There are almost as many reasons for writing a book as there are people working away in offices and attics, at café tables and in back bedrooms, actually writing those books. Some people feel impelled to tell a story, some people want to explore an experience, some people want to expound an idea. There are very few bad reasons for writing a book, in my view, but good reasons don’t necessarily make for good books…
Writing a book is an act of communication, a conversation, if you like, and if you’re not clear about who you’re talking to and what you’re trying to say, then your readers may just fade away before they’ve reached the bottom of the first page. If you don’t know what you’re saying, they’re unlikely to know why they should put in the effort to listen.
This doesn’t mean you have to have every word and sentence in your book crystal clear before you ever set finger to keyboard – very far from it, as we’ll explore further in Pitfall Number 2 – but it does mean that you need to do your readers the courtesy of giving them a convincing reason for sticking with you. And fundamentally that means giving them some sort of clue as to what they’re going to get out of it.
If you’re writing The Definitive Guide to Building Better Bookshelves, then your readers will be looking for reliable information, clearly set out so that they can apply your instructions effectively and create a satisfactory product. If you’re writing the 21st century’s answer to Finnegan’s Wake, then your readers will know that they’re going to be in for an exciting, interesting, taxing exploration of language, meaning, history, culture, and art. Neither book is more or less valuable – they just serve very different functions.
So the first question you need to ask yourself, before anything else, is why do you want to write?
Perhaps you want to write to explore a situation, an emotion, an event. Perhaps you want to write to share a skill or an insight. Perhaps you want to write to establish yourself as an expert in your field, or to have a book as a marketing tool to secure you more bookings as a speaker or trainer.
In broad brush strokes, though, it’s fair to say that most people have a rough idea of what they want to write – or at least of the kind of thing they want to write. They know they want to write a story, or a book of advice, or an information book. They probably have a sense of whether they want to write for adults or children. Often, though, that’s as far as it goes. And that’s where things get sticky. If you don’t know why you want to write, and if you don’t have a fairly clear idea of who you’re writing for, it’s going to be very difficult to get any kind of clear picture of what you’re going to write.
So the why is the first thing to get straight – once you’re clear about what you want to get out of writing your book, whether it’s fame and fortune, a greater understanding for yourself and/or your readers, an enhanced reputation, or simply to get a nagging idea out of your head so that it stops niggling away at you, the what and the for whom will fall into place quite easily.