I’ve finished the first draft.  I can’t tell you how good it feels to type those words.

I wanted to share with you the one thing that I found most useful in making writing a 50,000 word book easier than it might otherwise have been. It’s a technique I’d recommend to anyone, whether or not you’re like me – a natural improviser whose default is to write, just as I am this article, using intuition and not much of a plan – or whether you are naturally someone who likes to map things out in advance.

Having decided at the beginning of this year to make writing a book one of my key objectives, I spoke to a few folks who have already done it, one of which was Penny Pullan.  I wrote a chapter on Dealing with Difficult Stakeholders for her book Business Analysis and Leadership in 2013.  Penny immediately put me on to Alison Jones, who runs a 10 – day Business Book Proposal Challenge for aspiring business book authors.  Alison runs her own publishing business, as well as being an author in her own right and an extremely astute business person.

10 days later I had a fully worked and highly polished publisher proposal ready to go.  I had thought through my target market, the main structure of the book, the competition, the high level marketing plan, and much else besides.  I was hooked, and there was now no going back, especially as I was now working alongside a cohort of other aspiring writers, bouncing ideas and feedback around between us.  There was a real sense of momentum, and a healthy degree of what I experienced as peer pressure.  If they can do it, why can’t I?  What might have otherwise felt a a rather lonely process turned out to be anything but, and I found myself wanting more and more to blurt out the ideas which were spinning more and more overwhelmingly in my head.

So here’s the thing that stopped me from doing that – just sitting down and throwing the thoughts down as they came to me, which might have otherwise have been my inclination.  When I’d completed the Proposal Challenge, Alison invited me to join a group of 3 other inspiring writers in a Mastermind group, the aim of which was to work our way together towards completing our books.  And early on in that process I found myself creating a document which turned out to be THE most useful tool in this whole process.

It’s a simple Excel spreadsheet called my Table of Contents (TOC).  In it I have inserted literally every message I wish to include in the book, in the right sequence, in the right chapter within the right section, and unbelievably I have calculated how many words I will need to use to convey that message.  I list any sources or models I want to refer to, or where there is someone I want to interview or ask for a quote.

This Table of Contents has been my lifeline.  Knowing it is there has meant that every time I get a new idea – from reading something or a conversation, I add it in the relevant section with details of where I can find the source when it comes to writing the book.  The document is therefore organic, and I’ve been updating it pretty much every day.

It removed a lot of stress knowing that I had a repository for my ideas and my sources that I could access easily.  Without it I imagine I’d have had a very large and disorganised folder of scribbled notes, bits of torn out magazines and who knows what else as a means of reminding where my materials were.

But that’s not the best bit:  when it came to writing the book, my Table of Contents enabled me to do it completely fluently.  I wrote most of  the book this month, literally one chapter per day in which I was working on it.  On those days I would print off the relevant section of the TOC spreadsheet, read it to remind myself of the main messages, and then take the dog for a walk whilst I developed my ideas.  Back home for a coffee and get started around 10.30.  By lunchtime without exception the chapter was complete.  I’d update the TOC with the actual word count, which invariably was a little lower than what I forecast (that’s good news, as it will leave room for others to contribute their stories as a means of adding colour), and that was that.  Onwards.

Of course all I have so far is a first draft, and no doubt it is going to pulled apart by copy editors and so on before we have a finished book.  But I have broken the back of it, and no longer have to keep the new ideas coming.  It’s such a relief.

I have decided that printing the book in partnership with Alison will give me the best chance of success. Her publishing imprint Practical Inspiration Publishing is a comparatively new kid on the block, and with her fantastic business book network and knowledge of the market from her days at Macmillan and Oxford University Press I feel we will make a great team.  I also feel greatly reassured to be working with someone who has helped me to “lay the egg” and completely gets what the book is about and how to use it to drive my business coaching and leadership skills training business.

There you have it: using a structure to unlock your creativity and remove the stress of capturing and accessing all your ideas.  In other words, using it to avoid overwhelm and stress, and to allow you to articulate your thoughts in an orderly fashion.  Very useful indeed, and a bit of an eye opener, to be honest.  I was sceptical to begin with, but now I’m a convert.  I really must experiment further with a more orderly approach to projects.  As my wife keeps reminding me.