Skip to content

Are You Writing the Great American [Business] Novel?

There comes a time in every business leader’s life when their thoughts turn to writing their first business book. We’ve seen many incredibly successful business executives tie themselves in knots around their first book project. It’s as if they’re back in college, and their toughest teacher has assigned an impossible task—write the Greatest Business Book. In that moment, rationality often tragically disappears. They start with the desire to “make mom proud” and somehow produce exhausting tomes that few people will ever read cover-to-cover.

So, before you put that first sheet of crisp linen paper into your Underwood typewriter, here are three tips for writing a business book you can learn from the struggles of three famous novelists.

1. Sharpen Your Focus before You Start Writing

Tolstoy never really planned to write War and Peace. It sort of “happened.” In 1861, Tolstoy envisioned a story about a family returning home in 1856—after spending twenty years as exiles after a failed coup d’état. He wrote a few chapters, but then set the manuscript aside, convinced he needed to tell the story of the 1825 coup itself. When that didn’t work, he shifted his focus back to Napoleon’s campaign of 1812. And after even more writing, he realized his story actually began in 1805. That story became War and Peace, and it remains one of the longest novels in the world. Although many people claim to have read the novel, most set the book aside long before the story reaches the Battle of Borodino or the philosophical treatise on the nature of history.

Lessons for business book authors:

Pick your subject and stick with it for your first business book. You’ll save yourself several painful rewrites.

Avoid overwriting. Your manuscript should be approximately 50,000 words. If you go above 70,000 words—stop! Finish your first book before writing your second one.

2. Stick to the Essentials

Herman Melville wrote a ripping sea-yarn about Ahab, captain of the whaling vessel Pequod, who seeks revenge on the mighty Moby Dick. Melville brings his characters to life through intense scenes—Father Mapple’s sermon about Jonah from the pulpit; Ahab’s doubloon nailed to the mast; and the final, fateful encounter with Moby Dick after the typhoon.

Yet, Melville frequently interrupts his narrative to provide exhaustive details about the anatomy of sperm whales and the care of whaling boats. There are enough digressions from the revenge-tale that you could legitimately retitle the book as Herman Melville’s Guide to Whaling. Most people skip over the history chapters to rush back to the story.

Lessons for business book authors:

As an expert, you’ll likely know amazing details about your topic. Accept that most of your readers simply won’t care as much as you do.

Any obsession to meticulous detail will likely obscure your main point (and bore your readers).

3. Make Your Text Easy to Understand

James Joyce’s Ulysses explores a fictional day in the life of Dublin—June 16, 1904. After publication, he quipped that he had given critics something to debate for three hundred years. Joyce’s complex modernist writing style included stream of consciousness; multi-lingual puns and portmanteau words; densely layered literary allusion, and intentional misspellings. It’s a literary feast for debate among intellectuals and Ph.D. candidates in English Literature, because there’s not just one answer; every puzzle piece contains many possible solutions.

Lessons for business book authors:

If you actually are that brilliant, then only a handful of people in the world will understand (or appreciate) what you’re writing about. Authors who made their narratives accessible—such as John Steinbeck and Harper Lee outsell James Joyce, year after year.

If you’re not that brilliant in the field you’re writing about, then you’re acting out of hubris and setting yourself up for a fall. Be prepared to hear what others think of your attempts.

Greatness Takes Time

Each of these authors—Tolstoy, Melville, and Joyce—produced great pieces of writing, but they were full-time writers working at the peak of their profession. It’s unlikely that you’re going to produce the Great Business Book in the evenings, after you come home from your day job. If you feel the passion to write a business book, remember these three tips: sharpen your focus, stick to the essentials, and make your ideas easy to understand.

Bill Sherman works with thought leaders to launch big ideas within well-known brands. He is the COO of Thought Leadership Leverage. Visit Bill on Twitter

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. These are some good tips. I recently read an interesting article that outlines a really cool method for writing a business book. It covers everything from idea to finished book and provides information on the steps in the business book writing process, including preparation, positioning, book outline, writing plan, editing and publishing.

    It’s worth a read if you are an entrepreneur, executive, consultant, etc. that is thinking about writing a nonfiction business book. You can read the article here:

Comments are closed.

Back To Top