Yes, he was kidding. Yet Wilde’s description is not so far removed from what some aspiring authors do. They spend hours fiddling with sentence structure and punctuation before doing any serious thinking about why they’re writing in the first place.
In nonfiction “how to” books, basic communication with the reader takes place at the level of structure. You can spend hours choosing words and polishing your sentences to the level of Biblical prose. But if those sentences are combined in a haphazard way and fail to answer the reader’s questions in a logical order, you can disconnect from your audience.
This is a problem you can solve by writing a book proposal before attempting a full draft your manuscript. Your book proposal will include an annotated table of contents—sometimes called an “outline” or “chapter-by-chapter synopsis.”
There is real wisdom in crafting this part of your proposal early on. It is much easier to fix a 2-page table of contents than a 200-page manuscript. As you list possible chapter headings and subheadings, lapses in logic and gaps in content will become painfully obvious.
That’s OK. This is good pain.
The cure is relatively simple. Just spend an hour or two revising your table of contents. This is far less painful than revising page after page of disorganized prose that was written with no overall plan in mind.