First Drafts: Cracking the Code
Have you ever read a book and thought to yourself, “I can do that! I have something to say, and it doesn’t look that difficult.”
If this sounds like you, that’s wonderful! I firmly believe you have a book inside you. And though writing one isn’t easy, it’s something just about anyone can do if they have the will to work hard.
However, most people begin the process with a fatal flaw: They go straight from a flash of inspiration to typing their first draft. They think back to a schoolteacher, a friend, or a creativity guru who said:
- “If you finish a page a day, you’ll have a 365-page book at the end of the year.”
- “Your book will write itself if you just let it flow out of you.”
- “Just turn off your internal editor and write.” (This is good advice for later — but not yet!)
Writing a book isn’t like reading one. Though there are a few experienced writers who are the exception, most cannot start with page one and end when the material runs out.
This is what usually happens to someone who proceeds this way. Though the words flow easily at first, things get messy. Without a clear purpose, audience, or structure, the writer has no clue:
- How to order their ideas
- What stories to tell
- What style to employ
- How to market the finished product — if they get that far!
As The Book Professor®, I have a process that helps writers work with clarity and precision. My clients create nonfiction books that hit home with readers, solve real problems, and create opportunities beyond their publication.
Recently, and independently from each other, two former clients used the same metaphor to describe what my process was like for them.
So, if you can, think back to 1999.
It’s like The Matrix
Do you remember the movie The Matrix? It’s about a character named Neo (Keanu Reeves) who realizes he and his fellow humans have been living their lives inside a computer program, convinced it was real life. Now, outside of the program, he’s able to see the computer code that defined his existence.
In one scene, he watches Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) look at screens where the code they know as The Matrix streams past. Unlike Neo, Cypher can read the symbols.
Neo says, “Do you always look at it encoded?”
Cypher says, “[…] There’s way too much information to decode the Matrix. You get used to it. I don’t even see the code. All I see is blonde, brunette, redhead.”
In other words, where Neo sees a jumbled mess, Cypher sees people. Later in the film, when Neo can finally read the code, a whole new world opens up to him.
This is how it feels to figure out the purpose, audience, and structure of your book. All the jumbled thoughts you’ve had suddenly fall into place. You can see how your ideas, stories, and marketing plan will work together to reach people with your message.
If you follow these three strategies, you’ll crack the “code” that will allow you to sit down and write your nonfiction book freely and coherently.
Nonfiction Writing Strategy 1: Purpose Statement
Good nonfiction books exist to effectively deliver an idea to an audience in a way they can understand. Writers who know this and create a purpose statement have a leg up over writers who don’t.
First, books with a clear purpose keep readers engaged. Confident the book will take them on a coherent journey, people will continue to read, provided the material is relevant to them.
Second, books with a clear purpose are focused. The writer only includes relevant information and anecdotes, which makes their ideas shine more brightly.
Bonus: The writer can save all of his or her other ideas for the next book!
This is what happened for podiatrist and writer Dr. Peter Wishnie. Having finished his first book—one that had an unambiguous purpose statement—he came back to me almost immediately. With plenty of material left over, he’s ready to work on his next book!
Executive Coach Mike Kitko worked very hard to focus his book’s purpose statement, too. Before he had even completed his final draft, he found himself able to structure two more books almost immediately.
That’s the power of a focused purpose statement!
Nonfiction Writing Strategy 2: Audience Definition
Your purpose statement goes hand in hand with the audience you want to reach. Define this group as narrowly as possible. It’s rare to have too narrow a niche for three reasons.
First, audience definition will bring an even more precise focus. You’ll be able to surgically remove information and anecdotes that will be irrelevant to them. If you decide to rewrite the book for a new audience, you can keep the same structure but change the stories!
Second, audience definition will help inform the words you choose. Once again, the narrower, the better! You wouldn’t quote Scripture to atheists, use war metaphors with pacifists, or describe a juicy steak to a vegan. If you know your audience, you’ll be able to speak their unique language.
Third, audience definition will help you market your book. A narrow audience will likely have their own niche blogs, magazines, podcasts, and meetings. Your book will come with a built-in marketing plan and will serve a larger purpose in your life and career.
Nonfiction Writing Strategy 3: Stay tuned!
Next month, we’re going to talk about how to structure your book. This final step in what I call “Module 1” will allow you to write freely and quickly. (More about our modules here.)
As I share this, I want you to feel inspired. I hope you think, “I can do this!” and start tinkering with your purpose statement right away.
But there’s a reason my clients want to work with a coach. They’re busy people who don’t have time to experiment, figure things out on their own, then only maybe end the process with something that will accomplish their goals.
Whether you want to write your book one-on-one with me or in a group of like-minded changemakers, I’d love to talk.