Anne Lamott famously wrote in “Bird by Bird,” even great authors write “shitty first drafts.”
As a book coach and developmental author for business authors, I disagree. I have seen many first drafts that were good. But they weren’t great.
That’s because business book authors tend to be focused. They have a lot of terrific material in their heads. All they need to do to create a good first draft is do a brain dump.
So how do you turn a good first draft into a great book?
- Focus on the reader. Are you solving their problems? Remember, the only reason someone reads a business book is to solve their problems. Have you done any market research to find their problems?
- Focus on your key talents. If you’re like me, you wear a lot of hats and have a lot of talents. However, some talents don’t pay well! Or some talents are not interesting to you any longer. Why write a book that highlights what you don’t want? Make sure your book focuses on solving the problems you like to solve so you attract the readers, prospects, and clients you want.
With these two fundamental issues resolved, let’s dig deeper into the text. Here are common problems I’ve seen when I review first drafts:
- Too few stories. People learn from stories. People are hard wired to read and enjoy stories. If you have tons of data, you’ll prove your point. But chances are people won’t remember those points unless they are attached to stories. One client said, “I can’t tell stories.” I asked him, “If you could tell a story, what story would you tell?” He proceeded to tell me a fantastic story of how he mentored a new employee. The story showed him to be a caring, empowering boss. That story become the preface.
- Too many stories. There’s an old saying, “If you kill an elephant with one shot, then shooting it again will only ruin the meat.” I guess you could say too much of a good thing is a bad thing. Don’t over do it. Make your point and move on.
- Too much material. People like thin books and are repelled by fat books. You aren’t writing the encyclopedia of your topic. People want to read a book so they can get to know, like and trust you so they will hire you. That’s what they want. That’s what you want. Keep a book short. I’ve interviewed more than 80 business authors on my podcast. I’ve heard them say 20,000-25,000 words is the new normal. “Who Moved My Cheese” is less than 10,000 words and has sold more than 10 million copies.
- Stories that don’t prove your points. One book I edited had a marvelous story about trust. But it was in the innovation section. Sometimes, authors are too close to their work and can’t see the forest for the trees. They need an outside book coach or developmental editor to read the work with fresh eyes and insights – and move material where it belongs.
- Great stories are buried. Writing is a creative process. The more we write, the more stories and truths we uncover. That’s why I’ve seen signature stories buried in chapter 3. I move them to chapter 1. When I was a business editor for daily newspaper, we called that “burying the lead.” One client wrote a story with a subhead saying, “Excuse me for begin gross.” She proceeded to tell the story of her stretch marks, which she wore as a badge of honor that showed she birthed four fantastic kids. She also shared that she gained 180 pounds in the process and lost all but 20 of those pounds – and would probably never lose the last 20 pounds. What better way to identify with your target readers? Also, we renamed her book, “Stretch Marks.” What better title could there be for a book about going beyond your boundaries?
- Charts and graphics. Some points in the text are better understood with a chart, graphic, or process visual. Sometimes, the author creates those images, but makes them undecipherable! One author had a flow chart of the Department of Defense procurement plan that was so complicated, he had to use 3 point type to fit it in! You needed a magnifying glass to read it!
- Beta readers. Great books have feedback from peers and colleagues. While no one likes to get second guessed, I’d rather have people point out errors or weaknesses on a beta review copy than on an Amazon review page.
- Copy editing and word choice. Sure, it is easy to say, “The copy editor will fix weak writing.” But it is far more instructive for you to do the hard work of editing. While you might use Grammarly as a first step, I’d also suggest you use ProWriting Aid which has dozens of additional tools to help you write crisper sentences. In addition to the tools you’d expect, PWA also will search for overuse of certain words and phrases, filler words, and other examples of weak writing. One client said PWA found 1,000 errors in his manuscript. He spent a week revising the manuscript – and was glad he did because he learned how to write better. His copy editors had a much cleaner manuscript to work with, so they could deal with higher level issues.
If you follow these 10 guidelines, you’ll turn your first draft from good to great.
As a book coach, developmental editor and ghostwriter, Dan Janal shapes stories and strategies that can transform a career or business. He has written more than a dozen books that have been translated into six languages. His latest book is “Write Your Book in a Flash.”
He also hosts a podcast, “Write Your Book in a Flash with Dan Janal,” where he interviews business owners who have written books. Thinkers360.com named the show one of the top 50 podcasts for thought leaders.
For info about his book coaching and developmental editing services, go to http://www.WriteYourBookInAFlash.com
He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in journalism from Northwestern University.
He’s a former award-winning daily newspaper reporter and business editor.
He has interviewed President Gerald Ford and First Lady Barbara Bush.
If you like this blog post, you’ll love our Author Toolkit on writing nonfiction books. It includes checklists, templates, worksheets and more. Check it out!