What to Keep and What to Remove

This is an excerpt from Writing Better Books the Agile Way, you can get a copy here.

A successful book is not made of what is in it, but what is left out of it.

—Mark Twain

If I ask you to go to Starbucks to bring me a coffee, you might end up buying me the wrong drink. But when I later tell you that I will not need a coffee after all, you can no longer make the mistake of choosing the wrong thing between, say, a soy latte and an iced coffee. Similarly, in software programming, there is a saying that the best piece of computer code is the one that is not necessary: you can simply remove it and the program will still run perfectly and flawlessly. While your readers are not machines, and while it is OK to repeat yourself to make a certain point, this saying also applies to your book. If you do not write it or remove a certain passage before editing, it needs no editing, and it makes your book shorter and more to the point.

Another way of looking at it is to ask yourself what the specific goal of a certain chapter, section, or even paragraph is. What specifically are you accomplishing with this passage? If you cannot answer that question, your readers will not be able to answer it either, and no matter how well researched and written that part of your book is, it is superfluous and should be removed. Shorter is always better: it saves you, your editor, and your reader time and elevates the other parts of your book that have a reason to be there. This applies both to fiction and non-fiction books. Introducing random characters you will never use again is just as problematic as explaining something that does not serve the point you want to make.

Now, what is a method you could integrate in your writing process to ensure that you are not writing more than needed?

To come up with a method, let us first examine the reason it is easy to fall victim to writing superfluous text as an author. The problem you are facing is that you are not only the person coming up with ideas for what to write about, you are also the person “implementing” those ideas by doing research and writing them down. In addition, you are looking at a computer screen or piece of paper; you are not speaking directly to another person. Both issues can lead to you just writing to yourself and going off on a tangent.

So, before writing a passage, we first have to address these questions:

  • To whom are you writing?
  • What does that person want to know?
  • Why does that person want to know it?

Once you have written down your answers to these questions, you can then switch your “hat” from idea person to writer. You will no longer go off on a tangent, as you are now tasked with implementing the answers to those questions in a paragraph or section.

And the one trait of a good writer in this context is that he or she is following the instruction to the letter and will only write as much to implement those answers but no more. Once you are done with writing, you can put on your “idea hat” again and think about what your reader needs you to address next.

This split between the idea-person and writer can also take place on a larger scale. You can prepare a whole series of points you want to make in your text, noting down whom you are talking to, what the person wants to know, and why he or she wants to know it, and then switch roles and do nothing but implement those answers for a while.

This focused approach will not only help you to write only as much as is needed (and not talk down to the reader by explaining obvious ideas), but it will also speed up your writing process as you no longer have to constantly switch back and forth between writer and idea person.

  • “Idea hat.” When brainstorming about your chapters, or researching topics, you are wearing the “idea hat.” Take only minimal notes and focus on elaborating the idea later.
  • “Writer’s hat.” After having completed your research, you put on your “writer’s hat” and implement the ideas you have found, ideally without interruption.

In project management, this approach is also called a “user story.” You start out by defining your audience (“personas”), brainstorm what your audience wants to read about and why, and list all those “user stories” in a ToDo list. Next, you rearrange those user stories so that their sequence makes sense. Once that is finalized, you can start writing without interruption.

While working on a story, you might come up with new ideas. It is best to double check if writing a new story is better. For example, in this book, I discuss fiction and non-fiction books sometimes side by side, sometimes in separate chapters. When I do the latter, I have usually started with the former, and then divided the chapter into two. A better approach is to split chapters as soon as you see that what you are writing might address two different personas (or deal with two distinct user stories). If you see this pattern repeating with other user stories, too, you might want to move the new user stories into your next book.

Likewise, if you notice that individual user stories become too large, it might be useful to split them. Splitting can be done in various ways. For example, if your user story is “Clara wants to know how to publish her e-books online, so that she can manage the sales from her computer,” it could be split into several user stories dealing different platforms (Amazon KDP, Google, leanpub, etc.).


Starting a New Book

This is an excerpt from Writing Better Books the Agile Way, you can get a copy here.

There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.

—Maya Angelou

When deciding to start a book project, you have two options. You write a book that you want to hold in your hands or you write a book that you want to see others holding in their hands.

3.1  Writing for Yourself

Writing for yourself usually means that you come to the project full of ideas. Maybe you have had those ideas over the years and want to see them finally in print. My own first book was such a work of passion. Over the years, I wrote down ideas on little note cards. After I moved to Düsseldorf, my journey of minimizing my household started. I began by scanning and digitizing all those cards. Together with articles and forum entries I wrote, the resulting file was a 1000-page “book” of unconnected thoughts. This was followed by years of editing.

In the end, I divided my book project into eight parts and then approached them one by one. It still took me many months to finish the first part. In the end, this approach was extremely inefficient as I had so much text and only a fraction of it published.

The lesson of this story is: Do not wait until the end of the book to look at the big picture. Writing books is not like producing a movie, where you first try to get as much footage as possible and then focus on editing at the end of the process.

In a way, it is the curse of the first book you will write. You have not been writing books for long, so all your ideas have piled up in your mind or in notebooks or on your computer. But the higher your ambitions, the lower the chance that the book ever sees the light of day. The saying “Aim for the stars to reach the moon” holds true, but it is not done in a single step! A general rule of thumb is to change only one element with each new book. If you have written novels about Scandinavia in the past and now want to write a non-fiction book, write about Scandinavia. If it is your first book, the easiest way to start is taking an existing book as a blueprint and focusing on learning the tools that allow you to write and publish your unique book.

Ultimately, in this case, my advice is to write your first book based on your notes. By converting your ideas into a book, you are organizing them in a coherent way. And no matter how your book does in the marketplace, it is the foundation of your future publications. You can always come back to it and reuse elements directly or indirectly, based on the things you have learned while writing it.

3.2  Writing for Others

If you are writing for others, you are starting with a blank page. Sure, you have the background knowledge in your field (and books you have written in the past, see above), but because you are writing for others, the first step is to start asking people what they want to read.

How do you acquire the information necessary to decide what to write about? Here, you have several options:

  • You are running an active blog where you post articles (maybe parts or whole chapters of your previously written books). Analyzing the amount of feedback, comments, and even click rates, you can guess what topic most interests your visitors.
  • You are using online advertising based on keywords (like Amazon Marketing Services or Google Adwords—paid services for your book to show up when people are searching for specific topics). Depending on how you have set up your keywords, they can act as a net and give you valuable information about what people are searching for.
  • You can research in the existing market of ideas to identify niches—genres and topics few other authors have written about but which have an above-average number of sales. You can do this by looking at the sales rankings on Amazon.
  • If your goal for the book is to supplement your career, you are technically still writing for others, but the content of your book is clear from the start: you want to use your book as an alternative medium to promote the unique selling point of your career. What makes your approach special in your field?

If you are unsure about which option to use, I recommend starting a blog and writing articles. If you cannot attract an audience by posting small articles or stories, you will not be able to do it with a book. Alternatively, write your first book as a way of learning how to market and sell, and use the passages from the book for articles and further market research.

Once this general research is done and a decision has been made, you now have to focus on the core of the book and organize your ideas around it.