At one point or another in your career, you may be asked to write a report for your boss, your board, or stakeholders. It will bring back memories of high school or college when you needed to prepare a research paper. I’ve certainly faced that challenge many times during my work history and, most recently, when I wrote my latest book.
Whether it is a report for school, work, or a book you want to write, the techniques are similar. I found a method that has worked for me even though it was too late to help me in school.
It starts with planning, research, organization, and then writing. Each step does not need to be overwhelming.
Let’s begin with how the system worked for me in writing two books and the planning of two more. You will see how you can adapt this to your writing project
Research is the first step. Several years ago, I decided that I wanted to write two books. The first one was advice for people who wanted to become managers in my field of public media. I also wanted to write a second book on how to become a better leader. Both would be based on my personal experiences but would also need to incorporate research and case studies.
I created two digital folders in Evernote, which I use extensively for many professional and personal projects. But, you could also create a paper folder for each of your planned writing projects. Every time I saw an article or study related to one of my topics, I would add them to the appropriate folder. As I said, I have two more ideas for books, so I have folders each of them
Once I was convinced that I had plenty of material. I went through the files and used 4×6″ index cards to make notes on each article’s topics and ideas. If I found a quote that I might want to use, I would write it verbatim and surround it with quotation marks. I would also write down the person who was being quoted, their title, and the source where I found the quote. I knew this would help later when I need to prepare my source list. If I found other information that I thought I might want to write about, I would carefully paraphrase the material. Paraphrasing helps me by putting the information into my own words and avoid the possibility of plagiarism. This begins the organization step.
I begin grouping all of my index cards into subcategories. I spread them out on a table in my office so I can see all of them. This helps me see the flow of the different subtopics, and it also illustrates what I am missing. If I find missing areas, I know that the research phase needs to continue.
As part of the organization phase, I begin to outline each area. I do this in writing. This allows me to write a possible thesis statement. From the first time, I can see the book’s draft structure. At this point, I have to decide whether my topic is too broad, too narrow, or if I am on a track that will make me (and my readers) satisfied.
If you get to the point where you are happy with the direction, the fun begins. You need to start the writing process. Every writer seems to have a system. Some insist that they need to start writing for two hours, beginning at 5 am. Others are night-owls. For me, I know that I am at my best in the mid-morning. So when I started writing both of my books, I set aside a couple of hours every day, beginning at about 9 am. I treated it like it was a job or a meeting that was a fixture on my calendar. I’ve tried but was not successful at writing in coffee shops. I love and feel comfortable in my home office. But it can’t be too quiet either. I like a little music in the background.
I don’t use any fancy writing programs. I played with Scrivener, which many writers use. My experience is that it helps you with structure, but my notecards and file system makes that unnecessary for me. I write in Microsoft Word and keep the running document in Dropbox (These are not paid endorsements). The only other software that I use is Grammarly, which checks my spelling, grammar, and sentence structure as I write.
The notes that I had previously organized are at my side. If I have done a good job, I can just follow each card as I write paragraph after paragraph.
As you learned early in school, a good paper starts with a good thesis that telegraphs what you will be writing about. Usually, by the time I begin to write. I am reasonably confident in the central thesis. As I approach each chapter, I review my note card structure to find it’s the thesis. As I continue each chapter, I know that everything I write must support that chapter’s thesis. I work off every notecard set aside for that chapter. When I am done, I move on to the next chapter. I usually take a break before I review the next set of cards and prepare its thesis.
Some days I write faster than others. After an hour and a half to two hours, I find that my brain gets cloudy, and I am laboring too much to continue. I used to aim for 1,500 to 2,000 words a day, but I usually follow my rhythm.
We often hear about writer’s block. For some people, it happens only at the beginning of a project, while others face it at the beginning of every writing session. Getting started can be a challenge, but I’ve learned how to beat that back, plus get into the groove of where I left off the previous day. I call it “reverse writing.” This means I begin the editing process while I continue to write. Each day when I sit down at my computer, I go back to where I started the previous day. I read everything out loud slowly. Doing so, I catch writing errors. I find things that made sense as I was writing, but now in retrospect, need clarity. I make the necessary corrections. Eventually, I have gone through everything from the previous day, and I am ready to start writing new material.
Using this reverse writing process means that I have already completed the first edit by the time I am done with writing the book.
I know I’m done when I’ve gone through all of my notecards and other documents that I had set aside early in the process. I’m confident that I may need to add material later, but for now, I’m ready for the next important step.
I put it away. Frankly, I’m pretty tired of the content by this point in time. I need a break. Depending on how much time I have before I send it to my editor, I may let it sit for a week. Not only does this give me some time away from my daily writing routine, but it will allow me to read it with a fresh set of eyes once I’m ready to pick it up again.
I print out the manuscript for the first time. I do this because I seem to catch more errors, gaps, and things that don’t make sense when I read something on the printed page rather than on a computer screen. I take my time, and I read from beginning to end. I markup things that I want to come back to later. I don’t fix or rewrite. Instead, I mark up the pages. Once I’m done with my second edit, I go back to my computer and make any necessary fixes. If I find missing information, I can add it as needed.
Following this, I submit the entire document to my editor. The type of editor you want depends on the kind of project. I tell the college students I teach that they can have a peer read the document. If you have a friend that is a good reader, let them be an objective reader. If you a working under contract with a book publisher, they will assign you to a professional editor. If you are independent, many professionals will provide that function for a fee. No matter who functions as your editor, they will provide you with valuable feedback. If they challenge the information you cite, you may need to go back and do additional research. At a minimum, you will be making more edits.
After this phase, it put it aside for a few days, print it out, and do a final read. I refer to it as a “final read” rather than a 3rd or 4th draft because I want to feel like we are nearing an end. When I’m done, I find there are only a very few things that need additional attention.
This will be the time you start to second guess what you have written. It’s a nagging feeling that most writers will admit having. But the process you have followed makes sure that you have done your best from the moment you drafted your first thesis statement or even conceived the project.