What I’ve learned about writing a business book
In summer 2019 I’d reached a bit of a “meh” moment. I had been working on my second business book proposal for over a year, and just couldn’t get it right. The name was wrong, I was unsure about the audience, and I honestly didn’t know if I had the energy to put into writing against a deadline on top of all my other responsibilities. In a conversation with my coach, I wondered if I should just make my life easier and give up on the project for now. My coach Marie Stopforth asked me 2 really important questions – who would the book help and why I wanted to write it. In that conversation I realised I HAD to write the book, I simply couldn’t NOT do it.
I’ve worked with a LOT of different teams, I know that the simplest tools can make a huge difference to how people work together. I also know that being in a bad team can be incredibly traumatic, especially if you have to work with the same people, badly, day in and day out. I knew without a doubt that I wanted to help people work better together because it is the best way to get great results, and it feels far better too.
Fast forward to today, and I’ve just submitted the final manuscript of my second business book “Supercharged Teams: 30 Tools of Great Teamwork”. Over 2 years it took me 35 days (280 hours), from the initial idea, to writing and rewriting the proposal, to getting the green light, to writing and finishing it. How do I know how long it took? I kept a timesheet. Not only that, my team who helped me with research, references, write ups, editing, and interviews spent another 35 days in total.
Was it worth it? Absolutely! Even before it is published, before I know if anyone will ever buy it, I know I have written what I feel strongly about, what I uniquely know about, and what could make a difference to how people work together. Even if only one other person reads it, and I empower just that one person, it is worth it. Obviously, I’d like to sell more than just one book, but you get what I mean! If this makes sense to you, and you have a business book that only you could write, and that will help just one other person, go for it. Here is what I’ve learned about writing a business book:
- Write the proposal first: You need a publisher and an approved proposal before you write a business or non-fiction book. My editor Eloise Cook at Pearson helped me through many different proposals and book titles. At first I wanted to call it “The Collaboration Book” (too boring) or “The Future of Teamwork” (too academic). It took us months to agree on “Supercharged Teams” which encompasses teamwork, collaboration and the future of teamwork in one neat title, then perfected the outline and chapter list from that.
- Write for your readers. In the early stages of writing and researching, I worried about whether the book would be clever enough for the best business brains to read – or would they think my book simplistic, obvious or beneath them? At first I tried to write “cleverly”, with tons of academic language, business jargon and research evidence to back me up (and to assuage my imposter syndrome). Early feedback from my editor, my mentor and my test readers reminded me that the book was supposed to be for everyday people who find themselves in average teams in any company. I did not need to write it for the best business brains (although I hope they like it too), but instead wrote in straightforward and easy to read way, for the real people reading it.
- Write it with people. When you think of an author, do you imagine someone sitting alone for days at a time, writing by themselves? I know I did – but that’s a myth. I “wrote” the book with everyone I came into contact with over a 2 year period. Whether in conversations with colleagues, clients, friends or family, I’ve been given encouragement, ideas, case studies and had my thinking challenged. I did quite a few formal interviews with incredible experts who gave me their time and opinions, and I am hugely grateful to them. However, all my informal conversations gave me directions to explore too. People were very generous with their time and advice, and I do need to apologise because I think I talked about nothing else apart from THE BOOK for some time! Sorry! We (everyone I know, work with and talked with in the last 2 years) wrote the book together – I was the one who put it all together at the end.
- Write in stories: A business book is serious, not personal, right? Wrong. One of the main lessons I learned was to tell a lot of stories, all the way through. I had been collecting research and case studies on collaboration for years, and started off writing what sounded like scientific papers reviewing evidence. It was the fantastic business author Michael Schrage who consistently challenged me on this, always asking for more juicy stories, personal anecdotes, colour and emotion. The human angle is what makes people interested, remember and learn, and the personal stories that I could tell about my own experiences over working in brilliant and terrible teams brought life to each chapter.
- Writing is not linear:Writing takes a lot of time but it’s not linear time. What I mean by this is I couldn’t have booked 35 days off work and written the book in that time. Some days you can’t write a thing, even when you lock yourself out of your emails and social media. Other days you don’t want to stop writing and you forget to eat. Sometimes you spend a day on one section, then decide it doesn’t fit and delete it (ouch!), or wake up in the middle of the night and remember a brilliant example. Writing is not like ticking off things on a to do list – in my case I wrote, then reordered, the rewrote, then rewrote, then reordered each chapter several times – like completing a painting in many layers, rather than knitting a scarf, each row in turn. Even though it’s a business book, it’s ultimately a creative project, and so needs inspiration, incubation and new ideas. Allow yourself ebbs and flows in your writing energy, and the time to have serendipitous conversations along the way.
- Train your writing muscle: To become a writer you need to write, and to be a good writer you need to write a lot. Writing is a skill – sure it comes naturally to some, but everyone can learn to write, and the more you do it the better you get. When I first started the book, it took me weeks to finish even the first draft of a chapter – it was like writing in treacle. Towards the end of the book, near the deadline, I was like a machine, with a regular pattern of work, knocking out a chapter a week! I wrote my favourite chapters first (they didn’t need to be written in order), and my least favourite chapters last, but the ones I wrote at the end are better written than the first ones – I definitely got into a writing groove with intense practice. I found the best way to get going, even on a difficult chapter that I wasn’t feeling that day, was to start writing, and write as much as possible, everything in my mind on a topic, without editing or reading it back. I would then go back to it and edit it the next day with fresh eyes. What really worked for me was finding a regular pattern – I found that my best time of day for writing was 7am – 11am, with a few hours in the afternoon on editing and rewording. Even on my best, most powerful writing days I managed up to 6 hours which I could only sustain for up to 3-4 days a week.
- Start writing!If you have a business book to write, don’t wait to get started, get going! Think “ready, fire, aim” rather than “ready, aim, fire”. If you have a book in mind and a unique perspective to write about, if your book will help other people, and if you will deeply regret not writing it – then do! Whether you begin to write your proposal, start doing some interviews to inspire your thinking, or write a couple of articles to see if your topic is interesting to people, you don’t need to be completely ready to get started. Get on with it! Start writing a business book – if not now then when?
Pam Hamilton is the author of Supercharged Teams: 30 Tools of Great Teamwork (published in December 2020), and The Workshop Book