Why Category-Defining Books Start With a Question (Hint: You Don’t Need to Be an Expert Before You Write a Book)
“Why would anyone listen to me?”
“I don’t know enough about the topic.”
“Do you think I need to get a Ph.D. first?”
Expertise. It’s a common misconception about writing a great book. So the thinking goes, you become an expert and then just tell people how.
But the reality is quite the opposite.
I asked author Dan Pink about the origins of his recent book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, and his answer surprised me. “That book had its genesis in this office. In an attempt to answer how I should approach my work.”
A question he wanted to answer for himself.
I asked Arianna Huffington why she wrote Thrive: Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder. “I collapsed from exhaustion and burnout in 2007, and started studying the whole phenomenon of burnout, covering a lot of it in the Huffington Post that I was running at the time. And then I started wanting to write about it. So, that’s how Thrive came about it. It was really my new passion.”
A question she wanted to answer for herself.
Even my recent book Super Mentors began with a question: “Why wasn’t I a very effective mentor?” And the resulting work and book taught me something compelling that I shared with others through the book.
This a question I wanted to answer for myself.
None of us were experts, but we became experts by writing these books.
Great books begin with a question.
But how do you find yours?
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First, some wrong questions often clog the potential book writer’s mind:
- Is it unique?
- Will it sell?
- Can I finish?
Those are different from the kinds of questions to fixate on. Sure, they are concerns, but truthfully they are much less relevant when you have a driving question.
Find Your Driving Question
Great books are based on a type of question I call your driving question Driving questions are deeply personal, cross-cutting to numerous aspects of your life, and they nag at you often through an emotional thread.
It’s something that bugs you.
- Why can’t I . . .
- How come I . . .
- What’s stopping me from . . .
- Why don’t we . . .
- How come they won’t . . .
For Dan Pink, it was when he should be working to maximize his happiness, health, and success. For Arianna, it was how she should take care of herself to maximize her long-term well-being. For me, it was how to make a difference with others when I tried to help.
The way I summarize this is to ask yourself: What annoys you – and no matter what you’ve read, watched, heard, or done just doesn’t seem to fix it for you?
That is a driving question.
What’s vital about driving questions is that conventional wisdom – what most people think or believe – is just unsatisfactory to you.
Sure, there may be answers from experts, research, and other places. But it’s unsatisfactory for you. You’re annoyed that you can’t find something that works or is satisfying for you.
Congratulations. You’ve got your driving question.
Is It Worth Finding Answers to Your Driving Question
Finding a question is relatively easy. Finding a driving question is more challenging. But the real trick is deciding something different:
Is it worth finding answers to your driving question?
Most likely, answers exist to this question. Books have been written. Podcast interviews are out there. Blog posts are plentiful.
Don’t expect to be the only one thinking about your driving question. Driving questions likely drive others too. That’s a good sign people are trying to answer it.
But you’re on the right track if you find the answers unsatisfactory, incomplete, or too general.
Remember, Dan wasn’t the first person or only person to write about the power of timing, luck, time management, or similar themes. There were dozens and dozens of books on wellness, sleep, purpose, etc., before Arianna wrote her book. And mentorship is one of the most covered subjects on the planet.
But none of them were satisfying, complete, or specific to us. Something was missing.
Remember, driving questions are deeply personal, and that’s part of what makes books special and unique:
- Dan Pink was a modern, independent worker. As an author, he doesn’t punch a clock. Many books about time management or understanding timing were built when we didn’t control our schedules. He needed a unique and updated view for people like him.
- Arianna wasn’t a scientist, but she’d risen to fame and simply couldn’t go off in the wilderness and meditate to find her wellness. She needed to examine it for busy and ambitious professionals who wanted more.
- I was exploring modern mentorship in the digital era where the internet had changed access to advice and information. Nothing I’d read offered that modern look.
But how will you know if it is worth finding answers to your driving question?
I suggest you answer two questions:
- Is it something I’m willing to spend the next year going deeper into for myself?
- Is it something I’m willing to teach to others like me?
If your answer is yes to both questions, then you have checked a very important box in the book process:
This is a driving question worth finding answers to.
Where to Find Help Answering Your Driving Question
This is where many aspiring authors get stuck – answering your driving question isn’t easy or straightforward.
The answers will be nonlinear, more like a treasure hunt than a path.
And this is where the process is critical:
You don’t look for an answer. You look for people who can contribute to your answer.
This is critical – you should assume there is no answer. Dan Pink shared that he took a yellow notepad and began creating a list of people he wanted to learn from or talk to to answer his question.
Assume every expert will offer you something helpful, but it’ll be unsatisfactory, incomplete, or too general. There is no one magic TED Talk, book, or framework that answers your driving question.
But they will have helpful contributions.
What is a contribution? According to our good friend Webster (the dictionary), it’s when you give (something) to help achieve or provide something.
For an aspiring author, the “something” here differs from what people usually expect from hunting for answers.
Hunt for stories.
I recently wrote a longer post about the hunt for stories called “Master Story Gathering: Four Steps to Research Story Ideas for Any Nonfiction Book”.
Especially early in your journey, you’re looking for contributions through the stories of others.
Share Answers to Your Driving Question
Early in your writing journey, keep your writing short – usually, 50-250 word snippets that summarize the story from a podcast, an experience in your own life, a TED Talk, an interview you did, or just something random you thought of.
These smaller answers – contributions – are what will guide you toward answers that are:
- More satisfactory
- More complete
- More specific
Remember, your book isn’t the only answer out there…
I can’t guarantee that reading one book will change your life.
But I can guarantee that writing one will. Through that process, you’ll answer your driving question, and have something to share and teach others who also feel like you.
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Most of the best books I’ve read didn’t start from a place of expertise; they started from a place of curiosity.
Find your driving question and commit to answering it yourself and sharing it with others through a book.
So, what’s your driving question?
Eric Koester is the founder Manuscripts, LLC, 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.