Tips on writing a business book

How to write a business book

I have wanted to write a business book ever since I first picked up Tom Peters’ obscure business classic ‘Liberation Management’ as a teenager. I’ve always loved the overlap between business and creativity. Maybe it’s the seductive idea that business (and life) might just be a little bit better if we could get our institutions to act just a little bit more like people.

Tips on writing a business book
It’s important to find a quiet spot to write.

I’ve been working in branding and social media for long enough now to have accumulated some good war stories. I’ve tried out most of the best social media marketing advice and seen what worked (and what didn’t). I’ve known for a while that I had something to say, but I haven’t been quite sure until now that I ‘had a book in me’.

Advice on writing a business book

There is a lot of advice on the internet for the aspiring author on how to write books. Even how to write non-fiction and business books. But the advice is usually from people that coach people on writing books but haven’t quite got around to writing their own book. Having just completed the first twenty thousand words, I now have some firmer thoughts about the quality of advice available on book writing.

Writing by involving lots of people

I really wanted to write my book using an ‘open source’ approach, with lots of people involved. It is after all, a book on social media. The author of the book Business Model Generation, Alexander Osterwalder did this and build up quite a loyal following (before the book even came out). I was quite jealous at the time. But when I tried it out earlier this year, I just got lots of contradictory advice from friends and made myself even more confused. I eventually realised I was looking for feedback too early in the creative process.

My experience is that the collaborative stages of writing a book are best left until once the book is underway and you have a structure. I now understand that Alexander probably nurtured his book for quite a while before he started involving lots of people on the web. I had got to a point where collecting information, interviewing people and blogging had become a distraction. I needed to find the balance between progress and preparation.

Sitting down to write

Some writing coaches advise you to sit with a blank screen and write the book in a linear format. Almost stream of consciousness, like Jack Kerouac (who wrote the entire ‘On the Road’ as a single manuscript on a single roll of paper). I admire anyone who can do this, but for me, it was easier to build a skeleton and then layer on the flesh with successive rounds of writing.

Mapping out your chapters

Conventional non-fiction writing advice is to do a mindmap of your topic. To start with your audience and figure out what you want them to do as a result of reading your book. It’s good advice.

Interestingly, no one tells you what to do once you have your chapter outlines. You’re left back where you started, starring at a blank computer screen. While I was fighting my way through the first few rounds of my new book, I figured out a pattern for the layers. It helped me a lot to know what I was working on each day.

Writing by adding layers

Starting with a structure is important, but it’s the layers of actual writing that will make or break your book. When I started out as a lawyer we used a trick to test the coherence of a document, we’d turn off all the headings and try reading it for flow. I still hold myself to this standard so the headings that you have chosen in your mindmap are actually the least important part of the book. They should be an invisible thread.

Peter Thomson author
Even with a chapter map you still need to knuckle down and write.

The layers of flesh might be different for every author and for every genre. I wanted my book to be professional and serious, but also gritty, real and personal. This meant I needed layers that actually added personality not just advice and theory. The layers that I chose to work through were:

  • Map of chapters and sections.
  • One sentence for each section.
  • One or two paragraph explanation of each section.
  • An analogy about why x is like y (to bring the concept to life).
  • A general example that everyone can relate to (from a familiar industry).
  • A piece of advice from a mentor.
  • A specific case study from an industry that the book relates to.
  • One of my own war stories, anecdotes or personal sayings.
  • A perspective from another relevant book (crediting the thinking and connecting the dots).

Writing by the Socratic method of debate

The Socratic method for writing a book is focused on dialogue, discussion, and debate. The layers of each chapter are best ‘dialogued’ through with a friend. Just give them your chapter outline and let them quiz you on your best anecdotes, your best stories from the pub and your best sayings. It’s good to find someone intelligent, but outside of your specific area of expertise. That way, they can ask you plenty of tough questions.

Keep your notebook handy during these debates and aim to write down one anecdote for each chapter. The level of trust that you need with your debating partner is pretty high because your ideas will be unformed and you’ll also get some feedback that you don’t like. I certainly did.

Once you come to write a layer of the book you are best to ditch the dialogues. You don’t need to invent a Plato and Socrates character to have debates inside the book itself. Just the healthy process of bouncing ideas back and forth as you create each layer.

Writing by walking until it flows

I found that the best paragraphs in the manuscript were those where I just lost myself in the writing. When you hit a rich vein (maybe a story you’ve told before but never written down), then suddenly everything flows. There are lots of things that you can do to try and nurture this flow. But sometimes you hit a block.

When you hit a writer’s block, go for a walk. Going for a walk is the best way of preparing for flow. Steve Jobs was famous for using walking as a problem solving technique. I would give myself a single problem to ponder and then walk around the block. Take a notebook so that you can write down the main nugget that comes to you.

I would take a single chapter out for a walk, and walk for as long as it took me to get to the nugget that I needed. You need a certain gritty determination to do this. I said to myself, “I’m going out now and either this mental block is coming back or I am, but not both of us.” When you get back you should be ready to hit the decks. No interruptions, no internet, no more preparing. Just write.

Writing by reading as a prompt

When I hit a block, I sometimes found it useful to re-read some of my favourite old blog posts. This nudged things around in my head and freed up ideas that I’d had at the time that I first read the articles but since forgotten.

It is still important to acknowledge your sources, to build on the thinking that came before you and to be part of the larger conversation. But that comes later. Writing by reading is about running a magnet over your subconscious brain to try and dredge up old stories, old thoughts and ideas that are still yours.

It’s a dangerous way to write because your readers want to hear your voice not just a rehash of your favourite books. I found the best way to avoid this was to only skim read through things. I focussed on blog posts that I had read and retweeted years ago. By only taking one note per article, I kept my ideas focussed.

Next steps

My book outline is now just on 20,000 words long. It’s time to pause. Talk to some publishers, interview some sources, get a few rounds of feedback and get ready for the next ascent. But I now know for certain that I have at least one book in me. If you do as well, then get on with it.

Update: The book is out now on Kindle and paperback – Tickle: Digital marketing for tech companies