Journaling to clarity

In Stairway to Earth, I recommend that authors create a positioning journal. The journal is a place to pour out your thoughts, to muse, brainstorm, dream, and scheme.  And it is essential in the book-development process—well before you write the proposal—so you’re clear on where you’re going.

What do you address in a journal? The answers to some big questions: What is my book’s position in the market? How is it different from other books? How will I approach my subject to appeal to my core readers? Who are my core readers, anyway?

In December 2008, I began journaling about the positioning of my upcoming book, Merchants of Virtue: Herman Miller and the Making of a Sustainable Company. Before going beyond the stage of clarifying a message and a table of contents, I wanted to take a shot at specifying where the book would stand on the bookstore shelf.

I knew from the start that I wanted to tell the story of how Herman Miller, Inc., became a role model for corporate sustainability. I intended to chronicle the ups and downs of people in the trenches. But I could go many ways with the story, and I needed to “think out loud” about the best direction.

As an example of what goes into a positioning journal, below I have pasted some actual text, in the hopes you get an idea of how to create a journal for yourself. You can use several tricks to get yourself started. One that I use is to imagine I’m writing the text for the book jacket. Here’s what I wrote:

 “Jacket-like copy: This is the true story of the battle by a band of managers at a century-old Midwest manufacturer to run a truly green company. In the late 1980s, in the wake of Exxon Valdez, public disclosure of toxic-release data, and the focus on all things green in the run-up to the 1992 Rio conference, these company insiders were galvanized by events around them to change business as usual. The unlikeliest character, a South Dakota chemical engineer, emerges as the driver/hero who asks why Herman Miller can’t do better. In the process, he and his band not only fulfill the promise of re-designing the company for sustainability; they fulfill their own potential to live up to higher values. [to essentially get people in the corporation to self-actualize per De Pree values]”

This is from a document unchanged since December 2008. (“De Pree” refers to DJ De Pree, the company founder.) The final book departed from what I first wrote. That’s normal. The journal is a starting point. It is an original bearing. It is also a place to write without the pressure of writing “real” text for the proposal. You’re taking practice shots at the basket.

In my journaling, one thing I try to do is flesh out themes on two levels. One theme applies to the topic at hand, which in this case is managing for corporate sustainability. The other, a more deeply buried theme, applies to life in general. Readers always want to learn about the topic they bought the book for. But they give you bonus credit when, in some indirect way, your story resonates in their private lives.

Here’s where I tried to specify the themes:

“This is a story in which expediency, indifference, short-termism, skepticism, and contempt threaten to erode the progress wrought by adherence to values and virtue…but people at the corporation defeat these antagonistic forces.

At a higher level, the story is about people being tested to live up to company values (which includes demonstrating stewardship). Practicing values (through stewardship) is a long-term, holistic process of involving/stewarding/growing human and natural resources. HM struggles to live up to its own founders’ definition, and increasingly a more demanding definition of values as defined by workers and society.

So Merchants of Virtue is more than an inside story of a battle by Herman Miller managers against expediency and indifference and short-term profit; it is a big-picture book about the past, present, and future potential of serious business people to achieve sustainable management – and the huge impact these mgt changes have on design, mfg, marketing, and consumer values. This is a view of the future of responsible business in America….”

You can see that I was struggling. I wanted to stretch myself, try some expansive thoughts. That’s one reason why I call writing in a journal “writing to think.” When you’re writing to think, you can write as if no one else will read your words. You can reach beyond your grasp. You can wing it. Writing with a relaxed and playful mind can lead to some great ideas. This is entirely different from what I call “writing to deliver,” or writing when you’re composing your book proposal or manuscript. At that point, you’re much more focused, and more serious.

Another thing I include in my journaling is an idea or two about how to start the book. What will capture the interest of my target audience at the get-go? Merchants of Virtue is a business story, not a concept or how-to book. Since a story often doesn’t start at the beginning—that is, it doesn’t flow chronologically from start to finish—I puzzled over the best place to have readers enter the action. Here were my thoughts:

“The story emerges from the challenges/trials of people at the bottom or the organization. The designers, both industrial design and organizational design, want to fulfill the ideal of stewardship (or fulfill ideal of designing a community to fulfill its potential). Question for proposal is: Who are the movers and shakers? Who are the “giants” and “roving leaders,” as Max De Pree calls them? Paul Murray? DfE designers responding to Murray?

Top managers may be a side show, or even the antagonists, in that they are challenging their people through ever-higher expectations to fulfill company values per De Pree philosophy (see p81, Tribal Storytelling).

Maybe story begins with Murray’s son getting anaphylactic shock. Murray was supervisor in production, and this was, for him, a personal inciting incident. Story then is about bottom-rung people pushing the sustainability agenda (agenda to “design” a sustainable co) – with blessings from a company culture that matched their own, the culture imbued with values of De Prees and 1960s generation.”

In this case, I was thinking about starting with a flashback, an event from the life of a manager named Paul Murray, a paint chemist who would become the head of all company sustainability efforts. As I got to outlining the book in detail, I didn’t start the book’s main story this way, which was an event from 10 years earlier, but I did turn the event into a prologue.

By the time I was finished, my positioning journal ran over 2,000 words. I did use a lot of the journal material in my book proposal. But the value of the journal was to facilitate early thinking. The various passages were like experimental clay models. I built them quickly without fear of making a mistake. I could shape and reshape them to get them into better and better form.

The journal is an essential step in book development because it helps you further clarify where you’re going. It can seem like an “extra” step. But an extra step that improves clarity is an extra step that eliminates missteps later.

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