Annoyance, interruptions, frustration, and other idea development tools

In the past month, I helped four diverse authors to develop ideas and titles for their books. They varied in age, gender, topic, and type of book. But they had one thing in common: I had to annoy and frustrate them to get to the core of their book ideas.

How idea development works

When an author comes to me, the first step is idea development. I conduct a 90-minute session with the author. The objective is to generate a title and a treatment. A treatment is a page or so describing the book in the way it would be described on a book flap — a set of promises about what they book will do for the author.

The sessions also include a third person. The purpose of the third person is to act a sounding board for the title and ideas.

These sessions typically start with a simple question: “What is your book about?”

At this point, the author launches into whatever has been repeatedly running around in their head — some sort of canned description of what they imagine their book is about. These explanations tend to be polished, logical, and useless.

Why useless?

Because, in following well-worn modes of thinking, the author’s brain takes the shortest possible path from ignorance to their imagined idea. The shortest path tends to ignore the obstacles to understanding that come from the ignorance of the reader. It’s a good example of “the curse of knowledge,” in which a smart and experienced author has difficulty getting into the mindset of a reader with no knowledge of their topic.

The value of discomfort

My value in these sessions comes, in part, from upsetting the author’s composure.

I attempt to understand the idea as the author has described it. But since I am not an expert on their topic, my understanding tends to be flawed.

I describe what doesn’t make sense to me.

I ask questions that sound ignorant.

I caricature the idea in ways that are obviously wrong.

I ask the author to explain it a different way.

I ask the third person if it made sense, and emphasize where the holes in understanding are.

This tends to frustrate the author, who then must leave aside the canned explanations in their head and engage with my ignorance, which stands in for the ignorance of the reader. At that point, we begin to hear new and original ways to explain things.

Some of those are crap. But some contain nuggets that will become part of the final explanation.

Doing this, repeatedly and continuously, is very hard word for all of us, especially the author. But it tends to work. I’ve done it dozens of times, and nearly always gotten to a title and treatment that makes the author feel, “Ah, now we finally have some definition on this thing.”

I never torment people for sadistic reasons. I am always sensitive to the emotions of the authors. I am hard on ideas, but not on people.

Authors are passionate about their ideas. They are always willing to explain them further, even to an apparently ignorant conversational partner. The result is worth the discomfort and the energy expended.

When it comes to ideas, the easy path is rarely the best path. But all the interruptions, frustrations, and explanations along the way illuminate the clearer path — and the better way to describe the idea.

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    1. I probably learned a lot of this as an analyst at Forrester Research.

      Editors challenged me and my ideas. Then, as I became an editor of reports, I challenged the analysts who were writing those reports.

      It was natural to apply those techniques to my work as a book editor.