Nonfiction Writers: Find Your External and Internal Why

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Today’s post is excerpted from Blueprint for a Nonfiction Book by Jennie Nash (@jennienash).

When I ask my clients why they want to write a book, they will often start by giving a simple answer: “I want to share what I have learned” or “I don’t want other people to suffer like I did.” These answers are part of the truth, but they often shield deeper reasons. These reasons, this deeper why, form the core of your motivation and momentum; you’ll draw on these reasons when you feel despair or imposter syndrome.

If you never ask yourself why you are writing, you are far more likely to write in circles, fall into frustration and doubt, and come to believe that writing depends on some elusive muse or a series of special habits (e.g., write 1500 words a day, write for an hour every day, write when the full moon is waning) rather than deep self-reflection, discipline, and persistence.

Identifying your why first has an enormous impact on your capacity to both write and complete a book that resonates with your desired reader. It’s often the difference between writing a book that people want to read and either (a) never finishing, or (b) finishing, but writing something that is so watered down and wishy-washy that it fails to make an impact.

You can write your way to an answer—absolutely. I have done it, and writers I know have done it, and we have all heard of famous writers who have done it, but the truth is that for most of us most of the time, it’s wildly inefficient, ineffective, painful, and unnecessary. That’s why we start with why.

Your external why

Let’s start with the external reasons why you want to write a book—things you believe writing a book will get you in the world. These are probably connected to the return on investment (ROI) of your time, energy, and money.

At the top of most people’s list is the desire to be recognized more broadly for their expertise. Writing a book is about becoming seen and heard. Different people have different concepts of what recognition and validation look like. It might be that you are quoted in the publication of record for your field or offered a column there. It might be that you are invited to speak at a prestigious event. It might be that the people you admire in the field come to admire you.

Many people hope that writing a book will make them a lot of money in book sales, and it might. You could receive a $25,000 advance from a traditional publisher or a $150,000 advance or a $1,000,000 advance, and then you will receive 15 percent royalties on every book sold once that advance earns out.

Or you could work with a paid-for publisher, which requires an upfront investment from the author. Michael Bungay Stanier’s business management book, The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever (published by Page Two Books), has sold more than a million copies. He makes between $4 and $6 per book, plus the book drives business and revenue for his consulting firm. That all adds up to a robust return on the investment of writing a book.

Most people, in truth, don’t earn anywhere near that much money. The New York Times reported in 2020 that 98 percent of books sold fewer than 5,000 copies. This reality means that writing a book might not be a great financial bet if you rely solely on book sales to earn out your investment of time and effort. “The majority of writers don’t earn a living from book sales alone,” writes Jane Friedman in The Business of Being a Writer, “People don’t go into the writing profession for the big bucks unless they’re delusional.”

So why bother?

Because of the possibility of making an impact and extending your reach. My client Jenn Lim, author of Beyond Happiness: How Authentic Leaders Prioritize Purpose and People for Growth and Impact, a Wall Street Journal bestseller, introduced me to the idea of what she calls “the other ROI”—meaning ripples of impact. Lim’s book is about finding purpose in the workplace and living that purpose every day. The ripples of impact happen when you connect with fellow humans in an authentic way. Writing a book gives you a way to make an impact and spread your ideas far and wide. This often leads to lucrative consulting or speaking gigs, the opportunity to collaborate on interesting projects and initiatives, and the chance to be part of powerful conversations.

Here’s how Michael Bungay Stanier puts it: “We’ve all seen our marketing heroes grow a base of fans, then customers, then empires through ‘content marketing.’ And the big kahuna in content marketing is the book. This is how you officially rise to ‘Thought Leader’ status, it’s how you differentiate yourself from your competitors, you drive revenue, you launch your speaking career, you start hanging out with other cool authors.”

Thought leaders definitely hang out with each other. I love to listen to podcasts about business, personal growth, and creativity, and I am often struck by how all the authors at a certain level know each other and boost each other’s work. Adam Grant appears on Brené Brown’s podcast when his new book comes out, and Brené Brown appears on Grant’s podcast when her new book comes out, and then you see that they both have been on Guy Raz’s show and you start to notice that Indra Nooyi is in all the same places talking about her new book, too. All these thought leaders know each other and read each other’s work and promote each other’s work to their massive audiences. These are ripples of impact at a high level, but even at less stratospheric heights, the ripples work the same way, and they can be profound.

Here are what the ripples of impact can look like:

  • You attract followers who are interested in hearing more of what you have to say, expanding your ability to influence, educate, illuminate, comfort, or entertain people.
  • You attract the attention of traditional media when they are looking for experts to quote in your industry.
  • You attract the attention of podcasters and radio and TV producers.
  • You receive invitations to speak at industry events and at events outside of your field.
  • You can easily share your most powerful content with key audiences.
  • You have reason to connect with other influencers—to strike up a conversation, collaborate, and connect with each other’s audience.
  • You have the chance to build a legacy around your thinking.

These are the reasons people invest the time, energy, and money in writing books—and some of these outcomes come with financial rewards far greater than the book itself.

It’s important to identify your external why for writing a book, but there is another layer of motivation to understand as well.

Your internal why

The internal reasons people write are the ones that tend to sustain them through the roadblocks and challenges of a long development process. These reasons might come from a place of rage or injustice, simple jealousy, a different way of looking at things than the prevailing wisdom, or a deep-rooted sense of social justice. Often people who have something to say are saying it in opposition to something else—some other idea, or social movement, or injustice, or prevailing belief, or experience they’ve had.

Writing is all about raising your voice and staking your claim. You speak your truth, claim your authority, take a stand for what you believe in. We can talk all day long about how to write—both the craft of it and the practice of it—but the hardest part by far is stepping into your power.

I have the great privilege of working with people who are very accomplished in their fields—entrepreneurs and executives and thought leaders—and every single one of them rubs up against the difficulty of raising their voice. Will people care? Do I have the right to tell this story? Is it good enough? Will it matter? These are not only questions the beginner asks; these are questions every writer asks. And they are questions about raising one’s voice.

The way to answer these questions and combat the doubt that comes with them is to connect to your why. Tap into your motivation, the reason you care, your rage, and your passion. That is how you find your voice and how you finish your book.

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