Words, Not Ideas: How to Write a Book | Mattie Bamman | TEDxSpokane


Translator: Linndy V
Reviewer: Denise RQ I grew up in an isolated fishing village
on the coast of Maine. And as a kid, I used to help
my neighbor with yard work. My neighbor was Theodore Enslin, a poet. One day, I was stacking some firewood
and Ted said, “Judging by the way you stack firewood, you’d make a good poet.” (Laughter) Ted didn’t know it,
but I had written a few poems at the time, I was around 11 or 12, and so I took his words straight to heart,
they were very encouraging. There was just one problem, I had no idea what he was talking about. Theodore Enslin was a prolific poet. Poetry Foundation estimates
that he wrote around 60 books of poems, but I’m pretty sure it was closer to 100. He knew people that I consider legends: Allen Ginsberg, William Carlos Williams,
Martin Luther King Jr. Importantly, he also studied beneath
the French composer and teacher, Nadia Boulanger. She taught the likes
of Philip Glass and Aaron Copland. “Judging by the way you stack firewood, you’d make a good poet.” Sounds like a Buddhist koan, doesn’t it? (Laughter) And to some extent,
that’s what has become for me. I did pursue a career in writing; I write poetry,
I’m the Editor of Eater Portland, I write culinary travel articles
for Northwest Travel Magazine, I’ve contributed to 11 books
on culinary travel, and I’m a developmental editor,
which is a fancy way of saying, “I help people write books.” This one thing I’ve learned is that writing is harder
than I ever thought. I’m not alone. Anyone who’s tried to write a book
has experienced the same thing. That includes great authors who we love. George Orwell, for instance, once said that, “Writing a book is
a horrible, exhausting struggle.” He says some other stuff. (Laughter) More to the point, Philip Roth said, “The road to hell is paved
with works-in-progress.” (Laughter) So what makes some people
write great books, and other people fail
to finish a book at all? As a developmental editor, I get to work with
a lot of inspiring people. I work most with psychologists, people have brilliant ideas. Unfortunately, a brilliant idea
does not equate to a brilliant book. In fact, ideas get in the way of writing. This is one of the hardest things to learn
when you’re starting out as a writer, because we all start out as readers. And we don’t pick up a book
to look at a bunch of words, we pick up a book to be inspired by that beautiful stories inside of it
and the enlightening ideas. But this isn’t how you need to think
about writing, as a writer; it’s not the full story. Words and writing are their own animals, and they operate by their own rules. Fortunately, these rules
are shared by other trades; like stacking firewood, log by log. But before I offer a few examples
of how to piratically write a book, I want to offer one more example to show
why books are made of words not ideas. It should show how words are objects,
and you can see them that way. It’s also just really cool. So we’re not exactly sure
when humans started writing, but our earliest evidence
comes from around 3,000 B.C with the Ancient Sumerians
and Ancient Egyptians. These are serious words
that were carved into stone. Examples are the Rosetta Stone; another example is Egyptian tombs. These are words
from when Kings and Pharaohs thought words were magic. They thought
words can bring things to life. You write down the word ‘bird, ‘
someone comes along and reads it, and it comes to life inside of their mind. Suddenly,
they’re thinking of a bird flying, or roasted for Thanksgiving, whatever. So Kings and Pharaohs knew
that writing was so powerful that they couldn’t
just let everybody do it, so they only allowed scribes to do this. That meant everybody else
in society was illiterate. However, archeologists have found proof
that they still loved words. So they found these vases that have
nonsense words written across them. These are nonsense words
owned by people who were illiterate, and they were worth more
than regular vases. If you think about it,
not much has changed. A lot of us continue to get tattoos
of words in foreign languages that we can’t read. (Laughter) Whether a Chinese character or Sanskrit, people love words for words. So, let’s build a book
using words not ideas. Let’s treat writing
like the physical process it is. A great way to start writing a book is to envision it
already written in a bookstore. That means
you’ve already finished writing it, you’ve sold it to the publisher, they’ve printed it,
and it’s out there for sale, just imagine. So, what section
in the bookstore is the book in? What other books are located
next to it on the bookshelf? See? By envisioning your book
already completed, you’ve pinpointed the genre
and your competition. Since we’re talking about making a book,
we should look at what it’s made of. The average of non-fiction books
is around 70,000 to 90,000 words. It has an introduction,
a conclusion, and a middle. These are the fundamental building blocks
for writing a book. The next step is to see
how long your book is going to be. And you can actually use
the firewood metaphor for this. In Maine, a lot of people
actually heat their homes exclusively using firewood. That means that you need to judge
at the beginning of the winter how much wood you’re going
to need to last you. If you picked poorly,
you risk freezing to death. The same can be said about books,
although not quite as dire, assuming you’re not George Orwell. So, as though you’re preparing
for a Maine winter, try to estimate how large your idea is. If it’s a really big idea,
maybe it needs 100,000 words. To give you a real-life example, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild
clocks in at around 129,000 words. If it’s a smaller idea,
maybe 60,000 words, maybe you have a time constraint, maybe you can only write
for 10 hours a week, and you want to publish
a book in the next year. Maybe your book
should be closer to 30,000 words. The self-help book, The Four Agreements,
clocks in at around that. So finding an exact word count isn’t
as important as just finding an estimate, because it proves something. It proves that your book isn’t infinite. It proves that there’s a limit
to how long it can go. Most importantly, it proves
that you can finish it. Don’t underestimate
the importance of this. So once you get a word count estimate,
you can start structuring your book. I like to think of the word count as a specific room
with a specific amount of dimensions. That means you need to fit
all of your ideas inside of it. Let’s use an example, let’s say you want to write a book
that is about 70,000 words. You’re going to focus on three main ideas, as we’ve already said, it’s going to have
an introduction and a conclusion. So let’s say the introduction
and the conclusion reach 5,000 words. That leaves you with 60,000 words
to explain your idea. You’ve begun to create an outline —
structure is building itself. One of the things Ted loved
about how I stacked firewood was the fact I took into account
the different sizes of the different logs. Some of them were as big as trees,
others were branches, and he needed to make sure
that all fit inside of his shed, or else, he runs out of firewood. So I would always position
the largest logs, and then fill them in
with smaller logs around them. That’s exact same idea
for writing a book: you want to find your main ideas,
the biggest most important ideas, and then fill in the spaces around them. So, again, thinking spatially, is this one idea
larger than the other ideas? Does this idea come first?
Is that at the end of the book? Should it be in the middle? Again, more structure. You can use the same theory
of working from larger to smaller to further expand
the outline of your book. I’ll use a real-life example. I was recently working
with a psychologist, and he was writing a psychology trade book that was offering an approach
to treating trauma. His approach focused on five principles, and smartly, he wanted
to give his book structure so he said, “I’m going to dedicate
one chapter to each principle.” The only problem was
once he started writing, he started getting stuck, and he just couldn’t fit his ideas
into the space that he created for them. So he called me, and I said,
“Why don’t we simplify this? Why don’t we make it easier? I’m going to create one structure
that you can use for all five chapters.” It seemed too simple,
it felt like cheating. I said, “Let’s start …” This is the structure I offered: begin the chapter
by introducing the topic, show the current
understanding of that topic, show why that current understanding
is limited, and then offer a solution; in this case, offer
the principle that he devised. It seemed ridiculously stupid, but we so often take
the hard path to writing a book instead of taking the easy path. The secret is writing is hard enough,
don’t make it harder. if you see an easy option, take it. I mean, at the center
of every book is this formula: ask a question, go on
an exploration to find an answer, find an answer, and from that answer,
ask a new question, thus move to the next chapter. At the heart of almost every books,
this formula works: question, answer, new question; problem, solution, new problem; struggle, relief, new struggle; curiosity, satiation, curiosity. To include, I just want to emphasize the importance of giving
your book structure at the very beginning. Don’t wait. Structure comes before voice and style, because unless you’re trying
to imitate somebody else, you’re going to sound like yourself. Don’t worry about it. Ted once told me
he didn’t think about voice until about halfway through his career when someone told him that he had one. He’d focused on the matter
at hand — of writing books, something he did incredibly well. I also find that if I try to be clever
or think too hard, I’ll trip myself up. I already have a voice, so do you. You just have to give it a structure
and write your book; word by word, log by log. Thank you guys. (Applause)

100 thoughts on “Words, Not Ideas: How to Write a Book | Mattie Bamman | TEDxSpokane

  1. Vase =Vars not vace.
    I'm always stunned how Americans take a word and bastardise it. E.g. "Impactful" should actually be "Impacting", "Oriented" should be "Orientated", and don't use a word if you don't know what it means. "Fishy" is British slang for "Suspicious" not "Unsavoury".

  2. I think this only applies to fiction writers with writer's block. You might be able to fake it that way. But, this just gave me an idea: I'll make something and call it "Appearances & Theatrics; No Thought — How To Make A YouTube Video. Think they'll post it?

  3. All I got from this is a lot of heavy breathing! Get your asthma treated please.

  4. Shakespeares poetry is short and sublime. It doesnt matter what anything looks like or where it is. This is a silly lecture

  5. Hope there isnt any youth wasting their time on this. This is not going to help you write a book

  6. This was totally helpful. I watch several similar videos, but THIS ONE really helped answer the questions I still had. Awesome!

  7. I like the content. But the sound of Mattie's breathing was very distracting. Poor mic tech.

  8. Underneath what he is saying is why books can be about nothing. The packing and box is not the book BUT damn, I love words.

  9. This was a good talk. I liked the point about focusing on the words and not just the ideas. His voice was shaky all throughout which sapped the talk – all things considered he did well.

  10. Thank you so much for telling me that it’s ok to take the easy route 🙂

  11. Is he nervous or just breathing hard in the mic? It’s annoying!

  12. This is a good quote from the talk: "I want to emphasize the importance of giving your book structure at the very beginning. Don't wait. Structure comes before voice and style because unless you're trying to imitate someone else you're going to sound like yourself. Don't worry about it." — interestingly that applies to art as well as books. Perhaps all creative efforts…

  13. Thank ypu, this helps because I'm going to be writing s book soon.

  14. If anyone needs motivation to write a book, NaNoWriMo works wonders.

  15. This was incredibly useful, it really resonated with me. I’ve been wanting to write a book about my travel experiences for over a year now but as soon as I begin planning it I become instantly overwhelmed. This system will work perfectly for me. That’s still no guarantee I’ll write a decent book mind, haha!

  16. I'm going to be the one to say it. He's a terrible speaker, his ideas on writing, and how a book comes to fruition is limited and dull. He may have a career in the field, but that does not make him an expert. I honestly think that if you over think your idea for a book, you will never write it. It may be a terrible story, but it's yours. You can be proud of that and build from it. Good luck to all of you that have found a yearning inside of you to write. I wish you nothing but the best.

  17. This was a fantastic talk… but they really should have invested more time in picking his Mic.

  18. If I were doing a biography this concept would work, but I couldn't do it writing a story of fiction. To do this you need to "tell" the story and let it unfold from you onto the paper (computer text document). I never worry about what words I use, or mistakes I make while my first draft is being written. Like a painter, I do the sketch first, the artwork second. Like a stone cutter, I smooth it out after I make the form.

    In the end I have a work I am pleased with. It tells a story. It has a beginning, a body, and a climax and resolution. When you start counting your words, all you'll ever do is be mindful of the bricks without noticing the structure made from the bricks. It's not the amount of words you use, but how well you use them. It is the story being told that is the goal, and how well you tell it.

  19. Yeah no, I don't agree with any of this. In fact this may even be a terrible way to write a book. There's no way you'll estimate how long anything in your book will be from the start. And also, while words, may it be witty descriptions and whatnot, is what keep people engaged you still need strong ideas. Books should tell you something, not just have clever writting. Even if that was the point he was trying to get across (using words to transmit ideas) he expressed himself really poorly.

  20. So in essence writing words bring your writing to life. The ideas come first then the words to describe it. The words expand your idea and bring your ideas to life. This is what he means by Words not ideas

  21. The words are all good, the presentation is well written but at 4 mins I had to stop because this man seems so uncomfortable on that stage. He's gasping for air like he's run a marathon.

  22. To be fair, I think that this advice works best for non-fiction, as opposed to fiction and poetry. Novels are as long as they need to be, ideas are very important in the first draft, and narrative voice is crucial (especially if you are interested in genre). That said, I have found that words and word choice ARE important during the editing stage, when you can notice extraneous exposition or dialogue, or hit upon a better way of phrasing a narrative passage. Just my two cents.

  23. I wonder if this guy suffers from anxiety or anything because I mean am I the only one or did he sounds super nervous he kept taken ragged breaths and his voice was super shaky almost like someone when they're scared

  24. Writing really isn't hard…. It's the effort and procrastination especially writing fiction, you have to make it make some sense… You have to intoon with the right side of the brain, the creative part.

  25. I love this speech so much. I love your message, the creative way you delivered it and your jokes… I wish I was in the room! Thank you for sharing ✨

  26. TED cadence, meaning pause. End the next sentence with an upward inflection.

  27. the speech itself is a great example of the very poor advice hes trying to give. twelve minutes worth of words, no ideas.

  28. It’s “how to write a book” from someone who has never written a book! TedX is rapidly diminishing the quality of TED.

  29. GREAT fuckin talk. Not the greatest speaker but the content is so simple and so well-delivered nonetheless. Really important advice and there is a clear parallel with life as well. Structure first – break it down. The style and voice will come as you go!

  30. The energy of the crowd was very poor. Unfortunately his idea to focus on structure and words isn't very inspiring which doesn't help. However, I think he's giving good advice for 99% of people trying to write a book.

  31. Some people are analytical and organized, so having a plan, a structure like this will help them to start writing rather than postponing it. It is easier to digest a though like this: "OK, I need to write an introduction and I need to write, give or take, 5k words", rather than: "Oh, gee I need to write the whole novel, where do I start" – it is more overwhelming and scary to think in that way. Start log by log, don't scare yourself at the beginning, that you need a big fire at the end! Divide to conquer.

  32. As someone who’s tried to write for years this layed everything out so clearly. I focus too much on the idea and trying to find a voice that it just turns into a monster and gives me more anxiety then anything else. He does seem nervous but he handles it very well. This is a perfect example of someone facing their fears and growing to make the world a better place…meanwhile people on the internet making comments who have probably not done a single inspiring thing in their entire lives. This was a really good ted talk. 🙂

  33. This theory is pretty terrible in my mind. I mean, your just guessing how much words your gonna use for each conflict or whatever? That's just redundant. Set a word word count estimate for each chapter and just write, people.

  34. Ok, I have a question ? Why all these people who are guest speakers on Ted x have the same style of talking? Presentation of the subject matter, tone of voice, everything is the same! It’s very tiresome and robotic at the least! It takes away from the originality and the subject matter. This is media packaging the same way they package the news. I understand that speakers have to present their ideas in a certain duration however, leave it to them to arrange their thoughts and don’t make them all bloody the same voice!

  35. I guess he's saying to limit the number of words you use to explain each idea so that your writing has a particularly developed structure. Limit the number of core ideas to three or so and make sure that they can be well explained in a relatively even amount of words. Ensure that the set of ideas you are expressing have relatively the same weight or are at the same level of resolution. The question, answer, new question bit is correct and useful.
    Words not ideas doesn't make much sense. Words themselves are ideas. It would imply that he means details not framework, but what he presented was actually the opposite. Maybe I got something useful from the talk, but it wasn't what the speaker intended.

  36. I think he's viewing writing more as an editor than a writer. Not all types of writings can be fit in proposed structures.

  37. I finished my books and am about to start the next. I don't have a lot of accomplishments to be happy about, but I finished my books and that feels pretty good.

  38. "The average nonfiction book has an introduction a conclusion and a middle."
    Thanks, Einstein…

  39. This poor guy clearly has intense stage fright/is very nervous about public speaking. He did amazingly well to get through all of that and keep it together and coherent the entire time, despite how obviously nervous he was. His talk is actually really interesting, insightful and informative. Kudos to this guy! He did way better than I could have done!

  40. Never seen terror controlled so well. Might want to learn breathing techniques before speaking though.

  41. He has a great point ! Alot of people focus on a great idea and end up writing nothing because his always thinking about the story, but its better to write everyday and alot of words than be stuck with a idea and write nothing at all

  42. wow…poor man. great message, but he's so nervous, you can tell. id be scared too.

  43. Great talk, just small point
    Of critique that left me a bit confused:

    What does a word count tell the „non pro lay writer” about his estimated book size? I guess for most people probably NOTHING. Tell me about a 200 page book. Got it!Or a 400 page book to give
    Us an idea of the length of the aspired work
    One wants to write. But making a “word count estimate” at least for me, does absolutely nothing for
    Me, but a page estimate on the other hand does the job because everybody immediately understands it. What in the world do i
    Know about 60.000 words or 90.000 words? Give me pages man, and all
    Is clear 😀

  44. I'm glad Youtube recommended me this video. Love the approach of writing this way. Gonna definitely try…

  45. A good formula that I have found which even exists in children stories… The first part of the story introduces the characters. The second part you throw problems at the character/s (this can be done while introducing the character)… The rest of the book explains how they coped with the problems, if they overcame them or not and how these experiences changed the character/s.

  46. I disagree if your subject matter (or idea) is big you have to creep up on it, introduce the reader to smaller ideas that leads to your biggest' : end it there and thats your conclusion

  47. I went to elementary school with Mattie, I remember that 12 yo kid. I see how you became the person you have. It’s very inspiring. I too am a writer. What a strange coincidence looking for old elementary school friends and I find this which is exactly what I needed to hear as a writer so thanks Mattie from the annoying girl in 5-6 grade that had a horrible crush. lmao. Thanks for sharing you insight wisdom I needed it.

  48. Does this formula work best for writing nonfiction? As one who writes fiction, I find it difficult to imagine a way in which this formula/tool might help me reach my end goal.

  49. It is amazing, because this guy memorized his entire talk. No way could I do that.

  50. He doesn't like public speaking (hyperventalating a bit). But, even still he got through it. I'm thinking him overcoming his stage fright strategically is sort of like the advice he's giving conerning writing a book(?).

  51. This is by far the best video I've seen on writing a book. Especially a nonfiction one. Using this TEDx talk to write a book of my own.

  52. Sounds like he gets paid by the book regardless of sales. I have 150,000 words to my first novels first draft and it's growing in rewrite. It's my first book, I'm passionate about it, driven, want a finished product that I can be proud of, that gets the job done and that job is to entertain and cause laughter, and this product will take as many words as it needs, not some planned figure. This guy talks like words are the finished product, not the intense imagery and emotion they can evoke if used right. I paint too, and when I do a painting I don't plan on the number of brushstrokes I'll be using. Masterpieces are not formulaic.

  53. The things he brought up about the structure can be applied to fiction as well. Here’s how:

    Using the introductory 5,000 words, establish these key points:
    Start by introducing the topic – the protagonist
    Show the current understanding of that topic – what are they like? Where do they live? What do they want?
    Show why the current understanding in limiting – How does what they want make it necessary to take themselves out of their current circumstances?
    Then, offer a solution – give the character a choice with clear stakes. Either they do something difficult and succeed and are then happy and have what they want, or they do the same thing, fail, and are back at square one, or, finally, they do nothing, and are exponentially miserable.
    Then, take it from there using the 60,000 words to show what they do and how they do it.
    And finally, wrap it up with the remaining 5,000 words.

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