Organizing Your Book: Clustering

Let’s say you work in marketing or you are a manager. Your job calls upon you to write presentations, convincing letters and reports every week. You have a great idea for a business book (or even a sports book, let’s say, if you’re a Yankees fan). However, books are entirely different animals than business communications. Science fiction writer Ben Bova calls writing a book “the long siege”.

You know that you don’t have the time or the motivation to write anything longer than a marketing presentation, so you hire a ghostwriter to spin your marketing, managing or baseball vision into (you hope) bestseller gold. At a minimum, you want your book to connect with people, to affect them in some way and to entertain or inform them.

The problem is, you don’t know how to get started. And after phone calls, e-mails and maybe even a face-to-face meeting, your ghostwriter, who may be juggling several projects simultaneously, has only a vague idea of what you want to say and what the content of the book is.

While ghostwriters have a spooky sort of intuition and a supernatural ability to inhabit your voice so that the words on the page sound exactly like you, ghostwriters are not omniscient or mind-readers. Your ghostwriter will need some direction, some signposts to mark the path from idea to finished book.

As a businessperson, you have probably participated in brainstorming white-board sessions. You can do this on your own, for your book, without a committee looking over your shoulder, thanks to a technique called clustering.

Writers Tristine Rainer (The New Diary, Your Life As Story) and Ellen Sandler (“Everybody Loves Raymond,” The TV Writer’s Handbook) discuss clustering in their books on how to write diaries/nonfiction and television scripts, respectively. Clustering helps you free-associate and gather together all the ideas associated with your main idea.

Here is how I explained clustering recently to someone who sought my advice about how to get started writing a book.

  1. Get a piece of paper — letter size will do, but a long sheet is preferable.
  2. Draw a circle in the center and write your main idea or subject inside it. For example, you might write “baseball marketing” if you decide to combine your passions, say if you use baseball as a metaphor for marketing, or talk about marketing of baseball as a case study,
  3. Without stopping, write down as many ideas as you can that relate to the subjects of baseball marketing, baseball or marketing. They may seem silly or irrelevant. That’s all right! The whole point is to get you thinking. Circle each idea and draw a line from it to the main idea. Sometimes these smaller ideas will relate to each other, so you can connect them with lines or arrows.
  4. When you’ve filled the paper with ideas or you can’t think of any more ideas, review the ideas that you’ve written down. Some of them simply may not make sense or you may not be able to use them. You thought, for example, that you could use all the RBIs (runs batted in)  for your favorite players to illustrate a point about marketing, but it doesn’t work on paper.  Odds are that will save a ghostwriter considerable time and energy in writing that section only to have it slow down the work.
  5. Take one of the ideas, for example “Boss Coach”. This could a be a former boss who always used stories about the Yankees to illustrate points in meetings. Use a separate sheet of paper and repeat the exercise for “Boss Coach”. Your cluster of ideas could help you develop a chapter that shows “Boss Coach” was the leading marketing manager of your company and a motivator of people. “Boss Coach” could even be a main subject of your book, or maybe a clever hook for each chapter who introduces the marketing concepts.
  6. Sometimes those ideas will lead you to the meat of your book. For example, you might discover that Boss Coach’s favorite player was Mickey Mantle. What does Mickey Mantle have to say that can apply to marketing? Could you marry Mickey Mantle with marketing and use that as the focus of the book? Anecdotes about Mickey or highlights from Mickey’s career could serve as the subject for each chapter. If you have Mickey Mantle written down on your original clustering sheet, do another mini-clustering exercise for Mickey Mantle—all his plays, all the marketing wisdom that might be related to those plays, and even low points in his career. You might have to consult an attorney to see if you can legally pursue the Mickey Mantle angle, but if you can, you have the focus for your book.
  7. Consider showing your clustering exercise to the ghostwriter (writers love to learn). You might work with the writer to create an outline based on your Mickey Mantle mini-clustering exercise, and the writer might spot other subtopics in your original cluster.  Or you might produce a rough outline yourself and show it to the ghostwriter. Either way, now the ghostwriter has a clearer, more specific vision of what you want.

One last point: Clustering might help you in your working life while you consult with the ghostwriter. You may find yourself using the technique for marketing presentations when you’re hard-pressed for inspiration and material. It’s something to keep you energized and motivated while you wait for your big break into publishing.

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