Writing about writing

Last week somebody sent me an email which really pleased me. They are writing a non-fiction book and asked for my advice about this. For some reason I always feel a particular thrill when I’m able to help with something that isn’t in what I think of as my areas of expertise. It’s a similar feeling when I’m at a conference and I’m the one who manages to get the powerpoint working! This blog post is a version of the email which I sent them in response to their query.

In the last year I’ve started to provide workshops, and to write papers, about writing itself. As somebody who struggled greatly to write – and to get published – initially, it feels wonderful to help to open that door for other people. I’ve written quite a bit on how to get published in academic journals (for non-academics or people who haven’t done so before). Here I want to focus on writing non-fiction books.

For many years I had a plan for a non-fiction book about relationships, aimed at a general audience. But it was such a huge project, which I had so much invested in, that I never get very far. I’d written textbooks, and edited academic books, but the prospect of a whole book presenting my ideas (rather than just those of others) felt way too daunting.

Last year I finally managed to break through and get the whole thing written, but it must have taken around a decade to get to that point. In some ways I don’t regret it because it is a better book for waiting, and also because of what I learnt about writing – and about myself – through finally pushing through all the blocks.

Here are the top tips which worked for me, mainly about the everyday process of writing, and the emotional side of what gets in our way. Of course, these ideas won’t work for everybody. Writing is clearly a very personal process as you can see if you compare the advice of different fiction authors. For example, two of my favourite novelists go about the process completely differently: John Irvingcomes up with his whole story, working backwards from the last line, and only then starts writing, whereas Stephen King begins and the beginning and doesn’t know how it is going to end, it is more like a process of receiving a complete delivery of boxes and gradually unpacking them (although this might explain why it ends with a giant spider quite so often).

My top tips

* Whilst you need to be aware of your audience and where they’re coming from, try to let go of any desire to please everyone. For example, with my book I had to recognise that I was imagining the average person on the street complaining that it was too complicated, and an academic critic complaining that it was too simplistic. Recognise those kind of fears, but remember that even if the book speaks to just some people that is enough. Aim at the ‘good enough’ book rather than the perfect book.

* If you can, make a plan to write for an hour every day (for me, early on in the day works best). Just write during that time, not worrying about the quality of it: you can always come back to edit another time. If it starts to flow then keep writing. If it doesn’t, then stop after the hour and come back to it the next day. That way you won’t burn yourself out spending hours and hours looking at a blank screen and feeling rotten. It can help to have a list of other tasks you want to do towards the book which don’t involve writing – e.g. reading, making notes, searching online. Then you can do these when you are not writing. Also, I find that walking is often a good way of freeing things up. I often return from a walk with a clearer plan.

* For me structure helps a lot. Have a plan of the structure of the book, then the structure of each chapter (subsections). Then, for each subsection, you can think about the point you want each paragraph to make. If you have a developed outline then writing just becomes a case of filling in the detail, rather than having to write and shape the story as you go along.

* Break it down. Seeing it as a book can be really scary, so it is useful to break the book into chapters and the chapters into sections. Then, each day, you can think which section you want to write (e.g. something 500-2000 words long) and just do that. If you do this it becomes much more like writing a blog entry or a short essay (which people are often more familiar with). You can always go through later and edit them together more smoothly.

* When you’re really struggling to write, it can be useful to write, or talk to someone, about what you want to write. Instead of actually writing the book, you could write in a notebook, or in an email, or talk to a friend (perhaps recording the conversation), about what you want to write in this book (or in a particular chapter of it), what the aims are, why it is important. Just let yourself loose on that, starting each sentence with ‘I want to write about…’. You might well find that some of what you write or say can then be turned into a first draft.

* Ideally write about the bit you’re feeling most passionate about at the moment, rather than being too rigid thinking you have to write from beginning to end, for example.

* Whilst you are writing, try not to worry too much about (a) how many words you’ve written, (b) the quality of the writing, or (c) what other people will think of it.

In my experience it definitely got easier and easier the more that I wrote. The first 3 chapters were extremely hard going, but then I got the momentum and I could tell that it was going to happen so it got faster, easier and better. I went back to those early chapters later to polish them, so that was fine. I think the thing is just to get something written, whatever the quality, and that’ll start to give you the confidence that you can.

I hope these tips are helpful. Natalie Goldberg has some wonderful ideas for mindful writing which apply to fiction and non-fiction alike, and I picked up some of these ideas from her. I’d be interested in hearing other people’s feedback on what they find useful.


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