Unlearning How to Write a Book
I have a perfect record of solid D+’s in English littered throughout my high school career. Reading and writing have never been my strong points. I’m a weak speller, terrible at grammar, and struggle to sit down at a desk for much longer than an hour without anxiously wanting to stand up and move around.
Crafting perfect prose was never a burning ambition of mine. Yet, when opportunity knocked, I answered and applied the practice I do every time such situations arise: I say “Yes!” and give it a try. Worst case, I discover that whatever it is, it’s not for me. Best case, something magical and beyond my expectations happens.
Chances are, you may only know me as an author. My latest book, Unlearn: Let Go of Past Success to Achieve Extraordinary Results, will be published by McGraw-Hill. I’m particularly excited about this book because it has provided me with a unique opportunity to dive deeply into the idea that unlearning is the fundamental key to leadership, and ultimately, individual and organizational success.
I’ve found it fascinating the number of people who have asked me exactly how I accomplished this feat. How did I attract the attention of a publisher? How did I manage to run an international consultancy practice, maintaining personal commitments and protecting family experiences while finding time to write a book? How did I muster the discipline to put fingertips to keyboard each day and physically write the book?
It wasn’t easy. But I did it, and you can too.
In this brief piece, I’ll outline for you my own writing journey, which required me to unlearn what I thought I knew about writing books. If you have any questions about the writing or publishing process I haven’t addressed, please feel free to reach out and ask. And please share your own experiences too. I’m happy to provide any additional insights I can to help you, and others write that one book that’s in us all.
To begin, this isn’t my first rodeo—my first book, Lean Enterprise: How High Performance Organizations Innovate at Scale—was published in 2014. However, the process of writing that book was considerably different than the process I eventually adopted to write Unlearn.
In that case, I had two coauthors—Jez Humble and Joanne Molesky—and the fact we were a team working together made the process both easier and harder. It was easier because we were able to divide the workload between us. We each took on different themes of the book—writing our bits and then reviewing and providing feedback on one another’s work until we created a harmonized whole. We were sort of like a mini book club—it was divide and conquer.
However, the simple fact that there were three of us introduced more moving parts into the process—more schedules to coordinate, more ideas to debate, and more editorial decisions to resolve. In addition, in retrospect I feel that my own voice wasn’t always present. I can clearly see it in places, but because our process was a cross-functional collaboration, the book resulted in a merging together of all our voices.
Overall, our team process worked well. Lean Enterprise was published by O’Reilly Media (no relation!) and it garnered many positive reviews and strong sales. It was a pleasure to work with Jez and Joanne for more than two years on it. I learnt a great deal from them both, and achieved an aspiration I once though never possible. I felt satisfied, with a strong sense of accomplishment. I was done with writing books, or so I thought.
But books can be like potato chips. You know they’re not good for you—in fact they should generally be avoided. They’re bad for your health, they disrupt your life, and they cause more frustration than you’d care to imagine. And, yet, just like that crisp, crunchy potato chip, once you’ve written one book you can’t resist writing another.
Writing is a tool for reflection
I decided that this time I would take the next step, to be the sole author, mostly because I wanted my own voice to be clear and present throughout the book. Writing, for me at least, is a personal retrospective of my work, a chance to reflect and capture my own thoughts and experiences, what I tried, what I learned, and then unlearn from the missions I took part in. I wanted to write about the situations and stories I’d been part of, in my own words, in my own way. This decision, however, introduced an entirely new set of challenges, which required some time for me to fully grasp and overcome.
There are many ways to write a book, and I believe I may I tried them all. When I began working on Unlearn in earnest, I tried getting up earlier than usual and devoting the first hour or two of the day to writing. I tried staying up late. I tried writing the end of the book first, and then I tried starting at the beginning. I tried making a firm commitment to producing 750 words a day. But no matter what approach I took, I struggled to build and sustain the momentum I would need to power me through to the end.
This went on for about six months, and nothing I did clicked. I was stuck. I was clear on the outcome I was aiming for—one more book—but I was struggling to find the behaviors that would get me there.
Writing is not a solo job
So, just as I encourage my clients to do, I started to increase my experiment velocity. I knew that being a part of a team worked well for my first book, so I decided to build my own writing team. That meant finding a skilled professional writer to team up with—someone who would provide the spark I needed to push the process forward, a cross-functional collaborator but also a coach.
I reached out to some of my colleagues to see if they had anyone to recommend. Jeff Patton, Jeff Gothelf, and Eric Ries all did, and I soon had a shortlist of three writers to interview. So far so good, but this brought me to a new concern: How could I figure out which of these three—if any of them—would be the right person to work with me on my book? I decided to run three experiments—working with each of the three writers on different assignments.
I interviewed each of the writers and reviewed their work. I also sent them links to some of my blog posts and asked them to provide me with feedback on my writing style and how they thought they could help me. I then selected each of our collaboration assignments.
I worked with one of the writers on an article and it did not go well at all. I worked on a different article with the second writer and that went much better. However, I really resonated with the third writer, Peter Economy, who cowrote User Story Mapping with Jeff Patton, and who has worked with Marty Cagan, Stephen Orban at AWS, and others in the tech space. I decided to work with Peter on the proposal for my book, which would be sent to publishers by my literary agent, Esmond Harmsworth (another set of selection experiments in itself).
After working with Peter on the proposal, I was convinced he would be the best person to work with on the book too.
Writing does not have to equate to typing
The methods we adopted played to each other’s strengths. We began by leveraging my own strengths as a speaker and presenter. Speaking is my strongest form of communication, and we wrote the core text of the book through a series of interviews—more than 35 of them during the course of our project. I created mini-keynotes for each chapter—telling my stories from experience—and Peter created sets of questions to guide the interview process. We recorded the interviews and automated the transcription at Rev.com—a remarkably affordable resource.
I found when I drafted and presented these mini keynotes for each chapter, that enabled me to logically lay out my thinking, and get the best first version of the ideas out in a very time-efficient way—certainly much more efficient than for me to try to write everything out myself from scratch. I realized that if writing was not my strong point, it didn’t make much sense to start with it, over-invest, and become frustrated with a behavior I personally found hard to do. I unlearned that written content required writing content.
Generally, a one-hour interview resulted in a 5,000-word draft chapter. We would then edit and iterate the chapters back and forth between us—adding research, client stories, and additional material as needed, often through additional interviews. Eventually each chapter grew to more than 6,000 words.
In turn, I learned a huge amount about the skill of writing from observing how Peter structured his stories. How to best tell these stories was an unknown for me, but through observation, deliberate practice, and through what he created, I learned ways to open stories and bring them to life, and to synthesize the takeaways. It was a new skill for me, but it was intuitive to Peter. The flip side of that was that he understood the context I was in. I had a lot of confidence that I could share ideas and that he would get at least 90 percent of the intent in his interpretation of it.
As I wrote the book, I applied many of the same practices I use for product development. Writing a book is like building a software product—it’s got customers, a vision, and features to bring it to life. The vision is a big idea, but you start small with doing the proposal, outlining the different chapters, and working in small batches. So, we would work on a chapter or parts of a chapter and we’d ship material to each other quickly—striving for excellence over perfection. Instead of waiting for the perfect product, we’d ship to each other early and often to get a fast feedback mechanism going between us. Throughout, we kept working in this iterative, experimental way.
One thing to understand is that the traditional publishing industry has long relied on a waterfall process. You get a publishing contract, it has a deadline to deliver your manuscript—usually 6 to 12 months out in the future—and then you create and deliver the complete manuscript on your own, rarely getting feedback from publishers until the book is fully complete. The good news is that you can still iterate within this kind of structure, and this is best done with a writing partner—someone you can bounce your ideas off and continuously improve your product along the way.
Leverage technology to go exponential
I’m often asked, “How can I leverage technology to be exponential in my writing?” or “What tools can we use to automate in this process?” The online transcription service Rev.com made us super-efficient in our interviews and was a tremendous help in creating first drafts. We would almost always have our transcript back within 24 hours after we uploaded the audio file. The transcripts weren’t perfect, but they were good enough for Peter to create a first version of the text that he could iterate and edit, then ship to me. What was really interesting is this gave me the ability to react to what I thought I said and find gaps. That was really, really interesting to me.
Drafting unfinished versions and shipping early was initially uncomfortable for Peter. He is an accomplished and talented writer who wanted to provide his customer (me at the time) with high quality and fully completed content. But by collaborating closely, iterating frequently, and regularly taking time to reflect and retrospect together on what was and was not working and what we could improve, we grew our capabilities, trust, and confidence together.
If you’ve chose the right writer to team up with, you’ll get the best versions of yourself, each other, and the product you hope to create—by learning and unlearning together.
Your book is a product, so apply product development principles and fast feedback mechanisms
I also found creating a reverse book club to be very helpful—it’s an idea inspired by Diana Kandar, with David Bland, Melissa Perri, and other people I know who were also writing books. The purpose was to keep one another accountable and moving forward, and to provide encouragement when we ran into the inevitable times when we thought, “This sucks, why am I doing this?” or “I’m not making progress.” In addition, they provided the vital first round of outside feedback when I was happy with a finished chapter and wished to test it beyond the small inner circle of Peter and me. I would push it out to that trusted group of people, compile their feedback, and then make changes to the chapters as a result.
I reached out to maybe 50 people. At least 10 said no, which left 40 who said yes and provided feedback on chapters or sections of the entire book over different periods of time. This group provided safety for me to experiment with ideas, but the same time act as proxy customers for my context. A testing suite and customer collaboration experience product teams dream about, and high-performance teams have as a non-negotiable.
This also turned out to be a double-edged sword. When I talked with Jeff Patton about obtaining feedback on my work, he told me, “You’re going to be asking people for feedback whose opinion you respect, and they will have ideas that you hadn’t thought of.” This meant that, ultimately, I would have to make tough decisions about the content of the book, and I would sometimes go against things that people I respect say I should do.
However, I used the reactions I received from the counsel of reverse book club colleagues and my most admired mentors to help decide whether or not to include certain content. If the content in different chapters didn’t resonate with my readers and get a strong reaction, that actually made it easier for me to cut it out of the book. No matter how much you respect your reviewers, keep in mind the this is your book—it has your name on the cover—and you’re the one who has the final say on what’s going to be in it. If a recommendation or new idea doesn’t work for you, then by all means let it go. But you might be pleasantly surprised when you are challenged by people outside the writing process that the final book is stronger as a result.
Writing my next book required me to unlearn, relearn, and then break through. When you write a book, you’ve got to be willing to unlearn your own beliefs, your own thoughts, and let them go. This can be a difficult thing to do—especially when you’re convinced that your point of view is the best or right one. But you’ve got to have the guts to let go of these old beliefs and thoughts when they no longer move you forward—when they’re actually holding you back.
Here are a few specific things that I learned this time around:
- Perfect is the enemy of done—ship early and iterate.
- Early ideas need to be unlearned as you go through the process of writing the book. Writing is a discovery process—you know the least amount about it when you start, and the most when you’re done.
- Have the courage to let go of ideas that no longer work.
- You need a North Star to guide your progress forward. For a book, this is the chapter outline, which serves to frame your thoughts and approach. It can change as you write the book, but you need to have a vision to aspire to. Think big, but start small, and work and ship in small batches along the way.
- The author’s journey is one of learning, unlearning, and relearning your way to the breakthroughs you need to achieve extraordinary results.
When I finished the manuscript for my new book, I was nervous about letting go of the book and sending it to my publisher to enter the production process. But I was also excited, and that to me is a good signal that I’ve grown throughout the process. It’s also a sign that the book I’ve produced is something that is a little outside of my comfort zone, and in many ways, that’s exactly where it should be.
Once your book is published, it’s time to sell it. Bestselling author Bob Nelson (1001 Ways to Reward Employees) once said that the first step to publishing is to get books into a bookstore, and the second step is to get them out of the bookstore. But that’s the topic for another post.
Curious to Unlearn more? Go to www.unlearn.online
Unlearn: Let Go of Past Success to Achieve Extraordinary Results is available on Amazon