P.S. In an earlier article, I shared how you can publish a book in just a couple of weeks.

This article originally appeared on the Inc. website