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The writing process for Putting Stories to Work

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —April 5, 2016
Filed in Business storytelling

I’m often asked how I wrote Putting Stories to Work. People want to know about the writing process and how I did the research. I had similar questions before I started including, How many words do I need to write? How many chapters should it be? What’s the best word processor? So in this post I want to share with you what I learned.

First let me describe the type of book I wanted to write. First and foremost it was important the book was replete with stories. It’s a capital offence to talk about storytelling and not tell a story. I also wanted it to be a practical book, a bit like David Allen’s How to Get Things Done. It was important that it was research based. I didn’t want to just say, for example, that stories are memorable without pointing to research that backs up my statement. I also wanted to share this research as stories of the experiments. This meant I was on the hunt for experimental research rather than theories. I read a lot of business books and I was inspired by Adam Grant, Malcolm Gladwell, Dan Pink and the Heath brothers, to name a few.

Research

Without knowing it I had been researching my book for years and luckily I wrote up my findings as blog posts going back to 2004. So my first research task was to go through my blog posts and see what I had already written that I might like to refer to. When I found a post I liked I saved it in Evernote in a notebook especially for the book project. I tagged it so I could find it when I needed it.

I got a lucky break when I left university back in 1988. I signed up for a life convocation membership, I think it cost me $20, which gave me life membership to academic libraries around Australia. I did a lot of research accessing academic papers for my book in these libraries.

I’ve also been a big user of Endnote for more than a decade. It helps me keep track of all my researcher papers. Using Endnote I can quickly format a reference in any bibliographic style you can imagine. It’s also where I keep the PDF of the research paper. This has become a valuable resource for me over the years.

Making notes

A few years ago I started a new reading practice that served me well for writing the book. Whenever I’d read and annotate a business book I’d set it aside for a couple of weeks. Then I would revisit the annotations and underlinings and look for the ones that still stood up as significant, such as a quote, some remarkable research or a good story. I would then rewrite my discovery on a 6” by 4” index card and file it away on my index card box. The physical process of writing the index card helps me remember my discovery but I also would tag the index card and also scan it into Evernote.

The writing process

index-card

This process worked in a similar way for my Kindle books. I would highlight and annotate the book. Set it aside and then revisit. But because the highlights and notes where available to me through Amazon Kindle Your Highlights (https://kindle.amazon.com/your_highlights) I could cut and paste them right into Evernote. This was excellent for quotations except for the clunky page referencing system in Kindle that only gives you a location rather than a page number. If I wanted the page number I’d find the book on Google Books, search for the quote and write down the page numbers.

I was now ready to start writing. I started the manuscript in January 2015.

Selecting a writing tool

Ever since I was a young research assistant where I designed and delivered a course in the first version of Microsoft Word for my colleagues at the Australian National University, I’ve been interested in the best tool to get your writing done. I’m writing this post in my latest favourite, Ulysses. So when I started I already knew about Scrivener and its ability to manage large writing projects.

You should know that I’m totally an Apple shop. I have an iMac and an Apple Air laptop. I did most my writing on my iMac.

I liked Scrivener because I could see the entire structure of my book at one time while if dove in and out of specific sections to keep writing. I could set word targets for each section, save notes and related documents for reference and it had a nifty writing mode that cleared the whole screen so I could just focus on getting the words down. I also liked how it was all presented as plain text with minimum need for formatting.

scrivener-screen

Creating output from Scrivener is a little complicated. I wanted to master the tool so I signed up for Gwen Hernandez’s online Scrivener training. It was excellent.

I would use Scrivener again on a large writing project.

The writing process

I calculated based on other business books I admired that I needed to write about 70,000-90,000 words. I wanted to get the writing done in a year so a planned to write 550 words a day, 5 days a week for 48 weeks. So I set my alarm for 5am Monday to Friday. When I woke up I drank a glass of water then sat down at my iMac. Against all productivity advice I would check my email and when I had knocked over the urgent I would kick up Scrivener and start writing at about 5.30am.

My aim was to write 550 words and I had about 2 hours to do it before my day job started. Most days it came relatively easily and I would write a 1,000 or more. But when it was tough to squeeze out 550 I would just sit there until it was done. This sometimes meant writing rubbish but I noticed that my garbage words would get me in the flow and ideas would emerge. Before long I was getting up toward 70,000 words.

My secret weapon was my dear friend and book editor, Paul Smitz. Paul and I would meet every couple of weeks and he would expect to see my latest work. He was my book coach. It was a great motivator to ensure I had something good to show him. We would talk about the book and my ideas and in the early days we spent a lot of time working on the book structure. At the beginning of each chapter Paul would ask me, “So what is the promise you are making to the reader?” This question would spark a great conversation about what I was planning to share with the reader and whether I delivered on my promise.

I wrote three drafts of each chapter. The shitty first draft was created with my 550 words in the morning. When I felt I’d covered what I wanted I would print it out and mark up a second draft. I would then leave it for at least a week before I would attempt a final draft. Most of the time drafting involved taking words out.

Because I’d worked out the structure early I just wrote from the top to the bottom. Sometimes I had to stop to do more research along the way but most of the time the research I needed was on my index cards and in Evernote.

When all my writing was done I handed over the manuscript to Paul to do the copy edit. As he finished each chapter he would send me his edits and any questions for me to follow up. It took us two weeks to do the final edit.

The final process was proofreading, then off to the typesetter to lay the book out. Finally the indexer created the index.

The book was launched on World Storytelling Day on the 20 March 2016. You can buy it on Amazon (Kindle or paperback) or order the hardcover version from our website.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

4 Responses to “The writing process for Putting Stories to Work”

  1. David Williams Says:

    Great article Shawn
    Got your book in the mail late last week. So nice to have a quality hardback to hold and read.

  2. Gwen Hernandez Says:

    I love reading about other writers’ processes. So glad I could play a small part in bringing your book to market. Thanks for the mention and congrats on the new book!

  3. Soundari Says:

    Loved reading about the process and the tools – especially liked the way it is not prescriptive but matter of fact stating what worked for you and being open to share the tools which worked. It helps to really read your book with all the context behind it. Thanks for the book and enjoying reading it.

  4. Maree Says:

    Thanks so much for sharing the writing process. I also really enjoy your description of tools that have been useful – including how you use them.
    I am a big fan of the Heath brothers, and had Dan Heath as a lecturer in a course at Stanford where he was a great lecturer also.
    I look forward to getting your book – and once again thank you for your wonderful generosity — that’s the spirit of Anecdote.

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