As you write your book, how much of it is intentional?
By “intentional,” I mean it’s on purpose, rather than incidental.
Each of us creates hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pieces of “content” each day, most of it without ever thinking “Now, I’m going to create some content.” Every email you send, word you say, and even every action you take, is a form of content. Each piece of content you create says something to those around you.
When we create content without thinking much about it, if at all, this is unintentional content. For example, let’s say you find your 10-year old has, once again, left his towel on the bathroom floor after showering. Before you can catch yourself you put your hands on your hips, glower, and shout at him, “Jimmy! How many times have I told you not to leave the towel on the bathroom floor?! Are you a moron?! You drive me crazy!”
Five minutes later, you’re sitting at the kitchen table, pressing your hands to your temples, wondering how you managed to overreact, once again. Congrats! You’re not the worst parent in the world, but you have succeeded in creating unintentional content. The words you said and your body language aren’t what you would have used if you had taken the time to think things through.
A few days go by and you’ve mostly forgotten the incident when someone sends you a copy of the book Natural Family Living by parenting expert Peggy O’Mara. In it, you read the line “The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice,” and all those feeling of guilt come back. Except this time you decide to do something about it.
“The things I said the other day are not going to become my child’s inner voice,” you tell yourself. You’re ready to get intentional.
To create intentional content the next time, you decide exactly what you’re going to say next time Jimmy leaves his towel on the floor. Even if you’re angry, you’re going to restrain yourself and say in a calm voice, “Jimmy, your towel is on the floor, would you please pick it up right now?” You role play through it a few times, refining the words until it’s just right. Next time, you’ll be ready.
Highly influential people produce a higher ratio of intentional to unintentional content. That doesn’t necessarily mean they plan out exactly what they say.
“Wait, so you’re saying I should think carefully about everything I do or say? That’s impossible!”
It’s only impossible if you think about it every single time, but that’s not the objective. Instead, you create intentional content once and then use it repeatedly.
In 1931, Gandhi traveled to Britain to make the case for improving the situation in India. The press noticed that Gandhi would speak, often for hours at a time, with no notes. His speeches were spellbinding, and his audiences were astounded.
One day, a member of the press approached Gandhi’s secretary, Mahadev Desai, and asked him how Gandhi was able to give such powerful speeches—such long speeches—without any notes! Desai said
“What Gandhi thinks, what he feels, what he says and what he does are all the same. He does not need notes. You and I think things that sometimes may be different than what we feel. What we say depends on who’s listening. What we do depends on who’s watching. It is not so with him. He needs no notes.”
That said, most of us aren’t at this level and in order to create intentional content we need to work hard (not that Gandhi didn’t work hard, but perhaps his hard work was done in the decades leading up to 1931).
Often, despite our best intentions, we find ourselves creating unintentional content. Going back to your 10 year-old son Jimmy, the first time you use a calm voice with Jimmy, it may be difficult. It’s new territory, and as Charles Duhigg explained in his book The Power of Habit, when we create new routines our brain has to work harder. It is literally rewiring itself. However, the more we do the hard, intentional work, the easier the action becomes until it is a habit, and we don’t think about it any more, we just act. Creating intentional content becomes easy, as it was for Gandhi.
As with speaking, so it is with writing. The harder you work, the easier it is. To get intentional about your writing so that you say what you mean to say, try these steps:
- Read the research. In academia they call it a lit review. Read everything on the topic you’re reading about. One benefit is that you won’t end up writing something someone else already wrote. Another is that you’ll really know your stuff and it will show. I’m writing my first fiction book right now, a part of which touches on near-death experiences (NDE’s), so I’m reading around 20 books on NDE’s.
- Do the research. Find out where the research hasn’t been done and do it yourself.
- Experiment. Test out what you learn from #1 and #2. Now that I’ve said that and I read what I wrote in #1, I should clarify this does NOT mean intentionally having a near-death experience. But if you’re writing a book on health you better have tried out the health-improving techniques you advocate.
- Write. Once you have a lot of knowledge start writing. Or start writing while you do 1-3. Or start writing, then go do 1-3. But don’t entirely skip 1-3, whatever you do.
- Wait. This is a tough one for many, but there’s something to be said for sleeping on what you wrote for a week, a month, or a year. Often, when you revisit it, you have a new perspective that changes (and improves) what you wrote.
- Get outside input. Another way to make your writing more intentional is to get outside help. Writer Neil Gaiman says, “Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.” He then warns, “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”
- Edit. One of the things I love about writing is that, unlike speaking, I can edit what I say before anyone sees it.
If you go through these steps as you write, your writing will become intentional. In 99 cases out of 100, it will also become better. Get intentional about your content and you’ll create a better book.Liked it? Share it!