The Case of the Curious Author: Why Most Great Books Begin With What You Want to Learn, Not What You Know
“It’s all written in my head, and I just have to get it out.”
Is your conviction-to-curiosity score out of whack?
Having been part of the journeys with thousands of published authors now, I am sometimes asked what’s the difference between authors who publish and writers who never finish their books.
The person who struggles comes to me with the perfect book topic, a full outline, every lesson, and the ideal title for their book… in their head.
And it’s that overconfidence that sinks them and their book.
If you’re thinking about really investing time and resources into a book, I’d suggest you examine your conviction-to-curiosity score.
What is Good Conviction for a Book?
Websters Dictionary defines conviction is “a firmly held belief or opinion.”
When it comes to books, there are lots of convictions:
- The title
- The beginning story
- The table of contents
- The main lesson
- The length
These are all common convictions I often hear when talking to an aspiring author.
I describe these as Knowledge Convictions. Things you know about your topic. The problem is these aren’t good convictions – things you really should firmly hold as beliefs – when it comes to writing your book.
Why? Because most authors will tell you that the act of writing the book exposes all the things you didn’t realize, know, or understand. The process builds your topical and knowledge convictions.
Then what is a good conviction?
Process Convictions. These are things you hold firmly as beliefs and opinions about the process you’ll go through with your book.
- The amount of months you’ll invest in completing the project
- The amount of hours you’ll carve off weekly to work on the book
- The amount of feedback you’ll need to seek
- The amount of research you’ll plan to gather
- The number of interviews you’ll need to do
- The coaching, editing, and support you’ll need to improve it
These are things in the process of writing your book, and these are what I’d describe as good convictions.
Education Convictions. These are things you want to share and teach. Often it’s something you’ve benefited from and feel is a conviction to share with others.
- Recommending a great book you’ve read
- Writing a blog post detailing how you’ve done something
- Offering a workshop
- Teaching a course or class
- Coaching or mentoring someone
What can make a book or really any major project challenging is when we have to break our firmly held beliefs and opinions.
That can feel depressing, frustrating, or defeating.
And that’s why knowledge conviction is particularly problematic: when you start writing a book and taking what you thought out of your head, it will certainly break many of your firmly held beliefs and opinions.
Having strong knowledge convictions sets you up for frustration, but having process convictions and education convictions are critical.
Setting Process Convictions
As Mike Tyson aptly said, “Everyone has a plan: until they get punched in the face.”
Writing a book will punch you in the face. And so any convictions you have should be loosely held but grounded in some knowledge.
I’ve learned to identify four major areas to create ‘loose’ process convictions:
- Calendar time
- Weekly time
- Professional support
When I talk to a writer about creating process convictions, I begin by framing their book as an iterative project. This is something that’ll require modest weekly investments that with feedback will improve over a longer period of time.
Said simply, “You’ll write something every week and with the right feedback mechanisms it will be darn good by the end of a year.”
Calendar Time Convictions. Writing a book is a long-term endeavo. Most great books take around a year of a concerted effort to develop, write, and revise to be great. It’s a year-long thing… and then there’s the additional effort that comes from marketing, publishing, book tours, and the like. I believe each book I write is going to require me to make at least a year-long commitment to developing it. I’m convicted for the year, but I’m aware it may take more time. And I also know there’s additional work of marketing, promotion, etc.
Weekly Time Convictions. There is a common message out there from professional authors from Stephen King to Dan Pink who all say the same variation of “write daily.” It’s good in theory, but hard in practice, especially if you have a day job. I think in weekly time investment, as you want to be doing meaningful work on your book most weeks. I’d think about committing a year to the project and dedicating 4-6 hours each week.That’s going to be about two hundred and fifty hours, but it feels much more doable if you scope it down to two mornings each week, a half day on Saturday, one afternoon, or a single evening.
Professional Support. I don’t believe writing a book isn’t hard because of the writing; it’s hard because of the architecture of writing content for a book. When I wrote my first novel, The Pennymores, I took the idea from a bedtime story my daughters and I made up, and wrote it down. I shared it with a few people and they loved the characters and the world, but the story was flat. It wasn’t until I began working with my developmental editor ChandaElaine Spurlock that I realized I didn’t have the architecture of the story – the frames for my writing. For some people they can get that from books on writing, others get coaching and help from an editor, and still others may get their MFA or something similar. But I’d be convicted you’ll need to invest in professional support – time and money – to finish a book.
Feedback. If you read any advice about writing books, you’re most likely to hear the phrase ‘great books aren’t written, they are re-written.’ That’s true, but I’ll add a qualifier to that: great books are re-written based on great feedback. And you should expect to get feedback from multiple people (beyond a professional editor). Peer authors, beta readers, friends, and family. You want to be convicted that you’ll share your ideas and writing with a meaningful number of people. In fact, I advise writers to be sure they have six to ten people they trust read the entire book before publishing.
These four areas are where I’d urge every writer to develop ‘loose’ process convictions to help them finish what they start.
Identify Your Conviction-to-Curiosity Score
My good friend and business partner Scott Case has the following mantra: “I’m often wrong, but never in doubt.”
This is what I call the Conviction-to-Curiosity score.
You want conviction – especially the good convictions – when it comes to writing a book. Those convictions should skew toward process convictions if at all possible, and even better if they look at those convictions as floors: at least a year, at least 4 hours a week, etc.
But that’s not particularly reassuring when you’re deciding if this is an idea or direction you should invest all this time into.
Remember, strong Knowledge Conviction isn’t the type of conviction that I’d encourage any first-time writer.
But then, how do I know if this topic is worth pursuing?
You’re curious to find answers to a question that matters, and you are convicted to share what you learn with others. We call this Education Conviction.
Many of the best books begin as questions:
- If our intellects alone don’t determine success… what does? (Mindset by Carol Dweck, Grit by Angela Duckworth)
- What makes us attracted to certain brands and companies? (Start with Why by Simon Sinek, Good to Great by Jim Collins)
- How can I achieve my goals? (Atomic Habits by James Clear, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F#ck by Mark Manson, Drive by Dan Pink)
There are countless others out there, but these questions don’t have to be unique. As you can see, many of these have a similar question that led to a different framework, book, or solution.
|High Education Conviction
|Low Education Conviction
|High Topic Curiosity
|You’ve spent extensive time learning about the subject – reading books, taking courses, listening to speakers, writing ideas (and continue to do so) AND you regularly share that knowledge in blog posts, workshops, teaching, and coaching.
|You’ve spent extensive time learning about the subject – reading books, taking courses, listening to speakers, writing ideas (and you’re continuing to do so), but you’ve mostly kept that knowledge to yourself or shared mostly in private settings.
|Low Topic Curiosity
|You’re already an/the expert in the field or topic, and at this point, you know the topic. You’ve already spoken about it many times, written about it extensively, and believe more people need this knowledge and information.
|You think this idea is intriguing but really haven’t spent a ton of time with it, but you’re not sure if people care and you’re really early in deciding if it’s an area of interest for you.
If you find yourself in the Low-Low box, then you’re likely not ready to even consider writing a book on this subject. And if you find yourself in the high-high box, then this indicates that you likely have the necessary score to at least consider investing in a book.
It’s when you are low-high or high-low boxes that require a bit more work.
- High Education Conviction, but Low Topic Curiosity. This is often what I call the “should write” book. Many times these writers come in with strong Knowledge Conviction, but low Process Conviction because they feel like all the work they’ve done to get to this point should “count” and now they just need to extract their knowledge and make it a book. In many cases, they ask about a ghostwriter. My guidance is that they need to look for a ‘new angle’ for their book to peak their curiosity; otherwise, they struggle to finish their books. A new angle could be finding a different audience for the knowledge, layering on research and interviews from others, or simply looking for a more updated take. Many have been thinking about their idea for years and need a shake-up to ever finish.
- High Topic Curiosity, but Low Education Conviction. This is often what I call the “someone needs to write the book” writer. They have spent substantial time and energy coming to a conclusion or insight, and often can’t believe why no one else has it or why no one else is talking about it. They believe the idea is “so big” that when they share it, it’ll become a massive, huge idea. Their reasons for not sharing it often have to do with alignment: an area outside their job, a topic they don’t want someone to steal, or they don’t yet have the credibility to write it. For most of these individuals, I don’t advise them to start posting on social media or start blogging about their ideas (they usually aren’t there yet). I advise them to have conversations with friends, connections, and peers. Usually, there’s an investment needed to really frame things.
What I’ve learned is aspiring authors who have High-High scores are the most likely to be able to finish a draft manuscript or book on their own. It’s still challenging, but that combination can provide enough inherent motivation to finish. For those with High-Low or Low-High scores, they nearly all require a system to finish. That system usually requires professional coaching and a level of peer accountability and support necessary to finish an exceptional book.
Being aware of your own score can help you determine what things are holding you back, and what investments are worth making to push to finish.
Conviction is key to finishing a book, but make sure you’ve got the right convictions, and particularly are self-aware of your own conviction-to-curiosity score as it can make all the difference.
Writing a book is one of the most amazing learning experiences of my life.
But curiosity, my writer friends . . . that’s how you build your convictions.
Eric Koester is the founder and CEO of Creator Institute, a b-corporation whose mission is to inspire, teach and support tomorrow’s creators — authors, podcasters, speakers, entrepreneurs, corporate innovators and course builders. Through his work he’s coached nearly 1,000 first-time creators. He is also a Professor of Entrepreneurship & Innovation at Georgetown University and the school’s only two-time entrepreneurship professor of the year, faculty at Growth University, and the executive director of the Intrapreneur Institute, which researches, trains and develops future innovation leaders.