My years as a manuscript editor taught me how to structure a book. Many authors are experts with great info to impart, but when they try to produce a book they end up with a shapeless mess. Book writing is a craft, a professional specialty, like making violins.
For the past few months I've been working with a client who has terrific material and a clear idea of what she wants to say-in general. But she'd only written articles and hadn't a clue about how to put everything together into a book.
I began by making her do an outline. Now we're working through the chapters, honing the concepts for each one. It's making her brain sweat. She knows her data, but has never thought her ideas through at this level of detail. When you work on the scale of a book, you need to create connections that never come up when you're only presenting a bit of your data in an article. A comment in chapter 5 seems to conflict with a piece of evidence already presented in chapter 3. Are they really contradictory, or did you just not realize all the implications of that piece of data? It's in actually working with the text that you really figure out what you mean to say.
- Years ago I went with a friend to hear Grace Paley speak. Paley talked about how she wrote one of her short stories, explaining that she found out what the story was about by writing it. My friend was baffled. She has a capacious, logical mind and had produced her own book by creating a conceptual structure based on her research, organizing all her notes, then writing everything out. But my own process-even though I write nonfiction-is like Paley's: it's through struggling with the connections of the clauses in a sentence, then the sequence of ideas among the sentences themselves, that I learn what I really mean to say.
I explained to my client that putting together a book is like working a jigsaw puzzle-when you get everything properly arranged, the pieces all fall into place with a click and the structure is solid. In an extended piece of writing, the structure-the organization of ideas-is actually itself a concept. All the subsidiary concepts in the separate chapters must fit snugly into this overall conceptual structure. When they do, the argument is not only clear, but pleasing.
- Tip: repetitive passages are always a sign that something is wrong with the overall conceptual structure. Reorganize your presentation of ideas, and the repetition will vanish.
For me, putting the puzzle together is another part of the pleasure of writing: first, sinking into intense concentration, seeing deeply into your material, and shaping your concepts to agree with it; then, fitting everything into place with that aesthetically satisfying click!
Causes Stephanie Golden Supports
Insight Meditation Society, Barre, MA
Brooklyn for Peace
New York Insight Meditation Center
Coalition for the Homeless