Your Next Non-Fiction Book—Assembly Required (Part Two)

DSC05735In part one of this post, I posed a question: How do you take a mass of documents that you’ve already accumulated and assemble them into something that resembles the first draft of a book?

This is not an abstract problem. For a recent project, I got a 12-inch high stack of background materials—books, articles, press releases, technical manuals, PowerPoint slides and scattered notes. Plus 70,000 words of interview transcripts.

My assignment: Create a table of contents for a book to synthesize all that stuff.

One of the things that makes this hard is the sheer bulk of THE STACK. It is so palpable, so solid, so intimidating.

Dealing with THE STACK is never easy. But you can take the following actions to reduce suffering.

1. Take inventory

Create a list of what THE STACK contains. Keep it simple. Just list the name of each document and a short summary of it. At this point, don’t make any further decisions about what to do with THE STACK.

2. Shrink THE STACK in your mind

Close your eyes. Visualize THE STACK shrinking to 80 percent, then 50 percent, then 20 percent or less of its current size. This is, in effect, what you’re eventually going to do with the physical stack that reappears when you open your eyes again.

3. Get away from THE STACK

Grab a pen and paper and take a leisurely walk. Go to a place that promotes relaxation and reflection.

Then consider your initial impressions of THE STACK: Did any documents seem especially relevant or especially irrelevant? List them. Did any topics, points, facts, quotes, anecdotes, or images in THE STACK strike you as particularly important or memorable? List those as well, describing them as best as you can for now.

4. Create a table of contents for your book

State the purpose of your book in one sentence. Then turn that purpose statement into your “big question” and a list of smaller-scale, secondary questions that are implied by your big question.

For more details, see this post. This is a heady task, so set aside several hours for it.

5. Return to THE STACK and purge irrelevant documents

You will now reduce THE STACK to submission. Remember that some of its documents will contain few, if any, answers to your questions. Remove those documents now, set them aside, and store them out of sight.

Congratulations. THE STACK has shrunk. This is no small victory. Also remember that the documents you set aside are safe and secure. You can return to them at any time in the future.

6. Go through the reduced stack and scan documents for answers to your questions

Underline, circle, or highlight the passages that contain these answers. If you’re not allowed to mark up documents, then list the name of each relevant document and describe where the passages are located.

You might discover additional documents that lack answers to your questions. Add those to the documents that you’ve stored out of sight. Then savor the fact that the stack is getting even smaller.

7. Capture those answers

Isolate the sentences and images that contain direct answers to one or more of your questions. Capture these sentences and images as direct quotes. After each quote, list the source document.

You have several options for capturing quotes:

  • Get digital versions of the documents in your stack. Then copy and paste the quotes into a new word processing or text editing document.
  • Make photocopies of the key passages and scan them into a document.
  • Type the quotes directly into a document.
  • Write out the quotes by hand on index cards, like Ryan Holiday does.

8. Celebrate

Behold your creation and cheer. You’ve captured the essence of THE STACK in a single document (or set of note cards).

Now you can actually start creating a first draft of your book. Arrange your quotes to follow your table of contents. Add your own ideas. Edit freely.

Most of all, let THE STACK fade from your memory. Yes, it’s likely that you’ll return to it as you keep working on your book. No problem. You know what’s in the stack, and you’ll look for a specific passage in a specific document. When you’re done, you’ll serenely tuck that document away again and return to your book.

Way to go.

P.S. This whole post can be summarized in six words: get key quotes from key sources.