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Shaping the flow of writing

This is very odd, but when it comes to non-fiction I like drawing little pictures of the inner dynamic or flow of my books. These pictures only become clear once I’m a little way into the writing, but they help terrifically in finishing off, and also in later editing.

In my book E=mc2, for example, I was lost for a while before I had the right picture of what the book would be. Should it be just a biography of Einstein? That was very nice, but there already were lots of biographies of Einstein. I wanted to do something better.

I started puttering around, writing bits and pieces from interesting moments in his life, and then I realised: nope, the book won’t be about Einstein, it’ll be about his equation E=mc2. And when I look at the equation I’ll treat it like a biography. We all know what that means: where did our hero come from? What was their birth like? Their adolescence? What happened after?

What I ended up with was a diagram that looks a bit like two trumpets stuck together bell to bell.

The left would show what happened before the equation E=mc2 was born; the right would show what happened after. So I drew a line right in the middle that I labelled 1905 (for that’s when Einstein first wrote down the equation).

With that, what I had to do in my writing became clear. There were a lot of things that led into that birth: the ideas behind all the parts of the equation. I represented that by little arrows shooting in from the left: One arrow would be the pre-history of the symbol ‘E’ and what it meant; another would be the previous history of the ‘=’ symbols, and so on through the equation.

The first part of the book would be the left side of the diagram, Einstein’s 1905 putting together of the parts would be the middle section, and then all of the things that later resulted from his equation (the atomic bomb most famously) would be the final part of the book.

Different books have very different structures. Paul Kennedy’s great book on the Anglo-German naval rivalry – a rivalry that helped push the world towards WWI – had a different structure.

Kennedy would pause for background (the first box), then have a bit of narrative (the first horizontal line), then he’d pause for more background (the second box), have more narrative, etc.

All these varying diagrams seem entirely obvious once one’s done, but oh are they helpful when stuck in the middle of a project!

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