Authors, don’t make a fetish of intermediate deliverables

I use a variety of tools to plan writing projects. These are usually based on intermediate deliverables and milestones, like plans and treatments. They’re great tools — but they’re only tools. Optimizing the intermediate deliverables is a wasteful fetish.

Useful planning tools

It’s a big mistake to begin a book without careful planning. Here’s a list of the tools I use to plan a book, for example:

  • Treatment. A treatment is a writeup of a page or so that describes the main idea behind the book, including the title and subtitle. It’s very helpful in getting everyone involved in the project on the same page (pun intended). Working on a treatment surfaces differences of opinion or emphasis about what the project is intended to accomplish, who the audience is, how the book is differentiated, and so on.
  • Table of contents. Once you’ve settled the main idea, it pays to create a draft table of contents. This table of contents lists every chapter and what question that chapter answers for the audience.
  • Interview list. This is a set of targets for interviews, along with their contact information and how far you’ve gotten in contacting and scheduling interviews with them.
  • Chapter plan. This lists the resources (case studies, interviews, research) that go into each chapter.
  • Fat outline. Before writing a chapter, it’s a great idea to assemble the bits and pieces and create a rough description of what goes into the chapter and in what order. This is the fat outline: basically, a plan for what you’re about to write, or a “zeroth draft.”

Don’t make a fetish of the tools

Failing to invest time and effort in these tools is big mistake. If you write without a plan, expect a lot of wasted effort.

But keep in mind that these tools are just tools. Polishing them to a fine sheen is wasteful, too.

For example, if the treatment isn’t exactly perfect, that’s fine. It’s just a guide for what the book is about. You used the process of creating it to raise and resolve most of the issues, but inevitably, your emphasis will shift somewhat as you get into the project. Don’t waste time polishing it.

You’ll be adding or deleting chapters as you go, based on what you learn about the project. Starting without a table of contents is a mistake, but don’t put too much effort into making the perfect structure; it’s just a guideline.

Building the interview list is helpful. And when you’re working on a chapter, developing a plan and a fat outline ensures that you have a rough roadmap of where you’re going. But once you’ve completed the fat outline, the next task is not to perfect it — it is to actually write the chapter.

In many ways the urge to perfect these intermediate tools is just a way to procrastinate. When it’s time to write, write.

Plan, yes. But then act. Use the tools to make progress, then discard them on your way to the completed manuscript. Because a great book is what gets you influence, regardless of the tools you create along the way.

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One Comment

  1. Good post. Two minor points.

    First, I’d call the treatment or synopsis, ToC, and the like artifacts. When I read the word tools, I think Word, Google Docs, and Notion.

    Second, I have found that it’s far easier to make changes to these items when working with hybrid publishers. With traditional publishers, you’re more likely to be locked in.

    Case in point: When I wrote my For Dummies books, I had to fight tooth and nail to change the outlines. For this reason, I’ll never write a guide about Slack, Zoom, or another system or app again. They just change too damn fast.