About Doug Toft

Writer and development editor. I help busy experts finish their book manuscripts. More at dougtoft.net

What is Your Personal Table of Contents?

file7641301548646Much of my work consists of helping clients create a table of contents for a book they’d like to write. This is essential work. Lately, though, I’ve concluded that our primary task is to think bigger.

Consider that people who write nonfiction books are now called to become idea entrepreneursThis involves connecting with a critical mass of people who will embrace and embody your ideas (the non-spammy meaning of having a platform).

On a practical level, this means expressing your ideas in multiple formats. Yes, you’ll write your book. But you’ll also create blog posts and presentations as well. You’ll probably also take part in social media such as Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Perhaps you’ll also do webinars, publish an email newsletter, and play with video and podcasts. And at some point, you’re likely to consider doing another book.

This sounds like a lot of work. But there’s an opportunity as well. Since your job is to continuously develop and present ideas, why not create a single roadmap for all your ideas in all their expressions? This is more than a table of contents for a single book. It’s a table of contents for all the books you’d like to write—and all the other content you’ll publish and present over the whole arc of your career.

I don’t have an official name for this roadmap yet. For now, let’s call it your personal table of contents.

For example, Patrick Carnes is a psychologist, author, and speaker who developed a thirty-task model of recovery from addiction. This is the big picture of all the work that he wants to put out into the world. He’s already published books that cover many of these tasks in detail. Future books are planned about the rest.

The beauty of the personal table of contents is that it becomes a single, big bank of ideas from which you can “withdraw” content as needed for the book, article, update, or presentation that’s on your plate right now.

After all, why re-invent the wheel every time you sit down to create a piece of content? Instead, zero in on a single, small section of your personal table of contents. Then flesh it out with something from your ongoing collection of supporting material (facts, anecdotes, and quotes in your commonplace book).

For me, the whole idea of a personal table of contents is a new idea that’s just starting to come into focus. Stay tuned for more updates.

Three Must-Reads for Nonfiction Authors—John Butman on Idea Entrepreneurs

john-butmanCheck out these foundational posts by John Butman, author of Breaking Out: How to Build Influence in a World of Competing Ideas.

Idea Entrepreneur: The New 21st Century Career

The idea entrepreneur is an individual, usually a content expert and often a maverick, whose main goal is to influence how other people think and behave in relation to their cherished topic. These people don’t seek power over others and they’re not motivated by the prospect of achieving great wealth. Their goal is to make a difference, to change the world in some way.

How to Influence People with Your Ideas

Answer these questions: What is my purpose? How does my personal narrative convey the idea? How can people put my idea into practice? Do I have enough supporting material? Who do I really want to reach? How does my idea connect with a greater “thinking journey?”

Should You Write a Book?

Is it impossible for you not to?

The Sticky Note System for Structuring a Book

sunsetColorsFor me, creating a book usually starts by crafting a table of contents with headings that draw in my ideal reader. I’m a passionate outliner and advocate for plain text files. However, I find that some clients (all women so far) are turned off by this approach. It’s too monochromatic, too minimal, too yang.

This is wonderful resistance. It forces me to expand my cognitive preferences and play with new strategies. The result is a process that’s much more colorful and visual. You might like it. I call it the sticky note system.

This system is geared to my clients, who write how-to books that would be shelved in a bookstore under spirituality, psychology, self-help, “mind-body-spirit,” or business.

Millions of words have been written in these genres. Yet they all reduce to 6 key elements:

  • Problem—a vivid and concise description of a specific pain point: an urgent problem, a persistent question, a gap between what people want and what they have in a significant area of their lives. Call this “point A.”
  • Solution—the key to relieving the pain point, solving the problem, answering the question, or closing the gap. Call this “point B.”
  • Process—a set of practices, habits, and other things that people can actually do to implement the solution in daily life—a way to move from point A to point B.
  • Studies—research and other fact-based material that provides credible evidence for the problem, solution, and process.
  • Stories—examples of people who lived with the problem and implemented the recommended solution (including the author’s personal story, which can run throughout the book).
  • Sayings—concise and memorable quotations that echo the author’s main ideas.

With these elements in mind, you can structure your own book:

  1. Buy lots of sticky notes in two dimensions—small (3 by 5 inches, index card size) and large (easel-pad size, 20 by 23 inches).
  2. At the top of one large sticky note, describe the core problem in one sentence or phrase. This will become an early chapter in your book.
  3. At the top of another large sticky note, describe your solution in one sentence or phrase. This will be another chapter.
  4. At the top of other large sticky notes, write a phrase or sentence to describe each step or major phase in your recommended process. These will become additional chapters in your book.
  5. Now fill out a bunch of smaller sticky notes. On each of these, write a sentence or phrase to capture the essence of a single study, story, or saying (or any other idea) that you want to include in your book. Whenever possible, include a source (such as the title of a book and page number) on these notes. Use a different color for each element (one for studies, another for stories, and another for sayings).
  6. Sort the smaller notes by chapter. Stick each of these on the appropriate chapter (larger) sticky note.
  7. Sort notes within chapters. Within each of the large sticky notes, arrange the smaller notes by category or sequence.

Benefits:

  • This system is ideal for people with visual and kinesthetic cognitive styles. You prefer to make ideas visible, vivid, and tangible. Also, you like to leave the keyboard for a while, write by hand, and get up and move things around in space.
  • Color coding notes is fun. In a single glance, it also reveals imbalance in your material—chapters that have too many (or too few) studies, stories, or sayings.
  • You have visible evidence of your effort—large notes that cover entire walls and get filled with smaller, colorful notes.
  • You get to physically immerse yourself in your ideas. Psychologists call this distributed cognition. This is the writer’s equivalent of “surround sound.”
  • Flexibility. Rearranging notes into different chapters and moving them around within chapters is a breeze.

Disadvantages:

  • Expense. Sticky notes cost money.
  • Storage. Your notes take up a lot of room and are hard to file away.
  • Mobility. Just try taking all this stuff to a coffee shop.
  • Clarity. Notes that consist of a single word or phrase can be cryptic, making collaboration with co-authors hard.

Also remember that you’ll eventually need to sit down at a computer and translate all your sticky notes into full sentences, paragraphs, and chapters.

If you can live with these caveats, however, start sticking notes today. Let me know how it works.

Find Your Audience by Sharing Your Process—Austin Kleon on Showing Your Work

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Austin Kleon

Since quitting Platform University, I’ve been looking for new guidance on building an online presence. The universe responded with Show Your Work: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered by Austin Kleon. I feel blessed.

Austin’s book is loaded with heart. He explains how to build a platform in ways that benefit everyone: you, your followers, and your peers.

“Make stuff you love and talk about stuff you love,” Austin writes, “and you’ll attract people who love that kind of stuff.”

Following is the table of contents for Show Your Work with my annotations. Please do read the book.

1. You don’t have to be a genius

Nobody creates in isolation. Join a community of like-minded people who freely exchange ideas.

Look for a gap in the conversation that you can fill, even if you know nothing about it. Learn about it, and share what you learn.

Voice emerges naturally when you talk about what you love.

You don’t have to have a near-death experience to get perspective and inspiration. Just read obituaries.

2. Think process, not product

On your way to producing finished products, share your works-in-progress. Talk about your “influences, inspiration, and tools.”

Combine pieces of your works-in-progress and shape them into something that you can share online.

3. Share something small every day

Take a few minutes to “find one little piece of your process that you can share.”

Before sharing something ask: Is this helpful, entertaining, or both?

Big things get built from lots of small pieces that you create daily. For example, tweets can become blog posts that become book chapters.

“Don’t think of your website as a self-promotion machine, think of it as a self-invention machine.”

4. Open up your cabinet of curiosities 

Talk about your influences—your heroes; the people you follow; the things you read, watch, and view.

Go “dumpster diving”: sort through the stuff that everyone else is ignoring and share any inspiration that you find there.

When you share someone else’s work, give context: who made it, how they made it, why you care about it, and where people can find more by that person.

5. Tell good stories

When you tell a compelling story about how and why you created something, you create interest in your work.

Novelist John Gardner described the basic structure of most stories: “A character wants something, goes after it despite opposition (perhaps including his own doubts), and so arrives at a win, lose, or draw.”

Practice describing what you do in terms that people understand. Limit yourself to two sentences.

6. Teach what you know

Whenever you learn something, teach it. Share reference material and step-by-step instructions.

7. Don’t turn into human spam

Promote other people’s work as well as your own.

Stop worrying about how many followers you have. Just share work that’s worth noticing.

If you consistently feel depleted after hanging out with people, avoid them.

Share your secrets with the people who share your obsessions.

Get together with people “IRL”—in real life. Face-to-face.

8. Learn to take a punch

When you put your work out into the world, be prepared for criticism. Take a deep breath and remember that you are more than your work.

Focus on feedback from the people who matter most to you.

9. Sell out

Forget the starving artist stereotype. Much of the world’s greatest art was made for money.

Set a fair price for the work that you want to sell. Then ask people to buy through donations, crowd funding, or “buy now” and “hire me” buttons on your website.

Give away great content and collect email addresses. Then when you have something remarkable to sell, e-mail everyone on your list.

Say yes to unexpected opportunities to do more of the work that you love. Then before you get too busy, learn to say no.

Give credit to your mentors and fans. Offer them opportunities to share their own work.

10. Stick around

It’s a cliché but often true: Success comes to those who persevere.

As soon as you finish a project, ask yourself what you missed and what you could have done better. There’s your next project.

Take sabbaticals—even if they’re limited to a workout or walk through the park.

When you feel like you’re not learning anymore, become a beginner at something else.

Why I Quit Platform University

DSCN0383Last month I joined Platform University, Michael Hyatt’s membership site for book authors and anyone else who wants to build an audience. This is an extension of his book Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World.

Michael clearly knows what he’s talking about. He has over:

  • 300,000 unique monthly visitors to his website
  • 123,000 Twitter followers
  • 92,000 monthly podcast listeners
  • 70,000 newsletter subscribers
  • 17,000 Facebook fans

Those numbers represent Michael’s “platform”—his online audience. If he wants to sell a book (or anything else), all he has to do is let his tribe know about it.

The whole notion of building an online platform according to Michael’s model is seductive. Who could resist?

Well, I did. I canceled my Platform University membership after one month. Perhaps my reasons will stimulate your thinking.

Begging the Big Questions

The bottom line for building a platform, says Michael, is creating great content. But after consuming dozens of interviews and webinars from Platform University, I found myself still wondering:

  • What exactly is great content, anyway?
  • How do you build such content in a systematic way?
  • What is content anyway? How does it differ from the information, stories, instructions, and ideas that we published in books and articles before the Internet came along?

I never got in-depth answers from Platform University (or from anyone else who’s written about building a platform). These are tough questions—and easy to avoid.

Endless To-Do Lists

What I did get from Platform University is an urgent message to get busy. There’s so much to do!

Platform University abounds in suggestions for getting your domain name, choosing a web hosting service, setting up a WordPress blog, recording podcasts, tweaking your website design, and completing a hundred other technical tasks.

But if you have nothing valuable to say, then isn’t all that stuff beside the point?

Endless Demand for Content

One big problem that we face in the age of online platforms is the implicit demand to keep cranking out content. There’s always another blog post to write. Another Twitter timeline to replenish. Another Facebook page to update. Another Pinterest image and another Instagram photo to publish.

And that’s not just for today. It’s every day. For the rest of your working life. I’m seriously wondering whether Michael Hyatt—or any of us—can meet this expectation.

Is it any wonder that the Internet sounds like a vast echo chamber? Content gets retweeted, reposted, and regurgitated in countless other ways. Fluff abounds, clichés rise to the top, and the repeated strains become transparent. In the place of real ideas, we get lists, link bait, and self-promotion.

Can you believe that there were ever people like Margaret Mitchell, who published one novel (Gone With the Wind) during her lifetime? Or Robert Pirsig, who wrote two books (including Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance) and then declared that he was done? That kind of restraint is looking pretty good right now.

There Are Other Ways to Do It

While consuming content from Platform University, I fell into the assumption that Michael’s way of building an audience is the only way. To be fair, Michael doesn’t directly say do it my way or hit the highway. But then again, he doesn’t point to alternative models.

Yet those models abound. There are many people building an online audience, and they do it in different ways. See the following for examples:

P. S. Michael’s a good writer. If you want to build a platform, first check out his excellent blog, which you can read for free.

Writing an Eight-Word Mission Statement for Your Book

P1060009One shining path to clarity is creating a mission for your nonfiction book. This is especially true if you want readers to change their behavior and produce new results in their lives. For maximum benefit, keep your mission statement short enough to recite from memory—8 words or less.

A mission statement answers one question: Why this book? Writing without an answer to this question—or a vague, fluffy one—can doom your project.

On the other hand, truly understanding the mission of your book can help you focus and tighten your manuscript. Reducing the word-count also helps you create a memorable mission statement—one that can excite you and your readers.

Examples from philanthropy

My inspiration comes from Tactical Philanthropy Advisors, a group that works with individual and family philanthropists who donate at least $100,000 annually. Tactical Philanthropy Advisors helps these people figure what they want to accomplish by giving away money. That means looking for nonprofit organizations with a clear mission statement.

“Most mission statements don’t help that much,” notes the author of an article published on the Tactical Philanthropy Advisors blog. “We re-formulate the mission in a phrase of ~8 words or less that includes 1) a target population (or setting), 2) a verb, and 3) an ultimate outcome that implies something to measure—like this:

  • “getting African one-acre farmers out of poverty
  • “preventing HIV infection in Brazil”

Eight words for your book

The same format can work for your book’s mission statement as well. Just complete this sentence: The mission of my book is to…. See if you can do this with 8 words or less. For example:

  • help college students reduce education-related debt
  • help retired people reduce health care costs
  • help people over age 60 enjoy passionate sex

If you express the essence of your mission in 8 words or less, then you truly understand what you’re writing about. You’ll be able to talk about your project in a way that editors, sales reps, and readers can remember.

Facing the Abyss — Writing as Meditation

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAEternal nothingness is OK as long as you’re dressed for it — Woody Allen

As an idea entrepreneur, you are going to write. This post is about dressing up psychologically for the nothingness created by writing. Sometimes I call this blank space the abyss.

The Encarta® World English Dictionary offers several definitions of abyss:

a chasm or gorge so deep or vast that its extent is not visible…. something that is immeasurably deep or infinite…. a situation of apparently unending awfulness…. hell thought of as a bottomless pit….

Ouch. Kinda grim. Yet while writing, you might find that such definitions acquire a dim resonance.

Just pull out a new sheet of paper. Or, open up a new file on your computer.

It’s blank.

That’s the abyss.

***

Some writing teachers counsel you to avoid the abyss. Never open up a blank space, they say. Pull out something that you’ve written before and edit it. Or, do some free writing. Just start moving your fingers and write anything at all. Fill up the void as quickly as possible.

I understand the reason for such strategies. Facing a blank space strips us naked, psychologically speaking.

Even so, there might be a benefit to hanging out in the abyss for a few moments. Any feeling that terrifies us also has the potential to liberate us. The key is to simply greet it with mindful awareness, moment by moment.

If we drop the habit of resisting unpleasant mental states, we can simply observe them as they arise and pass away. We develop a still point of internal stability—a place that is immune to changing conditions.

This is where writing merges with meditation.

When Word Counts Don’t Count

Message StonesIn a famous letter, Blaise Pascal wrote, “I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.”

His point: Taking the time to edit your writing forces you to distill your message to its essence. The result is often fewer words rather than more.

Please remember this whenever you are advised to write a certain number of words every day. This strategy can be useful for creating a first draft of your book, when quantity counts more than quality. At other stages of your project, however, the “more is better” strategy can backfire.

In fact, there are several points in the writing process where you’ll benefit from reducing your word count. Examples are:

Enough said.

Three Questions to Ask Before Writing a Book

 file6151303951841You should write a book. These are words not to be spoken lightly. Yet they are often uttered by well-meaning people who have no clue.

Talk to someone who’s actually written a book. They’ll describe it as a form of intentional suffering, temporary insanity, or both.

Imagine the amount of time and effort that you think a book will take and then double it. Then be prepared to double that and you might be close.

“Writing a book is intellectually, emotionally, and physically taxing,” notes John Butman, author of Breaking Out: How to Build Influence in a World of Competing Ideas. “It is also quite exposing and revealing—of your knowledge, the quality of your ideas, your writing skills, and your personality. You are putting yourself out there in a big way, which you may not want to do.”

Ryan Holiday, author of three books, offers a similar caution. “If you honestly think you might be fine if you nixed the project and went on with your life as though the idea never occurred to you–then For The Love Of God, save yourself the anguish and do that.”

Even so, it might be true that you should write a book. How do you know? See if you can answer the following questions.

1. Can I live with myself if I don’t write this book?

“If this idea keeps you up at night, it dominates your conversations and reading habits, if it feels like you’ll explode if you don’t get it all down, if your back is to the wall–then congratulations,” says Ryan Holiday, “it sounds like you’ve got a book in you.”

John Butman agrees. When people ask him about whether to write a book, he asks: “Is it impossible for you not to?”

2. Can I pass the one-day test?

Here’s the full form of this question, as stated in Breaking Out:

Can you talk about your idea for an entire day and keep an audience’s interest and attention? If so, you probably have enough material to go ahead and write a book.

According to John, passing the one-day test means having a “great heaviness” or “preponderance” of content. Your ideas must be developed with reams of supporting material—stories, examples, facts, quotations, and references. If you haven’t wrestled with your idea for a while and filled a commonplace book with notes on it, then put off your book project for now.

3. Can I pass the one-page test?

“One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever got was to–before I started the process–articulate the idea in one sentence, one paragraph and one page,” Ryan Holiday says. “This crystallizes the idea for you and guides you on your way.”

Amen. This is an intellectual achievement of the highest order. Stating the essence of your book will test you in a way you’ve never been tested before. I’ve written about how to do this in The Message Hierarchy—A Power Tool for Describing the Essence of Your Book and Three Ways to Understand Your Book’s Big Idea

In short, the time to write a book is not when a compelling idea first occurs to you. Rather, be willing to live with your idea for long time. Work on it, and let it work on you. Then you’ll know whether it’s time to begin.

Uncommon Wisdom on Reading, Writing, and Publishing from Ryan Holiday

picture-238129Ryan Holiday, director of marketing at American Apparel, is still in his twenties and has already published three books, including the best-seller Trust Me I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator. Though steeped in the craft of advertising and at home on the Web, he reads like a maniac and writes thousands of words per week.

“The walls of my house are covered in books from floor to ceiling,” he confessed in a recent post. “The last time I moved, I had to rent a U-Haul exclusively for books. At first that frustrated me, and then I remembered that books paid the rent on both those houses. They kept me sane, they made me a lot of money.”

I find a lot of practical wisdom in Ryan’s views on reading, writing, and publishing. So I want to highlight some of his posts and link you to the original sources.

So You Want To Be A Writer? That’s Mistake #1

Ryan begins by quoting Schopenhauer, who distinguished between people “who write because they have something they have to say and those who write for the sake of writing.” Too much writing advice is directed toward the latter.

“The problem is identifying as a writer,” Ryan notes. “As though assembling words together is somehow its own activity. It isn’t. It’s a means to an end. And that end is always to say something, to speak some truth or reach someone outside yourself.”

So You Want To Write A Book? “Want” Is Not Nearly Enough

Writing a book is not therapy. It’s not an “interesting” experience or hobby. It’s work that takes over your life for too long and chews you up until you finish.

“If you honestly think you might be fine if you nixed the [book] project and went on with your life as though the idea never occurred to you–then For The Love Of God, save yourself the anguish and do that,” Ryan advises. “If, on the other hand, this idea keeps you up at night, it dominates your conversations and reading habits, if it feels like you’ll explode if you don’t get it all down, if your back is to the wall–then congratulations, it sounds like you’ve got a book in you.”

If you belong to the latter group, then remembering three things can help a lot:

  • Much of the work—researching and outlining—is done before you write a first draft.
  • Begin by stating the essence of your book in one sentence, one paragraph, and one page.
  • When you get “writer’s block,” talk through your ideas with someone who listens well.

How To Write A Great Essay About Anything

Ryan defines essays as “written compositions about anything.” Articles, blog posts, college papers, reports, memos, and longish emails are all included.

To begin, he writes, remember that “you need only to create a handful of original sentences for the entire essay: a thesis, a theme, a mini-thesis that begins each paragraph and a concluding sentence that says what it all means. Everything else is a variation of these four sentences in some way.” For more details, see the post.

How To Read More — A Lot More

“Reading must become as natural as eating and breathing to you,” Ryan observes. It’s not something you do because you feel like it, but because it’s a reflex, a default.”

“Perhaps the reason you’re having trouble is you forgot the purpose of reading,” he adds. “It’s not just for fun. Human beings have been recording their knowledge in book form for more than 5,000 years. That means that whatever you’re working on right now, whatever problem you’re struggling with, is probably addressed in some book somewhere by someone a lot smarter than you.”

Read To Lead: How To Digest Books Above Your “Level

“I may have been a college drop out,” Ryan notes, “but I have had the best teachers in the world: tough books.” To get the most from them:

  • Ruin the ending by previewing the book to discover its basic assertions up front.
  • Focus like a laser on answering two questions about the book: “1) What does it mean? 2) Do you agree with it?”
  • Look up unfamiliar words right away.
  • Mark every passage that interests you and write notes to yourself in the margins.
  • Wait a week or two after finishing the book and then add the marked passages and marginalia to your commonplace book. (More about this below.)
  • Bring the ideas you marked to life by using them in conversation, acting on them, and quoting them in your own writing.
  • Choose your next book from those listed in the footnotes or bibliography of the book you just finished.

Information Vs. Knowledge Vs. Experience

Today were are blessed by easy access to thousands of blogs, books, videos, and free online courses. John Butman calls it the ideaplex.

“But there is a dark side to this glut of free information,” Ryan notes. “It’s enabled a whole industry of self-help gurus, life coaches, and social media marketers to sell snake oil to the masses, tricking people–people who genuinely want to improve their lives–into thinking they can get something for nothing.”

Ryan reminds us that knowledge requires experience, “the back and forth feedback loop–between theory and practice, hypothesis and results, ideas and action.”

How And Why To Keep A “Commonplace Book”

“A commonplace book is a central resource or depository for ideas, quotes, anecdotes, observations and information you come across during your life and didactic pursuits,” Ryan notes. “The purpose of the book is to record and organize these gems for later use in your life, in your business, in your writing, speaking or whatever it is that you do.”

Commonplace books have a long history. Montaigne used one. So did Marcus Aurelius, Petrarch, Napoleon, Thomas Jefferson, H. L. Mencken, and Ronald Reagan. Bill Gates does, and Ryan suggests that you do, too. This is especially wise if you are an idea entrepreneur—someone who makes a living by writing, speaking, training, and consulting.

Ryan is unusual in that his commonplace book is totally analog—thousands of handwritten index cards filed by category. However, you can use digital tools as well. I offer suggestions here.

For more of Ryan’s ideas on commonplace books, see:

The Right (And Wrong) Way To Market A Book

If you really want your book to get attention, then remember that marketing it does not come after writing. Rather, start marketing the book three years before it’s published.

Also remember that the best marketing decision you can make is to write an indispensable book. “By doing that you create the only marketing that matters,” Ryan notes: “word of mouth.”

This post offers plenty of gritty marketing advice. Supplement it with The Overthinker’s Guide To Launching Your Next Project Without Wanting To Kill Yourself

How I Wrote Three Books in Three Years

The first two suggestions alone—”always be researching” and “know where you’re going (have a plan)”—can save you hours of heartbreak.

If You Want More

Check out Ryan’s posts on Thought Catalog. Also see my Readlist of personal favorites.