Assembling the ingredients of your business book

Business books are made of ideas and frameworks, stories, proof points, argumentation, and advice. That’s what you need to build one. So what does it take to assemble all of that?

Let’s examine a 50,000-word book, which is typical these days (somewhat shorter than in past years). A hardback typically has 250 words per page, so that’s 200 pages, not including front- and end-matter (like tables of contents and indexes).

Breaking that down into content types, you might get the following:

  • Ideas and frameworks: 8%. 6,000 words or 24 pages.
  • Stories (case studies and examples): 35%. 17,500 words, or 70 pages.
  • Proof points (data, quotes, citations): 20%. 10,000 words or 40 pages.
  • Argumentation (reasoning): 15%. 7,500 words or 30 pages.
  • Advice, how-tos: 18%. 9,000 words or 36 pages.

Obviously, your breakdown may be different. But you should still focus more on ideas, stories, and advice — the interesting and useful parts of your book. They should make up more than half of what you include. Proof points and argumentation are essential, but become boring after a while.

So what does it take to assemble all those ingredients?

Ideas require refinement

An idea can be simple: for example, marketers should tell the truth, or the key to customer experience is analytics, or you should change careers at least every ten years. But simple ideas don’t stand alone. To make an idea stick in the reader’s mind, it needs structure: five elements, three steps, seven criteria, or something like that. A diagram can help, too.

While you may only need 6,000 words or 24 pages of that stuff, every one of those words has to sing. If your ideas aren’t client-tested and crystalline, they’ll fall flat. So road-test your ideas with everyone you can think of, try different versions of them in speeches, and keep working them until they’re as pure and powerful as you can make them. The challenge with ideas in business books is generally not the writing, it’s the quality and depth of the ideas.

Stories take effort to collect

Stories can come from all over. They can reflect your personal experience, or your work with clients. You can find them in news articles and other books. And you can develop them in interviews with businesspeople.

Collecting them takes work, Web research, and a strong network.

Consider what it means to have 17,500 words of stories, or about 70 pages total. If each of your case studies is three or four pages (750 to 1000 words), which is typical, you could get to 50 pages with 14 case studies. You can fill the other 20 pages with 40 examples (short descriptions you may have found in news articles) that each fill half a page.

Sourcing 14 case studies is going take a lot of research and a fair number of people willing to sit still for an interview — and those interviews can take weeks to line up. And 40 examples will take many hours of sustained web research.

You could fill in some of those slots with personal stories about your own experience, but unless this is a memoir, you’ll want to avoid filling the book with your own stories.

In my experience, sourcing case studies and examples is one of the most time-consuming tasks in creating a book, but the one that makes the most difference in readability. The challenge is not writing the case studies, which is often fun and easy, but finding them.

Proof points require extensive Web research

Proof points are what make you believable. Statistics, quotes from trusted experts, and other assorted facts will help you show that you’re not just making things up.

You can typically find proof points from diligent web research. And you can delegate some of this work to a talented researcher.

Of course, to gather 10,000 words, or 40 pages, of proof points is going to take a lot of work. Each proof point is typically a bullet or a couple of sentences, say, 50 words on average. So 10,000 words of proof points is 250 individual proof points. You’ll need proof for nearly every assertion in your book.

There’s also a way to generate your own proof points. You can do primary research, like ethnographic observation or surveys. That’s pretty convincing, but it takes time and money; you can’t just dream up a survey and have just the results you need the next day.

The challenge here is the time to spend on research. Writing up proof points isn’t very difficult, it’s collecting them that takes time.

Argumentation is easy to generate, but not very interesting to read

Argumentation is the portion of your writing where you take an assertion within a chapter — for example, that you should change careers every ten years — and back it up with logic. Proof points support that logic, but argumentation is the connective tissue that makes it believable.

You won’t have any trouble writing 7,500 words, or 30 pages, of arguments. All you have to do is wave your arms and bloviate. The problem here isn’t writing, it’s keeping the amount of argumentation under control. Novice writers write books full of this stuff, and nobody enjoys reading that (except maybe undergraduate philosophy students).

Advice is crucial, but must be supported by the rest of the book

Having developed your idea, made it convincing with stories, and supported it with argumentation and proof points, you are in a position to tell people what to do. And since business books are generally advice books, that’s valuable.

My benchmark is 9,000 words of advice, or 36 pages.

It’s generally not that hard to write advice that follows from the other elements of the book. Writing it skillfully requires discipline, to make sure your advice is clear and not repetitive from chapter to chapter. And you have to be careful not to overdo it, because a book crammed full of advice reads like a lecture, and readers resist lectures.

So the problem with advice is not writing it, it’s keeping it relevant and pithy.

Perhaps you’re noticing a pattern here

Look at all of what I just wrote, and you’ll see that writing is rarely the problem. Preparation, research, idea refinement, and discipline are the real challenge.

It’s one reason why you shouldn’t write a book by the seat of your pants. You’ll end up with too much argumentation and not enough ideas, stories, and advice.

Writing is easy, once you’ve done the proper preparation. It’s the planning and preparation that are hard. And they make all the difference in the quality of your book.

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