Writers are asked to write in short installments—a 500-word article here, a listicle there. These short, tightly-argued pieces you may write on a day-to-day basis might seem only loosely related, but if you take a step back, you might find a larger, book-length narrative just waiting to emerge.
As a book editor, I work every day with nonfiction authors who want to expand their body of smaller pieces into a book. Today, I’ll share strategies my authors and I have found successful—or not—in finding the forest in all the trees of their ideas.
Tip #1: Locate the bigger idea.
Every successful book has a bigger hook. That is, the book articulates a bigger piece of wisdom we can gain from reading the book—what we in the business call the “so what.” To find it, imagine explaining the purpose of your book to a skeptical potential reader.
Say you’re writing about ways that millennials date. So what?
Well, people think millennials are privileged, self-centered, and ignorant of tradition and community, but maybe your interviews and essays show how that’s not really true. So what?
Well! Maybe your interviews show that for millennials, dating is the perfect window into understanding them and the unique challenges their generation faces in an uncertain political and economic climate.
Let yourself get a little defensive against this imaginary skeptic, and you might just tease out the bigger idea for your book.
Ask yourself: Why should readers care about the topic at hand? What can people interested in walk away from the book understanding in a new way? Look across all the smaller pieces you want to combine into a book. Every topic has greater implications lurking in the background.
Tip #2: Find a purpose for each piece of the bigger idea.
Now that you have a bigger idea for your book, you might be tempted to center every chapter on proving how all your examples support this bigger idea. You’re on the right track—the bigger idea should unify the book. However, it’s very easy to make your individual chapters too repetitive and to make your cases do too much work.
Let’s return to our hypothetical book about millennials’ dating. Rather than make the first chapter about how dating in cities shows how dating explains millennials’ economic, political, and social lives, and then the second chapter about how dating in suburbs explains millennials’ economic, political, and social lives, take a step back and think about what particular aspect of millennials’ lives is illuminated by dating in cities or suburbs.
Look at your source materials. Do your initial interviews or blog posts reveal a particular insight that makes up the bigger argument about millennials’ dating lives? By focusing in on how each example or case uncovers a specific nuance about the bigger idea, you keep the scope and pacing of the book manageable.
It’s easy to get lost in clever stories and provocative quotes as you write. Make sure each chapter stays grounded in the big idea, too.
One trick I find helps authors who struggle with getting lost in the details is the use of subheads or section breaks to create distinct breaks in the narrative. Use these breaks to reflect on where you are in the overall argumentation of the chapter and what the section you just wrote has to contribute to the thesis of the chapter and to the thesis of the book.
Tip #4: Be selective. Not all of the smaller ideas will make the cut.
Although a book seems like a big endeavor—and it is—writing one is an exercise in scarcity and restraint. If you have two stories that prove the same point, keep only one. If one of your examples isn’t detailed enough or doesn’t quite fit the overall theme of the book, don’t bend over backwards trying to justify to the reader why it really does support the big idea or why it should be included. Instead, just leave it out! Save your words for the examples that will have the most useful impact on the overall argument.
Tip #5: Don’t just copy and paste.
If you’re working from a body of shorter essays or blog posts that you want to combine into a book, resist the urge to think of the book as a collection of essays. That’s the easy way out, and it often isn’t successful.
Essay collections come off as random collections of some author’s random thoughts, and unless you are relatively well known, like Roxanne Gay, no one cares about your random thoughts. (Plus, if any of these essays were formally published, you run the risk of putting out a book that people who know your work have already read.)
You, as a non-famous plebe, are going to have to revise the essays to fit into a coherent whole to offer something someone wants to read. And this does not mean just editing the beginnings and endings of each chapter; this means revising, rewriting, and restructuring these pieces from the inside out. In the end, your book will be better off for this extra work.
It may seem overwhelming to start thinking about the forest when all you’ve got are trees for as far as the eye can see, but it is possible. Your bigger idea is there, waiting to be noticed. Start with these tips and before long, you’ll be cutting down trees—by way of publishing a real book!
About the Author
C.K. Bush is a nonfiction editor and writer. She lives in New York City.
Photo courtesy of rawpixel / Pixabay.com