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Question for you: How do you organize a book?

A Basket of Clams

I'd like to tap your experience to help with my in-process book, "Think, Try, Learn: A scientific method for discovering happiness" (working title). I've collected ideas for five years (since I started this consulting journey), and it's time to pull them together into a structure that leads to chapters.

A few examples I've found:

  • Rico's "clustering" technique in Writing the Natural Way. There's a clustering example on Gabriele Rico website - which looks a lot like a mind map. Thoughts?

  • I also found Ayn Rand's The Art of Nonfiction: A Guide for Writers and Readers.

  • The LinkedIn answer If you plan to write a book, how you organize this work? suggests outlining until it's clear to everyone, analyzing 200 books on the subject (!), and resulting in a 50 page outline having 100 points per page. Fascinating. Another: 100s of 3x5 cards (I have this, basically)) -> lay them out -> gather into categories -> give categories chapter names -> transcribe cards into the computer -> re-work the material a half-dozen times. Also: Use an hierarchical style: start with as many levels as necessary -> try to get it down to 3 levels -> write the paragraphs.

  • In How to write a book Peter Seibel suggests: Write the index -> Write a hierarchical outline -> Write a a flattened outline (linear, including splitting the taxonomy across chapters, and limited to three levels: chapters, sections, and paragraphs as topic sentences) -> Write the book.

I'm curious

  • What ways do you know, or have used, to group ideas?

  • Do you have resources around this that you'd like to share?

  • What works have you applied your methods to?

Thanks a ton!


P.S. The tool I'm using to organize is decidedly low-tech: Post-It notes! I love sticky notes, and I'm sick of my text outliner, so I figured a change might help. Great results so far (my Edson experiment is at Use Post-it note techniques to organize book ideas), which supports my experience reported in How Else Can You See This? Perspective And The Value Of A Tool Change. Find a picture here, for fun:

Reader Comments (8)

Yes, Yes, Yes! Finally someone who has a great suggestion on how to write a book...post-it notes! I never thought of them! I use little pieces of paper that I have lost in the past. Now I can stick them all together!
Lindsey Petersen

February 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLindsey Petersen

Hi, Lindsey. Glad you liked it! Are you writing a book? I'd love to hear about it.

February 22, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

I am more used to writing fiction, but maybe my case could be useful as a contrast ("what an essay is not").
I usually start with the whole "forest" and a few key scenes.
My mind gets polarized, I take a lot of notes and unconsciously try to relate everything in my life to my yet-to-be work. When an idea looks suitable, I vaguely know "this will go in section 2", "this is ideal as an ending". My setup at that moment is just a collection of heaps of paper scraps.
After a lot of mobility, I take the first heap, examine the scraps and start to make sequences with them, that is the "final cut" so to say.
Then I write.
The writing process also adds a certain degree of uncertainty to the mix. Things get discarded or forgotten along the way. I need that feeling of adventure to get me going. Maybe it is unacceptable in non-fiction, where the goal is conveying a series of ideas in an efficient way (on its hand, fiction admits and sometimes even requires repetitions, irregularities in the tempo, incoherence...)

Sorry if it is a bit out of topic, but I love discussing this kind of issues. :)

February 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterIgnacio Jordi

That's really helpful, Ignacio. It is hard for me to adopt your willingness to discard ideas. It involves perfectionism (my urge to include /everything/) and a lack of trust that they'll re-emerge, possibly in a cleaner form. I'm trying your adventuresome approach now, so we'll see! Nice to have you here.

February 23, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

One option is to develop a table of contents for your book in the spirit of having a dialogue with your readers. For example:

1. State your purpose in one sentence: "The purpose of this book is to assist readers to double their productivity by doing a regular weekly review."

2. Restate your purpose as a question: "How can readers double their productivity by doing a regular weekly review?"

3. List questions implied by the above question, such as: What is a weekly review? How can I build the habit of doing a regular weekly review? What is productivity? How do we measure productivity?

4. Arrange your list of questions in a logical order:

What is productivity?
How do we measure productivity?
What is a weekly review?
How can I build the habit of doing a regular weekly review?

5. Finally, restate your ordered list of questions as chapter headings:

Chapter 1. A Definition of Productivity
Chapter 2. How We Measure Productivity
Chapter 3. How To Do a Weekly Review
Chapter 4. Making Your Weekly Review a Habit

NOTE: The trick is to ask the questions that your readers would actually ask. Imagine that several of them are sitting with you. What would they say?

I help clients develop TOCs for their books. It is an intellectual adventure and fun to boot.

March 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Toft

Thanks very much, Doug - that's a great idea. I'll give it a shot.

March 29, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

hi Matthew, certainly as a writer, I relate to the problem - I've written a nonfiction book and also publish articles on my website. Organizing information is often a challenge for me so I'll be reading through these tips with interest!

From a reader's perspective, one thing I appreciate in this type of book is to separate 'information' from 'action'. I enjoy background knowledge - stuff like studies on productivity, examples from research and personal anecdotes. It's good stuff to read when you're in one of those information-hungry, obsessed-with-a-topic moods. But when it comes to ACTING on that information, it's really helpful if the to-do list, the tips and so on are somewhat corralled. So I can turn straight to the end of the chapter and see what I need to actually implement.

Another approach to this is the book + handbook/workbook that many authors do. Or perhaps an accompanying ebook for ready-reference.

March 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterHelen South

Hi Helen. Your work is so impressive - well done! Re: separate 'information' from 'action' - I really like it - thanks for the idea. Re: 'book + handbook/workbook': Great minds! The book will be part of the TTL "Platform", including a three-part software system (http://edison.thinktrylearn.com/ is the first one - the TTL experimenter's journal) and an accompanying series of small "Applied" handbooks, such as on dating, health, etc. My little PDF [ You Did WHAT? 99 Playful experiments to live a healthier and happier life | http://matthewcornell.org/products.html#you-did-what ] is a broad example.

Great to hear from you. Thanks so much for writing.

April 26, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

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