For nonfiction authors, productive obsession is a key habit

Image: Leonid Pasternak via Wikimedia Commons

Do you know everything there is to know about the topic you’re writing about? If not, you’re not trying hard enough. I want you to be obsessed.

This is not a recommendation to acquire a mental illness. Obsession is a strategy, and I want you to apply it strategically.

Here’s how it works. You think you want to write a book. It could be about the psychology of how people make choices, the right way to organize a social media team, how volcanic eruptions changed history, or how to live with imposter syndrome. Doesn’t matter.

Whatever you want to write about, somebody else has already written about. What makes your book different? What makes it better?

You’ll need a new take on the topic, or a comprehensive and detailed analysis, interviews with actual practitioners, or really excellent graphics. Or all of those, and more. Most importantly, you’ll need something to differentiate yourself from other thinkers on the topic.

Where are you going to find that?

Not sitting at your desk. Not doing your regular job. Not “thinking about it in your spare time.”

You need an obsession.

What does it mean to be obsessed with a topic?

My definition of obsession is very practical. (It’s also, I’m sure, at odds with what an actual psychologist would say, but hey, I’m writing a blog post about books, not advise for psychotherapists.)

Here’s how it looks.

When you wake up in the morning, you’re thinking about your topic.

When you read or listen to the news, or peruse trade magazine sites, or consume blogs, or listen to podcasts, you’re thinking about how it intersects with your topic.

Pantone says blue is the color of the year. How did they choose? If you’re obsessed about choices, you want to know.

The Red Sox trade the best player in decades. What does that mean for their social media team? If you’re obsessed about social media teams, you want to know.

Once you’ve got your topic-focused lens in place, everything looks different. Everything in the world pertains to that topic. Insights start to appear everywhere. You can track them down, read more detail, set up interviews, try out content ideas in your blog or Facebook or LinkedIn, give talks at conferences. You should be bathed in this topic — you should exude it from your pores and it should surround you like a nimbus.

The news is not enough. You must also set aside time to do research.

You need to read books on the topic, to see what else has been written.

You need to talk to your friends and colleagues about it. That will annoy them — or it may fascinate them. “She’s obsessed,” they will say. But their reactions to your ideas will help.

You’re not searching just for confirmation. You’re also searching for proof that you’re wrong (or at least, might be wrong). Every counterexample refines your idea. Every contradiction can generate a higher truth, a more powerful way to look at the topic.

What about people? What about the other experts? They’re your competitors, right?

Wrong attitude. They’re your key to the inner circle. Until you understand what they think — and vice versa — you’re not really an expert. Authors don’t really compete; they tend to thrive as one of a few really knowledgeable people on a topic. You want to be in that little club.

One more thing. Obsession by itself is insufficient. You need to take notes on what you are learning, and organize them so that those bits of knowledge are findable when you need them.

How your obsession will pay off

“I have writers block,” I hear authors saying. “I sit down but I don’t know what to write.”

This is such bullshit. You can’t write, most likely, because you don’t know what to say. To have something to say, you need to know a lot. To know a lot, you have to indulge your obsession for months or years.

Believe me, once you’ve been immersed in the topic for a while, you’ll have something to say.

When you’re trying to figure out how to build 12 chapters on a topic, you’ll have enough insights to make that work.

When you need a case study or a proof point, you’ll have it in the collection of news items and interviews that emerged from your obsession.

When you need statistics to back up a point, you’ll have it in your obsessive collection of studies and results.

Once you’ve been obsessed for a while, the job of writing becomes one of selecting the best insights and organizing them. That’s work, but it’s a lot easier than casting around for insights that you don’t have because you didn’t do the homework.

Obsession doesn’t just pay off in writing the book. It also gives you content for speeches. It makes it easier to write and contribute articles. It gives you the ability and background to do newsjacking effectively.

Getting up to the top of the mountain range of knowledge about your topic is difficult. It demands obsession.

But once you are there, the view is incredible — and staying there is far, far easier than getting there in the first place.

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  1. You just described my mindset on several of my books to a tee, Josh. You start seeing patterns and evidence for your main thesis everywhere. In fact, it’s hard not to see them.

  2. Spot on, Josh. I have been obsessed with climate change for seven years, and I’m immersed in it every day. Because climate touches everything (politics, finance, food, infrastructure, science, culture, journalism, international relations, etc.), there’s a constant barrage of information, and I learn several new things every day. It’s fascinating. Thanks for the post.