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.).