Five writing lessons I learned from ‘Your Happy First Draft’

Reading time: Less than 5 minutes

What writing lessons do you need to learn? Here are five I picked up when writing my soon-to-be published book….

My next book, Your Happy First Draft, is at the printing house now and I’m awaiting my first copy with eager anticipation.

In fact, I’ve seen a press proof already — press proofs are bound, just like real-live books, but there’s only one copy. Anyway, upon seeing that proof, I had to send the cover back to the printers for a re-do as someone had made a mistake with the layers. (I don’t know precisely what that means, either, but the colours were skewiff and the printer needed to fix them.)

But fun as the press proofs are, there’s nothing that quite matches having a BOX of your own finished book in your hands. I CAN HARDLY WAIT!

Today also marks another important occasion. It’s my 700th issue of Power Writing, this weekly newsletter/blog that started back in January 2006. I can’t believe I’ve been at my blogging desk for almost 14 years and have written so many words. 

I did a quick bit of figuring recently and my back-of-the-envelope calculations show that I write 117,000 words a year for my blog alone. (Not just on Tuesdays; I blog five days a week. See all of them here, if you’re interested.) If you add in the book and all the writing I do for clients, I’m easily breaking 200,000 words a year. And I used to be someone who hated writing. Who did it slowly and painfully. The whole thing boggles my mind.

Your Happy First Draft has been such a long project — conceived of five years ago, written two years ago, edited, polished and assembled over the last two — that my head is still finding it hard to believe the work is done.

The book will go on sale later this month (I want the hard copies in my hands before I set the date!) and as soon as I have the date nailed down, you will be the first to know via this newsletter/blog. But in the meantime, let me tell you five lessons I learned in the process.

If you have your own long-form project to produce (a book, perhaps, or a thesis or dissertation) I think you’ll find these lessons useful.

1-Allow way more time than you think wildly possible.

I’m embarrassed that producing this book took me five entire years. On the other hand, I kept my (very busy) consultancy running while I did it with no disruption to my clients. That’s a win! As well, I managed a host of personal issues, including a month-long trip to Australia/New Zealand, the graduation of my three children from university, the engagement of my son and a serious health problem facing one of my daughters. Luckily for me, my deadline was self-imposed and therefore flexible.

If you’re working on a long-form project, just be aware that things always change at the last minute and that things always go wrong. You have to be able to roll with whatever life is throwing at you and still fit in work on your project. I’m a big believer in the Stephen Covey system of working on the important tasks before the urgent ones.

2-Have a rock-solid system for storing your research.

I made a serious mistake when I started this book. I didn’t have a good system for storing my research. Ironically, it wasn’t until I began writing the section on research (chapter 7) that I understood my error. Even though I had hired two researchers to help me with the book, I ended up asking them do some of the work twice when I discovered gaps in my citations section. Rookie mistake!

The storage tool I discovered as I was writing my research chapter is Evernote. I wrote about it last week, but let me say again Evernote is a versatile service that allows you to save websites, PDFs, notes to yourself and anything else you like with a single click. As well, you can apply a “tag” to each document, essentially building your own index-on-the-go. (And the basic version is free.) By the way, if you’re an academic, don’t use Evernote. Instead, you should use a system that combines research storage with citation management. The tools you might want to consider are: Citavi, Mendeley or Zotero. (Make your decision based on which software your university supports and which one your coworkers also use.)

3-Use professionals.

I hired many professionals to help me with this project. Here is the list:

  • Two research assistants
  • A copy editor
  • A professional proofreader
  • An indexer
  • An illustrator & cover designer
  • A desktopper
  • A videographer

The book is published by my own publishing company but I didn’t cut corners or stint on costs. The professionalism shows in the finished book. 

4-Ask others for help. 

Of course I ran into problems along the way. But I wasn’t afraid to ask for help from family, friends and readers. I had 12 dedicated beta readers who gave me incredibly valuable feedback on my crappy happy first draft. As a result of their advice, I made numerous changes throughout, significantly rewrote two chapters and added two additional ones.

In March of this year, I asked you for feedback about the name of the book. Then, I was bowled over when my dear friend Maureen Bayless was able to come up with a name far better than the options that had occurred to me, Your Happy First Draft.

As the great journalist and broadcaster Walter Winchell put it: “A real friend is one who walks in when the rest of the world walks out.” Count on your real friends. They will always help you.

5-Expect promotion to be the hardest part of the job.

Most people expect that the hardest part of writing a book is, well writing the damn thing. In fact, that’s easy-peasy compared to the work of promoting it. I’m currently writing a sales page for the book and working with a wonderful team of 20 book launch volunteers who have offered to help with promotional efforts.

Then, last week, I spent four hours at a production studio where friends and family helped me create a promotional video for the book. This expensive and time-consuming idea occurred to me less than a month ago, but I know from the experience I’ve had with my weekly video about writing — The Write Question — that many of you love the video format.

Watch this space to learn the sale date — when I have my first box of Your Happy First Draft in hand, AND when the video is ready to be posted. I’ll also be making a special offer to those of you who buy within the first month.

Again, I CAN HARDLY WAIT!

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If you want to write your own book (or thesis or dissertation), consider applying to my Get It Done program. I’m holding a no-charge webinar this Friday (Sept 13/19) to introduce you to the principles I teach in the program. Register by emailing me. If you already want to apply to the program, go here, scroll to the very end of the page and select the bright green “click here to apply now” button.

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My video podcast last week aimed to help you write better cover letters. Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

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What are some of the writing lessons you’ve picked up recently?  We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Sept. 30/19 will be put in a draw for a copy of my book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!