Acting like a professional (even when you aren’t one)

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In case you missed the last announcement, author Tom Levenson has been running a multi-part series on the genesis of his latest book, Newton and the Counterfeiter (Available now. Pick up a copy!). One of the most recent entries is about, to borrow from Tom’s title, “writing the damn thing“, to which Chad Orzel has replied. Given that I still have a helluva lot of writing to do I am in a different place than both Tom and Chad, but I think my experiences might be of interest to other neophytes who are thinking of making the blog-to-book transition.

One of the greatest obstacles I had to overcome during the writing process was the fact that I am not a full-time science writer. I am not yet established enough to justify staying at home and writing all day. I receive a little bit of regular income from blogging, but I work an 8-hour day job to make sure the bills get paid. I simply do not have the luxury of spending the day researching and writing, and it is essential that I take advantage of the time I have during evenings and weekends.

This is why being committed to my project is so important. If I just waited to be inspired, for some grand idea to suddenly come to me as if by divine will, I would never get anything done. Composing a book really takes a professional attitude, and that means work. I was led to this realization by a slim little book called The War of Art by Steven Pressfield (better known as the author of The Legend of Bagger Vance). In all honesty I could probably live without most of Pressfield’s advice, particularly his beliefs about muses and angels, but his insistence on writing like a professional stuck with me.

When I say “professional” here I do not mean dressing sharply or having crisp business cards. (Though both might help if you have to meet with a publisher!) No, writing a book requires that you act like it is your job to complete your manuscript, even if (especially if) you are not getting paid. This means showing up every day, cutting out whatever distractions you can, and getting down to the business of writing. It sounds easy enough, but some days it can be a real challenge.

Keep in mind that by “writing” I do not mean simply putting words on the page. If my book only required that I reach a particular word count I could be finished in about a week or two, but it would be a really lousy book. Instead, the act of writing a book involves grappling with how to move the story you are telling forward and how to lucidly describe your subject without being painfully long-winded. This requires a lot of persistence. Some days you might be “On” and make great progress while other days you will feel like you are struggling against the tide. Even if you ultimately delete what you spent all day yesterday working on, though, one of the most important parts of writing is showing up to do the work. It really makes it that much easier to come back the next day, especially if you have developed a good idea of where your story is going next.*

*[Another definition: Even if you’re writing a non-fiction book you should still be telling a story. Whether it’s an actual narrative about a person or the development of an idea, you cannot simply dump a list of facts on a page, bind it together, and call it a good book. If you want to spout off a litany of facts in succession, write a textbook instead.]

I didn’t realize the importance of professionalism when I was first inspired to write a book about three years ago. I was naive when it came to what the project would require of me. When I started writing I was primarily doing it because it was fun, but I soon realized that if I am writing for my own pleasure alone I’m doing something wrong. Not only had I not given much thought to my potential audience, but it was easy to let things slip when I didn’t feel like it. Finally there came a point when I grew tired of my own lazy approach and started to think about why I am writing and who I am writing for. Had I not made these considerations I definitely would not have come this far or come up with anything really worth publishing.

I do not write any of this to dissuade budding authors. These are just the realities of writing that I had never expected. I cannot speak for anyone else, but I initially had a reductionist view of writing where I assumed that if I could write an essay I could certainly write a book. Yet the book I am writing is not just a collection of disparate facts or a collection of essays. It is something grander and more cohesive, and as such it cannot be accomplished with anything short of my best effort.

I have no doubt that my writing habits will change as I continue writing. They will almost certainly have to. Yet there is no single formula that works for everyone. There’s no simple recipe (take six hours, one computer, one author, two cups of coffee, some leftover Chinese food, &c.) to be followed, nor should there be. If there is anything I have learned about the writing and publishing process it is that there is so single path that everyone follows. There are common parts of every story (proposal->agent->publisher->&c.) but there is no standard trajectory between them.

Writing a book is one of those activities that can truly be called “a labor of love.” There is more to it than simply transcribing everything you know about a given topic onto the page, and this is simultaneously rewarding and frustrating. I can think of little that I would rather be doing, though, and that has certainly helped me transform the idea that so enthused me into something more tangible.

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