Writing a Book

Steven Johnson has another book due out shortly – “Everything Bad Is Good For You.” He writes:

For me, at least 50% of the challenge — and the fun — of writing a book is dealing with the unique relationship that the author has to his or her reader. If they’re truly reading your book and not skimming it, you have several things happening: you have their undivided attention; you have hours and hours of that attention devoted to you; and you have that attention organized along a linear path, reading the book from start to finish. It is a remarkably intimate, private kind of exchange, and its power lies precisely in the commitment of time and focus that the book demands. The problem for an author is that books are not written the way they are read. They usually take years to write, from original proposal to final proofs; they are rarely composed in sequence; and by the time you submit a final manuscript, you’ve invariably read every page dozens of times, mostly out context.

So for me at least, the trick of writing a book is somehow shedding all the layered, time-shifted contortions of writing, and somehow recreating what it would feel like to sit down as a newcomer to the book and start reading. Anyone who has ever written a book will probably recognize the challenge here: you write a new section at the end of a chapter, and as you’re writing it, it seems like you’re producing some great material. And then you sit down and read through the whole chapter a few weeks later, and the new section reads like it’s been pasted in from someone else’s book. Or you think you’ve constructed a perfect opening argument for the introduction, and then you sit down to read it and realize that you’ve neglected to mention the most important — though also, to you, the most obvious — point of all.

Most of the time, you can only catch these things if you’ve tricked your brain into approaching the book as though you yourself were a new reader, entering into that private, linear, slow exchange that is book reading. And private, linear, slow is exactly the opposite of the experience of blogging. What’s great here is the remixing, the group mind, the hypertextuality, the fact-checks, the trial balloons. It’s an amazing environment, but to me it’s directly antagonistic to the mental state you need to make a book work as a reading experience, and not just a collection of facts and ideas. It’s like trying to compose a new melody in your head while standing in the middle of a full-throated choral group. And so when I’m immersed in writing a book, I try to keep these worlds separate, even if it feels like I’m betraying the blog somewhat with my silence.

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.