Image credit: “St. Jerome in His Study,” Master of Sir John Fastolf, ca. 1420-1450, The J. Paul Getty Museum
By Jason Zweig | June 28, 2015 7:47 p.m. ET
From time to time, people ask me whether they should write a book, and how. The last person who did, portfolio manager Ben Carlson, told me later that my advice had helped him as he put together his new book on investing, A Wealth of Common Sense. (I haven’t read it yet, but it looks promising.) I always seem to answer approximately the same way, so I’ve decided to put my advice in canonical form. Although I wrote from the viewpoint of a financial journalist, I think these suggestions could be helpful for aspiring book writers in other fields, too.
1) Never write a book for the “money” or the “fame.” There almost certainly won’t be much money in it, and you’re more likely to win Powerball seven weeks in a row and die of heat prostration in Antarctica than you are to become famous by writing a book.
2) Never do a book that is somebody else’s idea. Book agents, editors, and publishers — along with your family and people who claim to be your friends — may constantly be urging you to write a book about the wildflowers of Bulgaria or the history of accounting in Kansas. Do you remember when you were about to have your first child, and everyone said to you, “Life as you know it is about to end,” and you laughed and nodded but didn’t really believe them, and then your child was born and you discovered that what everyone had told you was an understatement? That’s what writing a book is like. No matter how hard you think it will be, you are underestimating the amount of work by a factor of two or three — or ten. If you wake up one day in the middle of that enormous burden and realize that you have ruined your life for the sake of somebody else’s idea, you will learn what the word “regret” really means.
3) The only book you should write is the book that is trapped inside of you, banging with both its fists on the inside of your rib cage, demanding to be let out. In 2004, I was working on a book proposal that a publisher had brought to me, struggling to make it work. I had spent over a month puttering with the outline, adding this, subtracting that, tweaking this, moving these ideas around. The less happy I was with it, the harder I worked trying to fix it; the deeper I sank in the intellectual quicksand, the more I flailed around. It never dawned on me that I was trying to fix the unfixable. I still remember the moment of my epiphany: I boarded the plane in Omaha that would fly me home from the annual meeting of Berkshire Hathaway, where Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger had just spent hours shedding clarity on business, investing, and what it means to live a meaningful life. I sat there with the legal pad on my lap that was scrawled with the book outline. I looked out the window as the plane rose above the clouds, and I said, “I don’t want to write this stupid book about mutual funds. I want to write a book about the brain instead.” I tore the pointless first pages off my legal pad, and in less than 10 minutes of elation I had an outline for the book I had secretly wanted to do for years.
4) Be a monk (or a nun). Once you know the book you want to write, isolate yourself; work on it in a different place, in a different way, from how you spend your standard workday. Your workspace and your working methods should feel like a break from your usual routine. Unplug or turn off your phone. Shut down the Internet. Take off your necktie, or put one on. Dress for your new “job,” because it is a job.
5) Listen to your body. When I write, I cannot drink coffee; other people can’t write without it. I rarely write well in the afternoon; other people can’t write a lick in the morning. Experiment a bit to find what works best for you, then lock yourself in on it and don’t vary your routine. I’m a huge believer in simple rituals that make writing into a repeatable process. (The thoughtful writer Steven Johnson always has interesting ideas on that — and I encourage you to browse the interviews with great writers at The Paris Review to see how the authors you most admire have wrestled with writer’s block and other demons.) When I wrote my commentary on Benjamin Graham’s “The Intelligent Investor” in 2002 and 2003, I left the house every day at 6:20 a.m. and walked the 50-minute distance to my office by the identical route, stopping only for about two minutes on the edge of the Central Park Zoo to watch the sea lions swimming and playing in their tank. I then went up to my office, took the friendship bracelet my nine-year-old daughter had made for me out of my left pocket and hung it on my office lamp, pulled on my baseball cap, put on headphones unconnected to any music, and then researched and wrote for the next 9 or 10 hours. Then I put the friendship bracelet back in my left pocket and went home.
6) Don’t worry. The mistake most first-time book writers make is worrying too much about how to be original in a field that has long since been picked over. Don’t worry too much about what’s already been written. I don’t recommend reading books that might be similar to the one you’re working on; you will “anchor” on what others have written, instead of spreading your own wings. Just think hard about what it is that you have to say. What do you most think people need to know? What are the most beneficial things you can tell people that they might not otherwise find out about? Imagine that your grandmother came to you and wanted to know ten things about [x] that she could understand and that she needs to understand. What would you tell her? You should be able to jot a few of these things down on a single sheet of paper.
7) Be flexible. Publishers love to lock writers into chapter outlines. When I wrote my neuroeconomics book, I drafted a simple, elegant outline that my agent and my editor both loved. I wrote the first chapter and gave it to my wife very proudly. She read about three paragraphs and looked up and said, “Why on earth are you telling me about things that happened 2 million years ago?” (The chapter was called “Evolution.”) I immediately ran back to my computer, tore up the entire outline and started over. Similarly, I was on a long drive, letting my mind wander, when a light bulb went off and I realized that my revised outline wasn’t working either: One chapter didn’t belong at all, while another was really two chapters rather than one. Don’t hesitate to smash or tear up whatever isn’t working. Writing that doesn’t work can’t be made to work. If it doesn’t feel right, it is wrong. Trying to fix what’s broken is a waste of time. Start that part over.
8) Be creative. Ask yourself, what’s the craziest, wackiest way I can possibly think of to make this point? Cartoons, diagrams, Rube Goldberg illustrations, graphs and charts, music, movies, paintings — make everything grist for your mill. Mind you, you don’t have to use all these sources in the final product, but they may help spark ideas for you that will help you turn abstract ideas into concrete words in a way no one else has thought of.
9) Use your eyes and ears. Too many people write books entirely from the isolation of an office or a den at home. Get out in the field: travel, talk to people, explore, turn over the rocks. When I did my neuroeconomics book, I went to labs and had my brain scanned about a half-dozen times. The more you can get other places and other people’s voices and your own physical experiences into the project, the less it will seem like another generic advice book. Criticizing mutual funds? Well, go visit Fidelity (or you name it) and describe a day in the life of a stockpicker. Skeptical about day trading? Parachute into a brokerage office or trading floor and tell the reader what you found. Keep an open mind, and be honest with yourself: You might well find the exact opposite of what you expected. The best way to thrill your readers is to tell them things that surprised you. The same advice applies to any topic, not just finance.
10) It’s your book. You can write whatever you want, however you want to write it. Ask yourself: What are the three/five/ten/X things I most wish that I understood that I don’t? Go answer those questions. Ask yourself: What would be the most fun things to research and learn more about? What are the biggest unanswered questions I can think of? At the Daily Journal meeting last week, Charlie Munger said something I’ll always remember (and I paraphrase): You can only excel at what interests you. If you are fascinated by Chinese calligraphy, you shouldn’t try to be an astrophysicist. You will be very good at Chinese calligraphy and very poor at astrophysics. So, above all, figure out what would make the project as fun and interesting as possible for you. Write the book for yourself, and readers will follow. Write the book for “readers” instead, and it won’t ever find any.
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