Write a Book With Me! Turning Your Initial Idea Into a Burning Question

Hello, friends!

I hope you had fun generating ideas with your mind maps last month and beginning some preliminary research. By now you must have tons of ideas about where this whole process could take you. However, it’s time to start clearing up a tiny bit of the messy stuff and begin to formulate your question.

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As you began to map out ideas and read a bit in your research area, you probably noticed that there were certain ideas that appealed to you more than others. This is the point in the process in which you get to narrow your focus and really look into those interesting ideas. It doesn’t mean you have to scrap everything else, just that you are now going to choose a lens through which to view your topic. Some of those other ideas from your map could prove useful as background or supplementary info so hang onto those ideas!

One of the biggest mistakes beginning researchers make is assuming that they shouldn’t write about something because they don’t know a lot about it. This is part of the “write what you know” mantra which is good in its way but certainly not absolute. Many, many authors do the opposite and instead educate themselves about an idea through researching and writing about it and it is, in my opinion, the most fun way. Why? Because when you find yourself consumed with a mystery or a burning question, you’ll stop at nothing to find answers. Also, no matter how you approach this process of writing a book or a paper, you ultimately need a question around which to frame your writing. If your book or paper is simply a recitation of facts, it won’t have any value whatsoever. Your writing needs a point, a purpose, that is clear to the reader.

For instance, you might decide to write a book about Napoleon and his wife Josephine. Perhaps you had “Napoleon” at the center of your mind map and a little spoke with “Josephine” on it and it caught your imagination. Great. You have an idea. Except, so what? If all you do is write a linear narrative about their relationship, you’ve given us nothing. Why do you want to write it? What is it about the relationship between the two that compels you to write? What question do you want to answer for yourself and for readers? Perhaps when you really start to think, and when you revisit your mind map you find that what fascinates you is how this all-powerful man virtually enslaved himself to this woman who was rather scandalous and politically dangerous. Awesome. Now we’re getting somewhere. Now you need to turn this idea into the question you actually want to answer which might be something like, “How was this woman with a scandalous political past and who was rumored to have had many lovers during her relationship to Napoleon, able to bring the most powerful man in the world to his knees?” You might not have any idea. You might have only this question and that’s okay. Your job now is to do your research with this question in mind. Keep in mind that your question may change throughout the research process as you uncover new resources and avenues of inquiry but that’s okay too. Or, you may encounter “sub questions” that you need to answer on the way to answering your primary question. If this is the case, go with it! Just remember that you need to keep your primary question as the focus and let the sub questions serve as fodder for the primary question.

Feel free to play with your question(s) as you move through the process. It may help you to write down your question and have it in front of you whenever you’re doing research or even to work it into the title of your book or paper in some way so that you are always doing your work with your question in mind.

Look at that! You have a focus!

TASK: Use these next couple of weeks to really narrow your focus and settle on a question and maybe a couple of sub questions that feed into the main question. Write these down and tack them above your desk or put them on a sticky note on your computer. Begin tracking down resources that might help you answer your burning question.

In our next post we’ll focus on beginning the research in earnest. I’ll talk about strategies, tips for locating resources and getting the most out of them, and how to organize your research.

 

Write a Book with Me!: Idea Formulation and Preliminary Research (And How to Get Laid)

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Research
This book on theology and medical ethics is 1,162 goddamn pages. Thankfully, I know how to read like a researcher.

Last month I wrote about my process as an author, how I go from idea to finished book. I got some great feedback on that piece and I’m so pleased it helped so many people! I know how daunting the thought of writing a book can be and so, to honor that and to hopefully keep encouraging you, I want to invite you all to go deeper into this process and write a book with me. I don’t mean to co-author a book with me (which would be very difficult with several hundred authors!) but rather to follow along in my process and finally, with a bit of encouragement and knowledge-sharing, write that book you keep meaning to write. If you read these posts and follow these steps, you WILL write a book. You might hate my process and end up developing your own but you WILL write a book.

So, let’s get this party started. To kick this off, I’m going to write today about how we come up with, and flesh out, ideas, as well as how we begin our preliminary research.

Questions Are Your Bedrock

Though I focused last month on a rough outline of the writing process, I feel like that’s only half the story. Research is its own, much, much bigger beast. Also, it comes before the writing itself and that’s because it is part of the foundation of any good piece of writing. Seriously. Focus on good research and don’t even worry about good writing. That’s what editors are for. But even before the writing, before the research, there is the other part of that foundation. It’s the single most important part of your writing because it sets the tone for everything that follows – it is the idea (which later becomes “the question”). I’m going to focus on the role and importance of the idea/question in my next installment, but for now, just know that in order of absolute importance when it comes to good writing, you have an equation like this:

QUESTION >RESEARCH>WRITING

All of those things must be the best they can possibly be, but good writing style will not save a shittily researched paper and good research will not salvage an idea or question that was absolute shit to begin with.

The Dive In Approach

So, back to the research process! To begin, just know that research is always a mess at first. For real. It is. You have an idea but you’re not really sure where to start the reading. The answer is – anywhere. Seriously, just start. There is no perfect entry point because at the very beginning of research, you likely haven’t refined your idea into a question anyway (that’s what the research itself is for). So, just start reading and pay attention to what I said in my writing process post about noticing themes and ideas. Pay attention to what jumps out at you or areas of the topic about which much hasn’t been written. Most of all, generate tons and tons of questions about what you’re reading. Questions don’t demonstrate lack of understanding. Rather, they point us into new avenues of inquiry.

The Mapping Approach

But for some people, even THAT is difficult because your starting idea itself is still too broad and big and unwieldy. For you, I recommend idea mapping before doing any research. You can find some fancy-ass idea or mind mapping apps and software out there but you don’t need that nonsense. Just take a piece of paper and, in the center, write your topic or idea. Draw a circle around that shit and then draw some spokes coming out of the circle, like you’d draw a sun. Draw some circles on the ends of the spokes and inside them write ideas related to your main idea. Keep going. At the end of this process, you should have a main idea and a shit ton of related subsets. Look over this map to see what you’re most drawn to and focus on that for your research and writing.

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An example I drew on a scrap piece of paper in this noisy-ass playground.

Note that you don’t have to have perfect hierarchies of ideas. Just get that shit out. You can always clean up a map later. For instance, in my example map, I note sexism and racism in more than one spot. I didn’t bother getting specific in my writing. I also have the elements of repro justice on the same “level” with elements of religious life such as scripture and tradition. This doesn’t mean that I’m necessarily writing a book that will have these as hierarchies, chapters, or headings. An idea or mind map is simply a way for you to break down a large idea so that you can begin to research it in chunks and see where it takes you. This is the very beginning step so be as rough as you like. Each idea in a bubble will be worthy of a book of its own. Don’t worry about that right now. You can create separate maps for each idea later, if you so choose.

For myself, I tend to use a combination of these two types of idea/question formation. I do a little mapping and, at the same time, do a whole fuck lot of reading. So, in effect, I am simultaneously reading the research to find holes, opportunities, and areas of complexity, and I am using mapping to get started on finding my own unique take on what I’m learning as well as to begin generating questions I’d like to answer.

Whatever idea generating technique you’re using, take as long as you need in this process. This is not a race. No one is going to write your book before you do. Each stage of this process is just as important as the actual writing stage and, in fact, your actual writing will suffer if you have a crap, not-well-researched idea.

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A Last VERY IMPORTANT Word About Ideas/Questions

Whatever you do, follow your own intuition and preferences and fuck market trends. Not only are market trends mind-numbingly stupid, but they are ephemeral. Remember the plague of books about introverts circa 2012? People were so keen to get on that bandwagon that they churned out any old nonsense and this despite the fact that introversion and extraversion are not scientific but rather personal preference descriptors that are themselves more trendy than helpful (ask me what I really think). Anyway, if you start following the market, trust me, you will be the market’s whore for the rest of your life. You will spend your nights wide awake, worrying about sales and marketing and whether what you write is “good enough”. Criticism and bad reviews will tear you down and leave you second-guessing your own intelligence. Take it from me – FUCK ALL THAT.

When you write with passion on a topic about which you are passionate, a magical thing happens – you give NO FUCKS. Your neighbor thinks repro justice is boring? Fuck him. Your high school friend thinks you’re a baby killer and will mount a giant protest against every book you ever write? Fuck them too (but thanks for the promo!) Someone writes a review about what a complete moron you are because you use the Oxford comma? Fuck them and their comma-less, colorless, sad life. When you are passionate, you don’t want to spare any energy worrying about what anyone else thinks. You can’t waste that energy because that energy is what propels you forward. That energy keeps you slogging through research articles instead of sitting on the couch knitting those cute mermaid socks while watching all 500 episodes of Forensic Files. Also, passion is sexy AF so you’ll probably get laid more often.

So, takeaway? Don’t choose to write a book on a topic that is “hot” right now. Those books are lifeless because there is no burning question behind them.  Save yourself from a life of whoredom and stick with questions that set you on fire.

So, what do you think? What other methods do you use when you begin writing a book or a paper? What methods (if any) did you learn in school? Which do you like or dislike? Did you immediately get laid after being inspired by this post?