Formulaic approaches do have value, giving people the impetus to get started. But the formula needs to leave room for discovery and growth.
In writing a book, as in other aspects of life, you’ll have more success if you approach the process with a growth mindset.
Fixed vs. Growth Mindsets
In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck outlines the dichotomy between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset. People with a fixed mindset tend to believe that their abilities are predetermined, set in stone. This makes them risk-averse, regarding errors and problems as signs of personal flaws. People with a growth mindset are willing to admit and learn from mistakes.
How does this apply to writing a book?
When approaching a book with a fixed mindset, you imagine that you already know everything that will end up in the book. You simply have to fill up the pages to match the outline in your head.
The traditional publishing process encourages a fixed mindset; authors submit book proposals, including an outline and sample chapters. This sets up the expectation (in the author’s mind at least) that the work is set in concrete. Developmental editors know that the proposal is just a first cut, a suggestion rather than the final path, in most cases. New authors may not realize this.
Approaching a book with a fixed mindset presents two major problems:
- You don’t start writing book until you have all the answers. For many, this is reason enough to delay, indefinitely.
- Once you start writing, you may be unpleasantly surprised when you discover that that the book changes direction mid-course.
Writing with a Growth Mindset
If you approach the book with a growth mindset, you might start before you’re completely sure of exactly what’s going to happen. This opens the door to discovery.
Stephen King tells of his own writing process in his excellent memoir On Writing: “I have never demanded of a set of characters that they do things my way. On the contrary, I want them to do things their way.”
Nonfiction authors experience the same type of discovery, on a different scale. Perhaps you hit on an unsuspected connection as you write. In exploring that connection, you uncover new facets of your topic that lead to added chapters or different perspectives. You may even change the focus of the book as a result.
You cannot be open to those insights unless you approach the topic with a learner’s mind, even as you set forth as a subject matter expert.
Why does it matter?
As a reader, you can tell when an author is on the journey of discovery with you, even if the author writes from a position of authority and expertise. The experience of reading is more personal and compelling, because it’s not simply a regurgitation of what the author already knows. Traveling the path together is more interesting for everyone.
What’s your path?
Each approach has benefits and drawbacks.
If you have a strong sense of what you want to say, a fixed mindset may help you get through the task quickly. If you’re writing something instructional (a how-to or a textbook, for example), this might be the best approach. You must, however, be able to inhabit your reader’s learning mindset, and understand what they do not know to be effective.
If you want to write a book that engages and brings the reader along with you, the growth mindset is invaluable. Fiction writing and creative nonfiction fall into these categories. Even “business” books can be entertaining and engaging to read, if the author approaches with a growth mindset. The process of writing the book may take longer. But you’ll emerge at the other side changed.
What do you think – can you tell when an author is open to growth while writing? Does it matter to you as a reader? As a writer?