Book-writing and article-writing—what’s the difference? Frequent Questions

Q: I write articles all the time. What’s the difference between that and book-writing?

A: Books have more words in them.

Of course I’m being facetious. My questioner knows what the difference is between article-writing and book-writing. But it’s also true: unless you write articles for The New Yorker, your book will generally have more words.

I think what she really wanted to know was: How do you take 20,000 words to say something you could say perfectly well in 2,000? And the answer to that question is—you don’t. You use the 2,000 words as the seeds to build something bigger.

book-writing may require repotting some ideasNow, not all seeds sprout equally. Some of them will turn into beautiful flowers—but if you’re telling a story about herbs, the flowers will be useless. So repot them and stick ’em back in the greenhouse for the next thing you write. (Okay, I’m officially out of planting metaphors now. Not Nature Girl, remember?)

But some of the ideas in your original piece will be perfect to expand. So figure out how they would fit in the expanded arc of the story and expand them.

Story arc: essential tool of book-writing

You thought only movies and TV shows have story arcs? Think again.

The novelist Kurt Vonnegut may have been the first to represent the archetypes of stories graphically.

And now a group of scientists have done it with computers. The computers identified six story types:

1. Rags to Riches (rise)
2. Riches to Rags (fall)
3. Man in a Hole (fall then rise)
4. Icarus (rise then fall)
5. Cinderella (rise then fall then rise)
6. Oedipus (fall then rise then fall)

Now, I could write about story arcs all day. But they’re tangential to the point I’m trying to make in this blog. So let’s repot that idea and stash it in the greenhouse for another day.

The “fat outline”

The reason I brought up story arcs is that to turn an article-length piece into a book, or to create a book out of thin air, you need to know where you’re going. And then get there. Story arcs take your reader on a journey—and if they enjoy the journey, they will tell others. If your book seems like an unconnected series of things slapped together for no particular reader, you’ll have a hard time keeping a reader’s interest.

A “fat outline” will help you sketch out your storyline. If you hadn’t heard the term before, I’m relieved—neither had I until I ran across it in this post by Josh Bernoff, one of my favorite bloggers.

Even though I didn’t know it had a name, I create “fat outlines” whenever I have a long, research-heavy piece to write. Basically, I just paste everything I know about a certain aspect of the topic into a Word doc. (I’m trying to teach myself to use Scrivener, but I haven’t made the transition completely yet.)

I create footnotes at this stage, too. Nothing worse than having a client ask, “Where did you find this data point?” Where, indeed—since you’ve read about a million things. And at least 63% of the time, you can never find the original source again. [Footnote: I made that statistic up; based on my experiences before I started footnoting my notes, it’s probably higher.]

Bernoff also calls his fat outline a “zeroth draft,” which I love. Does that paint the picture for you? Basically, it’s as close as you can get to writing without actually making sentences of your own. And if it looks too short for book-writing—if your zeroth draft turns out to be less than zero—go back and see which seeds have sprouted usefully.

When your outline has grown as fat and contented as an old housecat, you’re ready to get down to the business of book-writing.

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