Borrowing Too Much

Anyone wanting to write nonfiction usually finds that a number of books have already been written in his chosen area of expertise. This is especially common in the realm of business books. From Stephen R. Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Successful People to Jim Collins’ Good to Great, an author can find all sorts of books that contain catchy hooks and clear-cut examples. The prospective author is frequently a business executive, so he may have spent hours on a plane reading all of the books in the literature.

Because writing is often perceived by a neophyte as a return to younger, more idealistic days, she may revert to college habits when starting to compile her book. Maybe she doesn’t use a yellow highlighter anymore, but she hunts for good quotes from all those great books and gathers them for use in her own. If she is widely read enough, she can collect hundreds of quotes from dozens of thought-provoking authors.

This diligence does have its rewards, because variety is the spice of life. But an author makes a grave mistake if he believes his readers will react to his copious research the way his teacher once did. A reader expects an author to be an authority, and that means being in command of what he writes. Why should I read your book if all I’m getting out of it is somebody else’s work?

Taking command of each topic you are covering is the hard part in writing. The reader knows basically all of the stuff you’re writing about. The question is: what is your take on it? Concept is what sets a great book apart from a good one. Creating a brand-new structure—a paradigm—in which all of the research can be slotted in a logical place makes a book your own.

When an author is showing so much deference, her plan, or step-by-step program, may not appear until a later chapter. That’s because she feels that it’s not so original, not worthy of putting ahead of gods like Covey. That is attacking the problem backward, though. If you demand of yourself that your concept must appear in Chapter 1, and that all of the material that follows must be governed by it, guess what happens? You work harder on that concept. Precisely because you have to make all of those research pieces align, you hammer the concept into a flexible, expansive shape that accommodates them. Now you’re in control.

Exercise: Draw up a list of topics you want to cover. Then read through each piece of research and assign it to a certain category. If one chapter, for example, covers different options after losing your job, create separate pools of examples for each option. That way you will write your material first, then slot in the examples to fit within your construct.

“Originality is nothing but judicious imitation. The most original writers borrowed one from another.”

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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