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How to write a book chapter

Image: Leonid Pasternak via Wikimedia Commons

I write business books. Every chapter is a 5,000-word package full of stories, detail, statistics, insights, and recommendations. You don’t just sit down and write one of those at random. Here’s what it takes to create one.

In the last 10 years I’ve written, cowritten, or ghostwritten six books. Five of them were case-study powered business strategy books written in collaboration with other authors. (Writing Without Bullshit was the exception.) If you’ve got a disciplined process, you can engineer and build and a great book this way. Without that process, you’ll waste time, suffer, and generate a mess instead of a vector for delivering powerful insights. Here are the steps that work for me in creating this kind of book:

1 Build the blueprint

Before you write chapters, you need to know what’s in the book. Yes: writing is not the first step, planning is. Together with your collaborators or editors, determine what your main theme, title, and subtitle are. Write a detailed table of contents. (Even if you have no collaborators, it pays to take this step to keep your own efforts efficient and directed to a goal.) Until you do this, you’re just flailing around, not creating content to serve a goal.

Often, this plan will shift or pivot after you’ve begun to work and learned more about your subject. Even so, you’re better off with a plan — and a conscious shift of that plan — than creating random bits of content and hoping they somehow combine to create something useful.

2 Line up case studies and conduct interviews

Case studies have the longest lead time; it takes a while to get people to agree to be profiled in your book. So start emailing and calling up potential subjects before you do anything else.

Once you’ve lined up the interview, conduct it with a view to getting a story down. Find out how your subject got in a position to do what they did, how they got approval, what obstacles they faced, what they accomplished, and how they measured success. Then write up the quickie character sketch and the case study in story form.

You can write case studies even before you write the chapters they belong in. You may need to shape them a bit to fit them in, but it’s great to write the story up while it’s still fresh in your mind.

3 Gather research for supporting material

Your chapter will not be credible without facts, quotes, statistics, and examples. You can find these with Web research, by reading related books, and by interviewing experts.

Expert interviews are a great tool, because analysts, academics, bloggers, and other authors have often trodden the ground you are traversing before you got there. Many of these experts are happy to spend time with you because they have their own point of view and image to promote. So go to the masters and learn what you need to know — and reward them with quotes (“as marketing expert and author Seth Godin told me” . . . ). Ask their help in finding notable real-world case studies and examples of what you’re writing about — often, they’ll even make connections for you, allowing you to line up case study interviews more quickly, and buttressing your own case study research. They may also be able to provide statistics or published material you can quote from.

Analysts at firms like Gartner, Forrester, Altimeter, and Kaleido Insights are among the most valuable interviews you can find, since they spend 100% of their time researching the topics you’re writing about. Unless you are a well known author, it can be hard to line up these interviews, but they’re worth it. If you or your collaborators are clients of these companies, you can pore over research reports and request inquiry interviews with the appropriate analysts. Be aware, though, that if you are a client, these organizations have stringent rules about when and how you can quote their content.

Shy about quoting other authors in “your” space? Don’t be. Authors in the same space are more likely to be supporters than competitors in most situations.

You’ll also be conducting Web research. While you can do this yourself, it’s often useful to get dedicated researchers to buttress your efforts. (Wit Strategy did an amazing job of this on a book for me earlier this year.) Since everyone thinks differently, researchers will find things that you didn’t think of looking for, often giving you lots of rich material to look through for proof points, stats, surveys, examples, and other useful content.

4 Assemble and organize your research content

Research on a topic generates dozens or hundreds of individual bits of information. I typically dump these into a Google Doc. When I’m ready to begin organizing the chapter, I start poring over them for themes and frameworks. Often, these themes have started to assemble in my mind as I’m researching, and reviewing the research confirms how I want to organize them.

After that, I rearrange and assemble the insights into the appropriate order, creating a fat outline. This is basically the chapter in pre-written form — it’s got much of the content in the right order, but without any judgment applied to what to keep and how to write about it. But having all this material assembled in one place, in order, is an essential step to writing the chapter.

At this point it’s often helpful to make sure you’ve also noted your own insights — what your experience tells you, metaphors you’ve come up with, or other nuggets — and mix them in with the rest of the content in the appropriate order.

Pro tip: Make sure you keep the links to sources in this file. Tracking down your research links later is extremely time consuming and duplicates the effort you already made when doing research. And maintaining those sources helps you to avoid inadvertently plagiarizing, by reminding you what stuff that you’re about to write originally came from somewhere else.

5 Write the chapter

Notice that writing is step 5, not step 1. Your writing will be much better if you’re not stopping every 10 minutes to research things and find sources or examples.

When I’m ready to write, I block off 3- to 5-hour chunks of time. I make sure I won’t be interrupted (I write in my home office, with a great view, three monitors, and no distracting music or sounds in the background). I don’t write for hours straight — nobody can do that very well — but I do write in 30- to 80-minute chunks with short breaks between.

My objective in getting rid of distractions here — including the distracting of researching while you’re writing — is to get into a flow state. The result, ideally, is beautifully fluid prose that pours effortlessly out of your mind and through your fingertips. You’ll never achieve this in 10-minute bursts between work hassles and other appointments.

I’ve tried to be introspective about my own writing process. It’s not quite linear. I do craft chapters from beginning to end, but I’m constantly rewriting elements of sentences at the leading edge of creation, and I occasionally will move pieces around or change tenses or points of view. It’s more like sculpting than writing — I’m adding a bit here, cutting a bit there, shaping something else over here, going back and fixing something I thought I had finished in light of new information I’ve found or insights I’ve realized. Like a sculpture, it ends up getting more and more done but it’s an organic process that doesn’t always go straight from beginning to end.

It typically takes me two to three days to write a chapter, sometimes longer. But remember, there may have been weeks of research and preparation beforehand. The writing is just the end part of the process, not the whole thing.

6 Self-edit

Let what you wrote sit for a day or two.

Now go back and read it again. You’ll be surprised what you find: not just typos, but repetition and possibly other insights to include.

So rewrite it a little and make it better.

7 Review and revision

After a chapter is done, you typically need to send it to your editor or other authors for review. They come back with suggestions, because you give them deadlines and insist that they meet them.

At that point you can make the necessary revisions to the chapter and call it done. Or at least drafted.

Sure, once the first drafts of all the chapters are done, you’ll probably go back and revise the whole thing. But you’ve now created a chapter, which is one-tenth or one-twelfth of a book. Do that a few more times and you’ll have really created something.

Do I really have to do all this?

Of course not.

You could just start by writing and revising as new material comes along and as you realize what you should have been writing.

But that’s not going to create a good book unless you put in a lot more effort. And you’ll drive yourself crazy.

Don’t concentrate on writing. Concentrate on planning and researching to get yourself in a position to write. Because if you do that, writing will be far easier, and the results will be far more likely to be awesome.

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  1. This reminds me of Eisenhower’s quote: Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.

    I can think back to specific times when my initial plans didn’t quite work out. For my first chapter in Message Not Received, chapter 1 took on a life of its own. I ultimately chopped that chapter in two.

    In other words, I concur with your assessment about planning: it needs to be fluid, especially at the early stages.

    As for self-editing, I think that my editors have always appreciated the fact that I sent them solid drafts, it not perfect ones. I don’t know how editors can make sense out of a morass of jargon, confusing sentences, jumbled ideas, and the like.

    1. Sometimes in stories I wrote I would end up cutting it it was so long or going off on describing something two chapters would be about that one thing. Then it would be like “Okay, you have two whole chapters in this” lets just say “15 chapter book about this one specific thing.” Am I right?

      I know I’m going off-topic there but this page helps and I agree with what you said, it needs to be fluid, especially at the early stages.