How not to write a book

With a huge sigh of relief, I’ve just submitted the first draft of my new book.

Writing, it turns out, is difficult. (Who knew?)

“Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him to the public.”  Winston Churchill

I can personally attest that the above is true not only when you’re composing 42 book-length works in 72 volumes (and, in your spare time, you’re the Prime Minister); it also applies if you’re writing 10-15,000 words on getting the best out of your sustainability champions.

Although it’s only a short book (part of the Do Sustainability library of resources for sustainability professionals), I’ve managed to make just about every writing mistake there is.

Here are just a few of them.

Failing to start

I’m writing a book. I’ve got the page numbers done.Steven Wright, writer and comedian

I was really looking forward to writing this book. I’ve spent many years managing sustainability networks and wanted to share everything I’ve learned with the world. Writing about it was going to be a therapeutic way of closing the ‘in-house sustainability manager’ chapter of my life. And, most of all, it was going to be fun.

So I planned the book’s structure, and read everything I could find that had already been written on the subject (not a lot, as it turns out). I changed the structure to make it easier to read, and squeezed in every bit of research I’d done, relevant or not.

Then I had a crisis of confidence. Was this the right subject – and was I the right author? Did everyone know all this already? There was only one thing for it: I had to change the structure.

Things only started to get better once I stopped planning, structuring, and imagining what it was going to be like to write the book… and started actually writing it.

Writing “alongside” other work

“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” Douglas Adams

I began writing my book early on in my freelance career, with no real idea of how busy I’d be. I didn’t think I’d be lucky enough to find enough work to fill all the time available – but that’s what happened.

Not only did I have less time to work on the book than I anticipated, but writing it took much longer than I thought I would. The result? I extended my deadline several times, felt guilty whenever I wasn’t writing, and generally got myself into a state over something that was going perfectly well.

My clients, of course, shoulder a hefty proportion of the blame for dangling such interesting projects in front of me, and making it difficult to say no to them. Next time, I’ll write during a break from my client work, and cut out the guilt altogether.

Aiming for perfection

“The first draft of anything is shit.” Ernest Hemingway

Things went well with the drafting for a while… until it came to re-reading what I’d written.

I was tempted to complete each chapter as I wrote it, going back over it time and time again to find a way to say what I wanted to say more clearly, appropriately or succinctly. But I soon realised that I wasn’t going to write the perfect book straight away: I was going to have to write a terrible first draft, and then go back and polish it later.

Once I got into this way of writing, I found it strangely enjoyable. Putting down my thoughts without censoring them meant that I could let them flow more freely. And when I went back through the text, I could replace the hard slog of writing with the much more enjoyable task of editing.

(A note to my editor: I’ve really taken this lesson to heart. Enjoy!)

Image: Writing by Jeffrey James Pacres is licensed under CC BY 2.0