Take it up a level

Authors often come to me for help in developing a book about a topic they know from years of experience. They’ve talked about this topic countless times with students and clients and colleagues. They are preeminent experts. And they want to capture the treasure of their ideas in an insightful trade book.

As we start working, these authors soon realize something: Expressing what they have been talking about all along falls short of their aspirations. They want to talk about something new, push their thinking to a new level.

This belated realization once surprised me. But now I realize it’s the rule, not the exception. Professionals of all stripes want to break old boundaries.

If you happen to be just starting a book, how do you make the most of the early development phase? How do you make implicit insight explicit? How do you unearth not-yet-verbalized insights? Here are some ways:

1)   Draw new distinctions: Redouble your effort to develop nuances. In Ethics for the Real World, authors Ron Howard and Clint Korver wanted to show how the Golden Rule means different things to different people. To highlight distinctions, they invented the platinum, diamond, silver, brass, aluminum, lead, and iron rules. The platinum rule: “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.” The silver rule: “Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you.” The iron rule (tongue-in-cheek): “Do unto others before they do unto you.” The rules allowed the authors to illustrate shades of meaning and new levels of insight.

2)   Make readers better: Most readers want a book to make them better—as thinkers, as advisors, as skilled professionals. You can fulfill these expectations by prodding yourself to develop insights you never knew you had. For example, in Stairway to Earth, I planned to write a book for all nonfiction authors with the typical how-to book theme, “practice makes perfect.” I soon realized I could better serve my core audience, professionals of all kinds, with a more focused theme, “process makes perfect.” That opened my mind to many new insights, allowing me to write more effectively for analytical-minded professionals—and ironically, other writers as well.

3)   Create novel packaging: Don’t settle for aging language and obsolete turns of phrase. Fit your writing to tomorrow’s zeitgeist. In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell covered an age-old topic—the power of intuitive decision making—but used a reformulated vocabulary for a new audience: He covered “thin slicing” perceptions, “the locked door” of the unconscious, and “the storytelling problem.” His packaging allowed him to retrace familiar territory and convey insights in fresh ways.

4)   Develop big-picture themes. All authors begin with a “street-level” message—“what this book is about.” But you can enrich your book by adding an intriguing “satellite-level” theme. In The Unfinished Leader, David Dotlich, Peter Cairo, and Cade Cowan showed how business leaders manage paradoxical problems, which requires loosening their grip on control, consistency, and closure. The street-level message, it turned out, could also serve as a universal one: Everyone can solve life’s paradoxical problems in the same way. The authors then had a book that resonated on two levels, adding to the book’s impact.

5)   Seek interesting hybrids. Can your topic cross disciplinary lines? How do insights from, say, business management, apply to government and nonprofit management? Richard D’Aveni, strategy professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck business school, asked that question in Strategic Capitalism. Applying business-strategy insights to economics, he developed prescriptions for foreign-policy wonks. In the same way that businesses compete by changing the rules of competition, national economies can do the same. The U.S., he showed, could vary its capitalist strategy to better compete with China’s.

Early on in book development, do yourself a favor by redoubling your efforts to bring out insights that might otherwise remain locked inside your head. Dig for gold nuggets. You’ll be surprised how you can produce new, unrealized value for both yourself and readers by mining the mother lode of knowledge in your brain.

As Emerson advised, “You have first an instinct, then an opinion, then a knowledge, as the plant has root, bud and fruit. Trust the instinct to the end, though you can render no reason.”.

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