'I realised I knew nothing about writing a book…'

Emily Hutchinson with an evolving reflection on book writing.

It’s funny how things happen. I was talking to my hairdresser and he said, ‘you know what you should do, you should write a book’. Immediately I said, ‘oh no, I haven’t got time, they don’t make any money, I’ve tried that before and gave up’.

I went away and reflected on the many conversations I’d had about writing a book. My colleague Caroline had been saying for a couple of years that we should write a book about all the work we’d been doing – especially when we couldn’t find the book we wanted to recommend to leaders in our organisation. We’d successfully written many things together – quick practical guides, conference presentations, awards submissions – and the process felt enjoyable and easy. But I still wasn’t convinced.

Then I was sent a review copy of the book #Upcycle your job, by Anna Meller, and I really enjoyed the accessible writing style. So, for some reason, I had a quick Google of the publisher Practical Inspiration, which immediately appealed to me. I saw that they were running a ‘10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge’, starting in… two weeks’ time. At the end of the challenge, one proposal would win a publishing contract!

still wasn’t sure but felt compelled to get in touch, just to see if they had other challenges planned for later in the year – surely I couldn’t fit it in right now, plus I didn’t even know what I was writing a book on, did I? Alison at Practical Inspiration did a brilliant job of persuading me… and before I knew it, I had signed up.

So the 10 days started. I had to find 30 minutes a day but immediately loved the daily tasks and the feedback from Alison. I also realised that I knew nothing about writing a book (I thought you just sat down and started writing!), but I really enjoyed the whole process of linking the book to my business (which is Alison’s approach) and thinking through each aspect: who the reader would be, what they would be looking for, what the marketing plan would be, and of course what the content would be. As part of the challenge I was in a group with some very inspiring people writing on a whole range of topics, who were very supportive and great at contributing ideas.

On each day of the challenge we completed a section of the book proposal, and at the end of day 10 we submitted them to Alison. A tense few days followed while we waited for the result. Alison hosted a live Facebook session to announce the winner, which I couldn’t attend as I was with clients. But I really couldn’t believe it when I checked my emails and saw my name next to Caroline Brown’s (my co-author): ours was one of three books that had been offered a contract. Whoop whoop was followed quickly by aargh… now we have to write the book!

One month later… Working on the book and in the book

So, we have a publishing deal on the table for our book The strengths-based organization: How to boost inclusivity, wellbeing and performance. Now just the writing bit to do… 

The follow on from the book proposal challenge run by Alison at Practical Inspiration was the six-week Boot Camp to create a structure and start the process of writing. Again, I found myself signing up with quite a bit of trepidation as to how I was going to fit it in. Alison assured me that a couple of hours a week would be enough investment. There was also a week’s catch up halfway through which was very welcome. Before we started writing (which wasn’t until week 4!), I found that I needed bigger blocks of time to be able to think. I also completed some parts more thoroughly than others as my time got very squeezed.

Each Monday we received an email with our week’s tasks. Alison splits it into two – every week we have something to do ‘on the book’ and something to do ‘in the book’. Her approach is very much about the book acting as a tool to boost business. She is realistic about how much (or should that be little?) money most people make from book sales – if you want to write a book to make money directly, then you may be disappointed. But if you want to write a book to provide information, for your own satisfaction, or as part of your business development, then great. For me it was all three. 

The ‘on the book’ tasks started with considering the thoughts that get in the way and how to overcome those. It was then all about business development and marketing; how to make writing the book part of the business rather than an extra; how to make connections with the intended audience; what the cover of the book will look like.

Very naively I didn’t realise how much planning, organising, and logical thinking was involved. The early tasks were about breaking down the table of contents (we had produced a very high level one for the book proposal). We were pushed to go through each chapter and create the next level down. And the next level. Until we ended up with 200- to 500-word sections to write. For me this strongly appealed. If I know my focus, I can write quite quickly, without much pain, and with some pleasure. What I don’t like is getting stuck on the structure or order.

Caroline (my co-author) and I also hadn’t signed the publishing deal yet. Having never seen one before, it was very hard to know what a ‘good’ deal looked like. There are many different ways of publishing, and each have costs and benefits. Self-publishing means that everything is within your control, but you also carry all the costs and have to do all the marketing (so you need very good networks and money to invest to make it look professional). Paying a publisher to help you get published can be a good option – you pay them a fee (to cover their costs), but then get a better percentage of any sales. Or the publisher funds the process, but you get a lower percentage return of sales. Unless your book happens to be a bestseller, the revenue is likely to be low, so the third option (if you can get a publishing offer) seems a good one.

One month later… Like starting a business

So, then the harder part starts. Now the guided sessions and weekly reminders stop and I just have to write… and write… and write. 

While the writing was hard to fit in, we also had the excitement of signing the contract and the first task of designing the book cover. This is like starting a business – one of the most enjoyable parts can be designing your business cards and your website. It’s all very creative, and about this amazing ‘thing’ that you are going to make real in the future, but without the realities of actually doing the ‘thing’.  

For me this all really helps with the motivation. Whereas just writing a book with no external obligations (apart from perhaps having told some people) can be hard to keep focused on, the marketing aspects which come with a publishing deal make it far more tangible. It also makes it slightly scary – what if I still can’t write it, or what if it’s just really rubbish? These remain possibilities, but as we did a ‘fears’ exercise at the beginning of the Boot Camp, they are already out there and can be put to one side!

The key to writing is to make it about the business, which Alison really emphasised. Although I’m frustrated at my pace of writing, I’m also continually delivering workshops and presentations and having conversations about the very stuff that I’m writing about. And when I get to write, it informs my thinking so that I run better workshops and deliver more comprehensive presentations. Fabulous.

Another first during this period was being interviewed for my first podcast by HR Uprising. I had no idea how this worked or what I would say, but Lucinda was excellent at putting me at ease and the conversation flowed. I met Lucinda through the book challenge, and she was one of the other winners of a contract, and so we are sharing the journey (although she is way ahead of me!). When I listened back to it, I was even pleasantly surprised, and was able to point people towards a summary of the strengths approach. This was of course one of the reasons we wanted to write the book – to have something to refer people to.

One month later… Getting the words down

After the slight chaos of juggling school holidays over the summer, it feels like there’s a bit of space. I used the summer to catch up on some reading related to the book and do a little more writing. But now I have a rare opportunity of some work having been cancelled which gives me some free days to write – hurrah!

So, I write. And I’m loving it. My approach is to not re-read what I’ve written. Alison says to just get the words down for the first draft, accepting that it will need a lot of work afterwards. So, here I am on 15,000 words – a third of the way towards my end word count of 45,000 words. I’ve also realised that the structure I worked out at the beginning isn’t quite right, but I’ve decided to just write bits that I know need writing. And there’s a lot of it. 

It helps having a second author. Caroline is far better than me at sorting out the structure and shuffling things around. She is also prolific with a red pen and will slash and burn what I’ve written. It’s a lot easier for her to do this, reading it with fresh eyes than it would be for me to do. Caroline is an engineer and not a psychologist, so where I might think something is fascinating, she might see the lack of relevance to our potential readers. 

We’ve realised that we missed out a crucial bit of advice from Alison which was to decide on the ‘look’ of each chapter. Do we want to start with a quote? Do we want summary points at the end? Do we want to use boxes to highlight points? We’re not sure yet, so it’s another thing to make a decision on. 

In the meantime, I’m aiming for 22,500 words by the end of the month – the halfway point in quantity, even if the quality needs quite a bit of work!

One month later… Visible progress

24,000 words. That’s something to be proud of, although to adapt a quote from Eric Morecombe, I’ve written all the right words, but not necessarily in the right order. In fact, Caroline and I spent a day together which meant moving everything around and changing the structure. I now have a document in which every single chapter has highlighted notes indicating bits that have been inserted and need weaving together. There’s A LOT TO DO!

Another quote that I saw recently which resonated, was from Toni Morrison who said that ‘writing is really a way of thinking’. And I’m finding that it’s true. I’ve always loved reading and thinking, and now I’m finding a place to collect my thoughts – fantastic. I find I’m constantly writing notes to myself of things that I want to include or explore further. And even having thoughts of other books that I want to write (hmm, better focus on this one first!).

Some visible progress is that we have an agreed book cover design, which definitely makes it more real. Plus an ISBN number. And we’ve had conversations with some fabulous people who are getting involved with reviewing, writing the foreword, and endorsing – very exciting. 

A big reflection for me is how it helps to have the publishing deal before starting to write – it makes it real; it provides a deadline and an expectation which is hard to ignore. It makes it more exciting, but also scarier in terms of not delivering, or delivering something that is not worth the attention it is getting! 

This month has been tricky with work and life having to take priority. But the positive is that I am itching to write, to have the time and space to make more progress.

Three months later… Changing the structure

Someone pointed out to me before Christmas that I perhaps shouldn’t be spending my time writing this reflection on writing a book, when I had a book to write! Classic displacement behaviour, of course. When you’re stuck with writing a book, what better way to feel like you’re still progressing than writing about the fact that you’re not writing?

But I am making progress: 38,000 words and counting. As I hit 35,000 words over the holidays, my co-writer Caroline (who has read our contract more carefully than me) pointed out that we had now met the minimum word count (our target is 45,000 words, but with 10,000 either way). So, I have written a book. Of sorts.

Now the harder part starts. I’ve written all the easy bits, of course, but need to make sure it works for the reader. Caroline and I are now working together more, changing the structure as we realise it’s drifted away from the purpose of the book.

I also recognise that we’ll need to take out a proportion of what I have written. I think there are future books, and I can get carried away writing about something which is not for this book. Keeping the reader and the purpose in mind is essential for this to work. This is where it is great having a second author. Caroline is further away from the writing so she can be far more objective and is reading with fresher eyes, knowing what we are trying to achieve. Our clear demarcation of roles (and different backgrounds) really helps here. She sees clearly what is helpful for application, which I can lose as I get caught up in research and theory. 

I reviewed two books over the holidays for The Psychologist. The more I read others’ books, the more I appreciate how much work they have put in to pull it together, and I get a feel for what does or doesn’t work for the reader. With an applied book there is definitely a trade-off between thoroughness of information and providing something useful that can be understood and applied (by non-psychologists as well as psychologists).

So, we are now totally changing the way the applied part of the book is structured. This could speed us towards completing in time to meet the deadline for publication this year (draft to publisher at the end of March will mean publishing in October). Or perhaps not, in which case we slip over to publish in January. I’m driven to make it this year, but it needs to be something we can be proud of.

August 2020… Nearing the end

My last update was in January – back when we had no idea that a pandemic was about to have a major impact on the whole world. But somehow, through juggling childcare and constantly changing work situations, Caroline and I delivered the draft of our book to the publisher on 19 July. This means that publication will slip to Spring 2021, but hopefully we won’t have to hold a virtual book launch.

Caroline and I worked really well as a tag team – as I finished writing a part of the book, she got to work on changing, re-writing parts and improving it. We also involved a colleague, Jo Maddocks (occupational psychologist), who very helpfully started reviewing at the same time, so we incorporated his comments as we went. Until the days before I sent the complete draft to the publisher, I hadn’t actually read it from start to finish, and so it was a slight relief that it made sense when I did!

There are a number of things that helped us keep focus and make progress: 

  1. Knowing that it’s needed: Alison (our publisher) said that if people are asking you where they can read more about what you’re saying then that is the sign that a book is needed… and in the last year as we have been writing we were frequently asked this. Every time we deliver a workshop, not only does it confirm my belief in the effectiveness of the strengths approach (which our book is about), it also gives me more insights which I’m then keen to record. The level of interest is always very high, and the need is palpable. As I love to help others, this is a great motivator.
  2. Regular writing: Life has been hugely disrupted, with two days of my working week dedicated to childcare while schools are closed. However, I have still ‘stolen’ time at weekends to always spend at least half a day per week on the book. This has required a tolerant and understanding husband and child, but it was the only way I could make progress.
  3. Not being perfect: The scale of a book (and writing it in very limited time) has meant that I have had to be more focused on getting the words down than making them perfect. It feels quite different from writing a shorter piece when you might take longer to craft a sentence. With this I have had to be very practical – done is better than perfect (which I think is another of Alison’s mantras!).
  4. Having a deadline: I’m not sure that I would be at this stage if we hadn’t already had the publishing contract in place. It has made it far easier to make it a priority, and although our deadlines have inevitably slipped, I became determined to get the draft in in July, and Caroline and I planned accordingly.
  5. Collaboration: I know that it can be very hard to write a book with someone else, but there are many advantages of making it a shared endeavour rather than a solo challenge. As well as contributing a different perspective to make it better, it also brings a huge benefit emotionally – reassurance, support, encouragement. 

And now… We have a couple of months to make final changes. When we sent the draft to the publisher we also sent it to some colleagues whose opinions we really value, and so we are receiving feedback from all of them, which we need to reflect on. The book is now available to pre-order from Amazon, which definitely makes it feel very real.

January 2021… What I’ve learnt

We have JUST given our comments on the final proofs, and now they are on their way to become the version which will be printed in a few weeks’ time. We have done an enormous amount of work to get to this point – if I was to draw it, it would look like a fairly gentle slope from June 2019 when we started (after winning Practical Inspirations’ book proposal challenge in May 2019) to July 2020 when we submitted our first draft, but then a rapid, rocky and testing ascent from August 2020 (with a two week rest at the end of October) to get to this point.

Having never been through the process before, it has been a steep learning curve. We were never really sure at each stage, what the output should really look like – how draft, is a first draft that goes to the publisher (what they call the beta draft)? How final, is the ‘final draft’? And then there were also stages which were hard to understand until we went through them – copy editing, typesetting etc.

On top of that, we had the added complication of working collaboratively remotely – something that might have taken half a day in a room together, took double that when working on Zoom, with dodgy broadband connections giving a five second delay on any on-screen editing! And of course, we did it all alongside our ‘actual’ work and family time.

A few points I’d like to share:

  1. I fairly spontaneously signed up for a virtual graphics course earlier in the year (hmm, there is a theme here of spontaneously signing up for things...) with the brilliant Emer O’Leary which made me very keen to include illustrations. I loved the creative aspect of this – it gave me a different perspective on the content – and I think they look great in the book. We were delighted that after trying to work out how to make them look more professional, Angus Duckworth of Cat-Rabbit Graphics agreed to do this for us. 
  2. On the one hand, I think that being clearer about the structure up front would have been better. Having said that, perhaps we needed to work it out by writing. It was only when we tried to structure it one way that we realised it didn’t work and needed to be structured differently. I love the idea of a very clear structure and completing each section… However, the reality was a LOT messier.
  3. We had invaluable input from others. We asked for more feedback on our first draft that we were advised to (because of having to deal with it all!). We asked psychologists, CEOs, senior leaders, colleagues… who spent considerable time wading through our rather hard to read draft to give us some really thorough feedback. This made a real difference to us. We like collaborating!
  4. We realised the importance of getting some headspace during the editing process. There were a couple of stages when we had spent so much time reading and editing that we simply could not see it anymore. We’d then have a couple of weeks off, and it would be so much easier. With hindsight, it is better to ask your publisher for a bit more time, than submit something that you know is not right (but can’t quite work out how to change) too early.

However, we made it to the finish line, and are far prouder of our book for the huge changes that happened in the final few months. We had to get rid of 10,000 words, we changed the structure of whole chapters, and we even changed the definitions (again) of the main topic of the book, just before it went to final proofs.

So, now it’s time to let it go out into the world! We would still change things if we had time – naturally – but it feels like we’ve definitely achieved what we set out to do.

Apply Psychology manuscript

- Emily Hutchinson is Associate Editor Books and Director Apply Psychology.

- See also Emily's 'shelfie' from 2017.

- Do you have your own book writing experiences to share? Why did you decide to write a book? What did you learn? How did you go about it? Society members can use the comment function below; or get in touch on [email protected] or tweet us @psychmag and let us know!

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