15 pages and stuck is a pattern I uncovered after talking with many (many!) frustrated people who were trying to write a book. Someone would sit down to write their book, get about 15 or 20 pages in (sometimes 10), and get stuck. They had hit a dead end.
Then they would contact me, either to write the book for them or to coach them through.
I look for patterns in all things – people’s behavior, nature, dots in the ceiling… so when I picked up on the 15 page stopping point, I decided to figure out why. Why do people run out of steam after about 3,000 to 4,000 words? (Fun fact: This blog post takes up two pages in Word and runs to just over 1,100 words. At that pace, 15 pages would be 7,500 or so words. The 15 pages I receive from stuck would-be authors rarely have more than 250 – 300 words per page.) So, problem one:
A Book Needs a LOT of Words!
People aren’t used to writing long form. For most of us, the longest thing we have written is a ten or twenty page term paper in high school or college. Some people may have done an academic thesis, once, and decided never to do anything that involved again. For the most part, we write quick reports for work, summarize meeting notes, or create blog posts. Emails, memos, job descriptions are typically short. Writing even 20,000 words can be daunting. Remember having to write a 100 word book report?
Quite frankly, most small business owners are not in the business of writing; that’s not their job. So, the three or four thousand words that make up that failed attempt is longer than the average blog post but not even close to a full book. Which brings us to the next problem.
The second problem I see people who are stuck make is that they have not dug deeply enough into their subject matter. Their progress so far is a result of what is basically a brain dump of what they know about the topic. It’s all the top of mind stuff. You can fix this problem by expanding on the information.
Explain things better. When you’re writing a book for others, you have to remember that they are not starting in the same place as you are. Most of us who have been in our industries for any length of time take basic information for granted. We forget that things that are second nature to us are not even on the reader’s radar. Unless you’re writing for your exact peer group (i.e., you’re doing an industry white paper or academic paper), authors need to break down their information so the newbie can understand it. While not every reader will need every bit of information, most readers will appreciate having some of the basics explained.
Cover all the angles. Another way to expand on the information is to spoke your topic. Most times, because the writer hasn’t created an outline, they have missed topics that should be included in their book. When I start with a new book or course, I think about all the different aspects of a topic, different angles, and make a list of subtopics on the subject. I shoot for a minimum of 10 and hope to end up with more than 15. Now, not every subtopic will be a chapter nor will every subtopic make it into the book. But by listing as many things that relate to the subject as possible, I have more to write about. I also approach the subject from more than one angle. I think about the different segments of my target audience: What does each one want and need to know?
Most times, this will require you to do more research so you can flesh out your own knowledge of the topic. The payoffs of doing this can be huge: You may uncover quirky anecdotes, find an invaluable source of new information, or a hidden nugget that can send you off on an overlooked but necessary topic for your book.
No Outline + No Structure = No Book
This is the third and most common problem I see. It’s very difficult to write 40,000 to 80,000 words coherently if you don’t have a solid outline and structure. (Stream of consciousness does not work unless you’re James Joyce and even then…)You repeat things, you leave things out, you start on one premise, jump to another, and never go back to finish the original thought. But even tangents run out of steam. (And yes, the idea of doing a book comprised solely of tangents just flashed through my head. Note to self: This is a bad idea.)
You need to outline. I hated outlining when I was a kid, but now it’s my BFF. I use an outline to list, organize, and flesh out the content that I want to relate to the reader. (Hint: Your Table of Contents will largely resemble your outline, or at least the high points of your outline.) I use structure to organize that content within the individual chapters as well as create an overall arc for the book.
If I’m writing a “how to” or a course manual, the information is going to be organized in a chronological or sequential order—first you do this, then this, then this and so on—until I have walked people through the entire process. Within those steps I may have a more defined structure, whether it is in the information I give or the headings that I use to label each section of the information. The structure helps the reader determine which information is important or where they need to take action.
Other structures might be cause and effect, or problem and solution. Some books are really a list of things: top 10 places to live in the US, best software apps of 2018, a directory of bed and breakfasts. So, a directory of B&Bs might structure each listing by giving the name of the B&B, location, amenities, contact info, and a short blurb about the B&B. The directory structure itself might be alphabetical, regional, organized by price, or user-experience.
Once you have a structure to hang your content on, it’s easy to research and write what you need for each piece. You can tell what you need at a glance and you can fall into a writing rhythm that keeps you motivated and moving.
If you’ve started writing a book and found yourself stuck, you probably just haven’t laid down a proper foundation for your book. Take a step back and see if your problem is structural or if you just haven’t dug deep enough into your topic. If you’re not sure, schedule a Strategy Session and we can work together to identify the problem, give you the next steps to take, and get your book flowing again.