Sunday, September 03, 2017

Lessons On Writing A Book

On Thursday, we turned in the manuscript for Blitzscaling.  While there is still a lot of work to go before the book appears on shelves (physical or virtual), I wanted to write and share some of my thoughts about the experience of being an author while they were still fresh in my mind.

The story of Blitzscaling stretches all the way back to the class that I, my co-author Reid Hoffman, and my friends John Lilly and Allen Blue, taught together at Stanford in the Fall of 2015.  Since then, Reid and I have been hard at work refining our ideas based on what we learned from teaching the class, as well as everything that's happened in the nearly two years since the class began.  After all, the world is a very different place in September 2017 than it was in September 2015, and that is probably an understatement.

Rather than talk about the content of the book (which you'll be hearing about soon anyway), I want to focus on the experience of being an writer.  In many ways, I know that I, in particular, have it very easy.  Not only do I get to work with a brilliant co-author who can seemingly produce wisdom on demand, but the regular course of his life brought us in touch with so many accomplished people that a "regular" author would have trouble even booking a call with.  Yet there is a reason that such a small percentage of those who want to write a book end up doing so--it's a lot of hard, mostly solitary work.  Here are some of the experiences I had along the way, and what I learned from them.  (I won't speak for Reid, though I suspect that he would say some of the same things.)

1. Sometimes, the only way to figure out what the book is about is to write the book.

The version of Blitzscaling that Reid and I turned in wasn't the first version we wrote.  In fact, the final manuscript has only about 10% in common with the first rough draft that we wrote.  And this was true even though we spent many hours planning out the structure of the book.  It turns out that no matter how carefully you outline your work, the process of writing generates new ideas and insights, which then require you to change the book.  We set out to write a playbook for blitzscaling, only to discover that we really needed to write the prequel to that book first, so that people who understand when and when not to blitzscale.

2. Books, especially those about recent events, benefit from a gestation period.

In my naive mind, I had planned on the writing process for the book to take less than a year.  Even though this flies in the face of most authors' experience, things had gone so smoothly when we wrote The Alliance that I figured that's how every book worked.  In the end, I think that the gestation period made Blitzscaling a richer, more interesting book.  It's like the difference between a snapshot and a movie; a moving picture provides you with a better basis for understanding trends and predicting the future.  Of course, the power of gestation has limits; as Steve Jobs said, "Real artists ship."

3. Writing, like doing your taxes or visiting your dentist, requires willpower, or better yet, good habits.

One of the biggest challenges I faced was purely internal--making the leap from not writing to writing.  As William Zinsser wrote in his classic book, On Writing Well, it's very difficult to sit down to commit an act of literature.  When the appointed time arrives, all of a sudden, your house seems like it needs a cleaning, or the dog needs walking.  Or maybe, you decide, it's not worth it to start a writing session if you only have an hour.  Better to wait until you have an uninterrupted block of two hours.  Or four.  Or eight.

All this is rot, of course.  I find that once I get started, I enjoy the writing process, and usually have to remind myself to take breaks.  Even wrestling with thorny problems like tricky transitions has its own appeal.  It's like when I'm asked a question, or presented with a problem.  I feel a compulsion to answer or provide a solution.  But that still requires that I get started.

Oddly enough, the advice I found most helpful came from Mel Robbins of CNN.  Mel, whose name brings to mind a gravelly-voiced, cigar-chomping newspaper man from the 1930s, is actually an energetic, blonde, former criminal defense attorney.  I didn't actually read her latest book, The 5 Second Rule, but she did a great job of summarizing it in 24 words:

"The moment you have an instinct to act on a goal, you must physically move within 5 seconds or your brain will stop you."

Thinking is a very important part of writing, but when it comes to buckling down and starting the writing process, I find that it's better not to think.  I just tried to minimize the friction between the moment when I think I ought to be writing, and the moment when my finger hits the first key.

Some of this friction minimization takes the form of preparation--preparing outlines, punch lists, and other supporting material that helps when I actually start typing.  But it is all too easy for preparation to become procrastination, which is why the 5 second rule helps.  Sometimes I have to invoke it multiple times to get down to work.

The 5 second rule also informed my toolset.  For the last sprint to the finish, we transferred the manuscript to a Google Doc, so that we could both work on it at the same time, and never have our versions get out of sync.  This actually helped with the 5 second rule, because I just left the Google Doc as an open tab in Chrome, so that all I had to do to start writing was sit down at my computer and click the appropriate tab.  And once the text appeared in front of me and I started reading it, I would quickly fall into a flow state and start working.

4. Context is a powerful way to invoke the power of habit.

One of the most effective things I did was to try to define a very specific context for my writing sessions.  Here's what I mean:

  • I didn't write at my desk, which I associate with doing email and reading the internet.  Instead, I either wrote in a conference room, at the library, or at my wife's seat at the kitchen table (much to her annoyance).  This allowed me to build an association between these locations and writing, which helped make following the 5 second rule that much easier.
  • I always listened to the same music while writing.  My family can be pretty loud.  So can office environments.  To prevent distractions, I'd put in my earbuds and listen to music...and I'd listen to the same music every time.  I should probably thank Pandora in the acknowledgements of the book!  Since there is evidence that suggests that listening to the music of one's youth actually makes you act younger, I'd often listen to 80s music, though I ended up relying more on Pandora's "Thumbprint Radio" feature, which plays songs you've thumbed up, and ones that are similar. (Many thanks to Kristen Robinson for teaching me about this feature!)
  • Naturally, I also tried to use the Pomodoro Technique.  By committing to work for 20 minutes without taking a break (and then committing to taking a break), I was able to work in short chunks when no more time was available, and for long stretches, when it was.
Many people ask why I don't write in coffee shops; the simple answer is that in most Palo Alto coffee shops, I'm likely to run into someone I know, and I'm too polite to tell them, "Go away!  I'm writing right now!"

Are you also a writer?  Do you have any favorite lessons or techniques you're willing to share?  Leave them in the comments below!