Facing the Blank Page

Most writers face writer’s block at some point. You have a blank page that’s waiting for you to fill it and you have a vague notion of what you want to say, but the text simply doesn’t come out right. So, you write, and write some more, and write still more, and hours later you still have a blank page. Yes, you’ve written many words during that time—all of them good words—just not the right words.

Every piece of writing I do starts with an outline. Even my articles start with an outline. Creating outlines help you focus your thoughts. More importantly, they help you to see how your thoughts will flow from one idea to the next. Sometimes, if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll discover that you really don’t have anything more than a vague idea that will never become an article, white paper, book, or some other piece of writing. Of course, that’s really the reason for this exercise—to see if you have enough information to even begin writing. If you don’t have enough information, then you need to research your topic more. Research can take all sorts of forms that include everyone from reading other texts on the topic, to doing interviews, to playing. That’s right, even playing is an essential part of the writer’s toolbox, but this is a kind of practical play that has specific goals.

Once you do have an outline and you’re certain that the outline will work, you need to mark it up. My outlines often contain links to resources that I want to emphasize while I write (or at least use as sources of inspiration). A lot of writers take this approach because again, it helps focus your thoughts. However, an outline should also contain other kinds of information. For example, if a particular section is supposed to elicit a particular emotion, then make sure you document it. You should also include information from your proposal (book goals) and your reader profile (who will read a particular section) in the outline. Your marked up outline will help you understand just what it is that you really want to write. In reading your outline, you can start to see holes in the coverage, logic errors, and ideas that simply don’t fit.

Moving your outline entries to the blank page will help you start the writing process. Convert the entries to headings and subheadings. Ensure that the presentation of the headings and subheadings is consistent with the piece as a whole. Unfortunately, you can still end up with writer’s block. Yes, now you have some good words on the page, but no real content. An outline is simply a synopsis of your ideas in a formalized presentation after all.

Write the introduction and the summary to the piece next. The introduction is an advertisement designed to entice the reader into moving forward. However, it also acts as a starting point. The summary doesn’t just summarize the material in the piece—it provides the reader with direction on what to do next. People should view a good summary as a call to action. By creating the introduction and the summary, you create the starting and ending points for your piece—the content starts to become a matter of drawing a line between the two from a writing perspective.

At this point, you have enough material that you could possibly ask for help. Try reading your piece to someone else. Reading material aloud uses a different part of the brain than reading the same material silently. Discussing the material with someone else places a different emphasis on the material. The other party can sometimes provide good suggestions. You may not use the suggestions directly, but listening carefully can often present you with creative ideas that you wouldn’t have considered otherwise.

It’s important not to overwork the piece. Sometimes you need to do something else for a while. Yes, you always want to spend time in research and thinking your piece through, some writing is often done in the subconscious. Fill your head up with as many creative ideas, fascinating thoughts, and facts that you can, and then do something that actually will take your conscious mind off the topic. You might watch a television show or movie, go for a while. have coffee with a friend, take a nap, or do any of a number of other things. The important thing is to forget about the book for a while. Often, you’ll find that the now semi-blank page doesn’t present a problem when you return. Let me hear about your ideas for dealing with the blank page at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Writing the Introduction and Summary

I read a lot of books in a year. In fact, it’s not unusual for me to read a book or two every month of the year. While it may take three or more months to read something for pleasure, such as a favorite fantasy novel, technical books usually receive my intense interest for less than a month. Once I pick it up, I’ll keep reading until I’ve finished the book. Unlike many readers, I do read technical books end-to-end so that I can pick up new writing techniques, as well as information. When it comes to technical books, I’ve found that there are usually two flaws that make me scratch my head: the introduction and summary.

The introduction is akin to an advertisement or possibly an invitation. You want to provide a reader with a good reason for viewing the material. After all, the reader’s time is precious and there are many authors on the market peddling their wares. An invitation to read a particular chapter is not only necessary, it’s essential if you want the reader to spend time with the book. A good introduction highlights the reasons why the reader should continue and tempts the reader with the fine fare you’ve diligently created. However, introductions should also be short. You have about 30 seconds to convince someone to read a chapter—possibly less in this day of the sound bite. Instead of focusing on the question of what, the author should tell the reader why. It’s important to say why the reader should read the chapter and describe how much the reader stands to gain by doing so.

Summaries are eschewed by most readers for good reason—they’re boring. In many cases, it’s obvious the author didn’t devote much thought to the summary, so it isn’t hard to figure out why the reader doesn’t devote any time to it. Over the years, I’ve stopped calling the end of the chapter a summary because the term has picked up such a terrible meaning. Rather, I use a heading that at least promises to excite the reader a little. My summaries do tend to follow a formula that I modify as needed to satisfy the requirements of the target reader for my book. I write three or four paragraphs that answer these questions:

 

  • What is the most important bit of information the reader can take away from the chapter?
  • Now that the reader has new information, how can the reader apply it in a specific way?
  • How does the next chapter expand on the content of this chapter (or what new topic does it cover)?

In working with the introduction and summary, I’m careful not to develop new information. I simply direct the information I cover in the body of the chapter in a specific way. Yes, the summary does imply new information in the form of a call to action, but the call to action is not the topic I’m discussing, but rather invites to the reader to apply what the chapter has taught in order to make the lessons more permanent.

The content of the introduction and summary does vary by publisher. Specific series have specific requirements and I always do my best to make use of these requirements in a way that helps the reader obtain the most from that particular chapter. In addition, beta readers have often requested that I include some special feature in either the introduction or summary to help make the chapter more useful. I listen to these comments carefully because the beta readers probably know better than I do what will attract another reader’s attention.

Summaries can be especially hard. There are times where I’ll rework a summary several times to get the effect I want. In some cases, my summaries will include questions or other special features because simply telling the reader to go out and use the information learned seems inadequate to address the topic at hand. No matter how you write your introductions and summaries though, you do need to treat them as an important part of the chapter. The first invites the reader into the chapter and the other bids the reader adieu. Both provide the reader with a lasting impression of your skill as an author and both change the way the reader views the content of the rest of the chapter.

What is your reaction to technical book introductions and summaries? Do you often feel as I do, that they are simply bolted on as a means to start and end the chapter, but not much else? What would you like to see in an introduction or summary? Let me know your thoughts on the topic at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.