When Writing a Book Changes the Author

“Become a published author within the year.”

“Write and publish your book in 90 days.”

We see these headlines nearly every day. And they may inspire people to try to write a book. But I worry that these formulaic approaches to writing a book leave no room for growth and discovery.

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. Errors and problems are become personal flaws.

In contrast, 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 process creates 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.

Having a fixed mindset presents two big problems for potential authors:

Writing with a Growth Mindset

If you approach the book with a growth mindset, you have permission to start writing before you’re completely sure of exactly what’s going to happen. Writing 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 a similar process of discovery, albeit on a different scale. Perhaps you hit on an unsuspected connection as you write. In exploring that connection, you uncover 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), a fixed mindset can be helpful. However, you must 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 with a growth mindset. But you’ll emerge 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?

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Originally published at annejanzer.com on January 22, 2016.

Author, Writing Coach: Writing about Marketing, Technology, and Writing Itself (very meta). AnneJanzer.com

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