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The Team Approach to Writing Non Fiction by Susan Hayes

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Article by Susan Hayes ©.
Posted in Resources (, ).

In our imagination, a writer is a solitary being, sitting in a room on their own, engrossed in their thoughts. This might be true for fiction writers, but if you want to write non-fiction, I suggest that  you start right now to assemble a reliable team!

There is a certain pride in doing it all on your own, but forget about your ego if you want to write a great book: intelligent feedback will allow you to focus on what you do best and forget the rest, as well as to compensate what you don’t know and the skills you don’t have. And publishing a book requires many more skills than just being able to write…

Whether you believe it or not, you need help.

When I started on The Savvy Woman’s Guide to Financial Freedom, I already had a book under my belt (the Positive Economics textbook, written with Trudie Murray and Brian O’Connor) and I regularly contributed articles in the press. How hard could it be to write a book on my own?

Not as hard, apparently, as it can be for some people, but still – getting the process started had a few surprising lessons!

In popular myths, the writer retreats to a cave in the mountains, only to emerge months or years later with a finished manuscript… Um, well, no. My book is highly practical so I needed to relentlessly make sure that the advice I was giving was what my readers really needed, and that the advice made sense to them, that it was implementable. For example it wouldn’t have been right for me to explain stock market investing strategy if people don’t know where and how they can buy stocks, and if people have credit card debt so huge they’re only able to afford the minimum payment every month.

You need to find out what will most help your audience

So I first went and assembled a “market research” team, meaning, I pestered my family and friends for their insights about money: how did they manage it? Were they happy with the way they managed it? What was causing them trouble? What did they wish would improve or go away? On my own, I could never have come up with all the information I gathered, and the book would have been weaker and less relevant as a result.

In fact, I sometimes wonder whether my subconscious self knew all along that I would be writing a book someday, as I have always had an insatiable interest in listening to other people’s money attitudes and money problems, and absorbing their lessons…

I had written a book before, but because it was a textbook, the structure was very rigid and the content was decided for us beforehand: there were certain areas we had to cover, because it was required in the syllabus, period. But for a how-to, advice book? As a financial trainer, on a daily basis, I see examples of what people don’t know and need to learn about money – I would have enough material to write books until the day I die and even beyond the grave. So where should I start? My market research team helped me pick which information would be the most valuable to people who, contrary to me, didn’t work in finance.

Your ideal reader: who are you writing for/to?

And then I still had to shape those insights in a way that people could relate to: I was aware that people who wander into a bookshop are not forced to read certain books just because they’re on the school curriculum – I couldn’t write a book about what I thought might be interesting. Instead, I sat down to write what my cousins, friends, peers and colleagues would enjoy and benefit from, and most importantly, I wanted to write down-to-earth advice they could engage with and implement in the easiest possible way. That came naturally enough, as I love a friendly chat, but I needed to kickstart the process.

Susan Hayes Action Picture!Again, for this I had to assemble a team of helpers. I asked a friend to look out for what I didn’t know that I knew. There were several things that I just thought everybody was already aware of; attitudes that were so natural to me, I didn’t think they needed explaining and of course, certain things that I didn’t want to point out as I felt that would be insulting the reader’s intelligence. That friend pointed out which throwaway comment had more meat in it that I had thought at first; she helped me see that how and what I felt at certain pivotal moments in my financial journey were very important elements of the book.

I am very much a numbers person, so I didn’t think that what I felt was a central theme relevant to a book about personal finance. But I know from experience what a huge role feelings play in our financial choices – it’s only by having an external pair of eyes to read me, that I realised my own feelings had to have a place in the book if I wanted my readers to be able to relate.

Also, having to articulate my thoughts for this particular person, allowed me to have a kind of “ideal reader” in mind – this made me much more effective as I knew what to look out for, what to explain in detail. And it also proved to be an extremely effective way to fight off writer’s block. I didn’t have to worry about running out of things to write about, or not knowing how to go about it, since my friend kept asking me questions – I just had to answer her questions, not worrying about the structure of the book and all the other fears that stop writers. As long as I kept answering her questions, the book was making progress.

In the “getting the words out” phase, I needed somebody to tease me out with their questions, and accountability partners to make sure I kept on track and added to that word count regularly. It was as if I had outsourced having to think about my pace and progress – I just had to write one word after another, one story after another, one lesson after another, and I asked other people to check in with me on deadlines, the word-count, structure, etc.

It might sound strange, but when you only have to focus on answering a particular question, one at a time, and not think about anything else, even chapter structure, that’s the best way to write comprehensively and although I didn’t intend it, it also helped me to write quickly as I was so enthusiastic about getting my thoughts on paper! My accountability partners would read what I had written and then would say – “That’s nice, but you also said you would talk about X, Y and Z in that chapter – I want to know more!” Instead of holding everything in my head I could simply write and trust my accountability partners that they would tell me “And now write about this.” It was an extraordinary help to keep overwhelm at bay. Never did I have to worry “Where do I start (or finish)?!”

A “coach” is the secret of productivity

A great kind of accountability partner is the kind of non-judgmental friend who, instead of berating you for being behind and missing deadlines, will focus on specifics and will gently remind you of your priorities. At one point, I only had two weeks to go before the final deadline but I still needed to write a significant part of the book!

Instead of chiding me and telling me to suck it up and buckle down – or else!, my accountability partner asked soft questions like “When do you think you will have time to write next week?” or “What time of day are you most productive? When is it easier for you to write? Early in the morning? At night?” Such a conversation about what’s working and what’s not was essential to finishing the book on time and was more effective than a drilling sergeant-style telling-off.

It’s also important to listen to honest people when they say “that’s not good enough”. There were times when I would run an idea by somebody and they would say, “Susan, that’s obvious/unimportant/condescending/irrelevant/rose-tinted/etc.” It is crucial to realize that if a passage is not good enough for an honest friend, it’s not good enough for a reader who has invested their time and money in you. They are the absolute most important person in this equation – give them the respect that they deserve.

When the writing is done – that’s when it actually begins!

Then came the editing and putting everything together. This is the stage at which most people agree that you have to have a team, and that writing, at this point, isn’t a solitary endeavour anymore. But what many forget to take on board is that, now, editors will take your dear, dear work apart and point out all its flaws.

It is essential that you check your ego at the door, as they will take an axe to your writing! You have to go through the pride-swallowing all over again! Remember an editor is not there to say “that’s wonderful dahling”. They have fine tuned antennae, as well as years of experience, to point out what’s wrong or just not right. It’s their role to weed out what doesn’t fit and you have to trust them.

Still, at certain times you have to be single-minded. Consider each comment in depth: will the change improve the book? Then take it on board and be aware that 99% of the suggested changes will in fact add to the reader’s experience, immensely so. But sometimes I ran into comments that reflected exactly the kind of money myths I wanted to eradicate – and this meant two things. I wasn’t going to implement that particular change, because it would have betrayed my message, and said the opposite of what I knew to be true. But it also clearly demonstrated that I hadn’t done a good enough job of convincing my reader. I was very appreciative of the chance to “do a better job” before the book went to press.

When your editing team has spent so much time toiling away on your manuscript, you have to take their comments and their work very seriously. The editing process took nearly as long as the writing itself – so make sure to give it time.

I was glad I spent a lot of time  and was particularly strict on the editing, as then the proofreading was a breeze, because I had invested time upfront. This is extremely important in publishing: as there were very few changes to implement in the final draft, the proofer didn’t need to move pages along. Pagination, that is, distributing the contents of your manuscript over however many pages the final book will have, is a painstaking process: you need to make sure that page cuts don’t happen in the middle of a word, that titles are not left stranded at the bottom of a page, or that charts and graphs fit correctly on a given page. Having to change this when it has been done once is the bane of proofers around the world! The minutely detailed process of the editing that I did beforehand was very much worth it, to avoid last-minute pagination changes.

And that was just the team that produced the book. Then came marketing and publicity, and spreading the word. But that’s a story for another time!

(c) Susan Hayes


Susan Hayes is a financial expert and trainer. To find out more about her, read her interview with Sheena Lambert about her latest book, The Savvy Woman's Guide to Financial Freedom. Learn more, read excerpts from the book and register for Susan's free email course to financial freedom at savvywomenonline.com

The Savvy Woman’s Guide to Financial Freedom is available in all good bookshops and online and it’s complemented by an e-mail course to ensure readers have the backup of weekly ideas and inspiration as well as a smart budget and other tools to help them in their financial decisions, all available on www.savvywomenonline.com