Know Your Big, Beautiful Question

PA281186One of my mentors in print is Gordon Burgett, a prolific author and self-publisher. And the single most important thing he taught me is that your nonfiction, how-to book exists to answer a single question.

I call it your big, beautiful question.

Consider Three Examples

In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey asks one big, beautiful question: How can we reliably cultivate independence (personal autonomy) and interdependence (the ability to work effectively with other people)?

In Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, David Allen asks: How can you create a rock-solid inventory of all your current projects and trusted reminders for the very next action to take on each of those projects?

And in How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work, Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey ask: How can we prevent our unconscious attempts to sabotage the changes that we consciously intend to make in our lives?

Saving Your Sanity

Defining your big, beautiful question takes time. But it will save you hours of writing time. Why? Because you’ll know what to put in—and more importantly, what to leave out—of your book.

My heart bleeds for writers who don’t know their big, beautiful question. That question leads to an outline (table of contents). And as Ryan Holiday explains, the lack of an outline can quickly turn your book project into burnt toast:

An author friend recently told me that he’d written 115,000 words for the book he was working on; a book that contractually was only going to be 60,000 words. And worse, it was only just now that he’d really figured out the thrust of the book.

It almost broke my heart.

Obviously there are many different ways to skin a cat, and I’m not hating on another writer’s style because there are many legitimate ones. But this writer could have written that book in half the time if he’d simply started with a clear outline before he started.

I strongly suggest that writers avoid the temptation to “find the book as they’re writing.” It’s not going to happen. And if it does, it will be a costly discovery.

The person that Ryan describes wrote 55,000 more words than he promised to his publisher. That’s almost another entire book!

Knowing your big, beautiful question can save you from those additional words (and the hours it takes to produce them). Just keep your question in front of you as you work. If the paragraph that you’re writing doesn’t provide a relevant answer, then let it go. Now.

Discovering the Structure of Your Book

How do you create an outline, as Ryan suggests? Just turn to your big, beautiful question again and let it expand naturally.

For example, Stephen Covey’s answer to his big, beautiful question is seven key habits. Each chapter in his book describes one of those habits.

David Allen answered his big, beautiful question with a five-stage model for your personal workflow and another five-stage model for “natural project planning.” The table of contents for Getting Things Done was born.

Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey answered their question with seven “languages for personal transformation.” They explain each language in a separate chapter of their book.

(For another example, see How to Develop a Table of Contents for Your Book.)

This path to structuring your book is pure magic—a joy to behold.

And it all starts with a big, beautiful question.