On prewriting

Hola, comrades!

As I announced a couple of months ago, I’m writing a book about museum experience design and the challenges of engaging people in our crowded, distraction-filled century. After I made the decision to do this in public (with your help hopefully), I started having conversations with as many colleagues and friends as I could squeeze into my days. And I got three pieces of good advice I wanted to share.

Find clarity

After the experience of my January tweet on the challenges facing us in 2019, I found myself with a dilemma. The scope of the book I’d been envisioning was pretty well-defined: four elements of engagement that get talked about at a very surface level and deserve deeper understanding. The flood of responses that I got on Twitter were all over the map, and much BIGGER problems: colonialism, climate change, structural inequity, etc… It was daunting. How to reconcile them?

I tried to shoehorn in as much as I could to the existing structure. I grouped all the Twitter responses into buckets and figured I could put all my original interests in one of them. I started out with four buckets of ideas, and I still had four buckets! Problem solved! And then the trouble started…

The first conversations I had about the book were really enlightening. I’d launch into what I hoped it was about and inevitably, the person I was talking to would say something like, “Hmm… It sounds really interesting, but I don’t quite get what it will be.” So, I’d tweak my introduction, and get a different version of the same response. In hindsight, I had ten conversations about ten different books with ten different people. Finally, one of my editor friends suggested I write a book proposal, even if I wasn’t thinking about shopping the book around to publishers. “You need to be able to explain the book the same way twice, and you can’t yet. Writing a proposal will help you find the heart of the book.” Thanks, Christina, and everybody else who politely sat through meandering conversations with me.


I switched gears and started trying to explain what the book was going to be about to myself and it was hard. I was still scheduling phone calls and Skype chats, and trying to wrangle this huge mass of challenges into coherent form. A couple of times, people pointed out that I’d started with one book and was describing a different one now, but I was hell-bent on making everything fit and couldn’t hear what they were saying. Then I had coffee with Kathy McLean in San Francisco and tried yet again to describe what I was writing and why. After listening to my dilemma, she offered me this, “Write the book you’re interested in. Let somebody else write that other book.” And I felt like I’d had a weight lifted off me. Sometimes you need to have somebody give you permission to not carry everything. And I needed that advice.

So I went back to my first version of the outline and looked at it anew. I could refer to all the other issues that cropped up, but the heart of the book for me was still the four challenges I’d started with. Rewrite outline again. Progress ensued. And the proposal started to take shape.

Find your framing

an old picture of me pretending to write

I don’t know how it is for you, but my experience of being a writer is having other people constantly remind me what kind of writer I am, even though I already know what kind of writer I am: Lazy, meandering, easily distracted, and always burying my lede.

After telling my lovely and talented wife about how much I was struggling with the framing of the proposal, she said, “Do you have to call them ‘challenges’? Couldn’t they be ‘opportunities’ or something positive?” That simple reframing made everything make sense, and gave me a title, too. Go back and rewrite outline again, rewrite proposal, and reframe as four opportunities instead of four challenges. And voilá! Proposal version 1 for your consideration.

How you can help

Now that there’s a proposal to look at and comment on, I’d love to hear your feedback on the current proposal. One thing I’m very interested in is testing how robust Google Docs is in handling commentary from multiple editors. Before I get into the heavy writing tasks, I’d like to know I can rely on Google, or have to come up with a Plan B. So, if you’re interested, head on over to the collaborators form and let me know who you are so I can include you in the Acknowledgements and not have to thank “sup_dog_2020@gmail.com”. Then check out the current version of the proposal and leave your comments, suggestions, examples, etc.


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