In celebration of the Singapore Writers Festival (which primarily focuses on writing fiction), this essay explores the topic of non-fiction book writing, based on my own experience with writing 'Decentralizing Finance'. During the process, I drew upon various skills I acquired, particularly during my second master's degree at CIIS, where I gained experience in academic writing. I will also share my experience of working with my publisher, Wiley. This may prove helpful for anyone currently writing or considering writing a nonfiction book.
Writing a book is a major undertaking that involves producing approximately 70,000 words. It is a challenging task that can be compared to running a marathon. Prior to starting, I had a conversation with Aaron Maniam, a talented writer. He recommended 'The Clockwork Muse' by Eviatar Zerubavel, a book that provides guidance on writing books, dissertations, and theses, as well as approaches to the writing process.
Although I gained valuable insights from that book, I ultimately developed my own approach to the workflow. In my case, the process of writing a nonfiction book consists of three main iterative phases: outlining, research, and writing. While Zerubavel suggests introducing more complexity in a structured manner, I found that this simple approach worked best for me.
Another important aspect to consider in writing is the availability of generative AI tools like ChatGPT. These tools can be useful for brainstorming, editing, and generating content. Specifically, ChatGPT can help improve writing structure and grammar. However, it is important to exercise caution when using it to generate content. While these tools can enhance the reader's experience (and perhaps save the author’s sanity), they should not replace the author as the primary source of content. I encourage embracing these tools as long as they supplement the author's input.
Now, what do I mean by the three phases? Before you start writing, particularly for longer pieces, it is important to avoid repetition. The human mind has a limited capacity to retain information. It surfaces certain information at different times. The most effective way to prioritize a large amount of information is to write it all down, either on paper or a computer. This is the beauty of writing—it becomes a tangible tool for refining your thoughts. Writing not only allows you to refine your thinking, but also refine it over time.
Outlining is a way to organize information in a schematic manner. Bullet points are particularly useful for grouping ideas into a hierarchical structure. I don’t recommend going beyond three levels. For example, if you are working with different categories of plants, you can create bullet points for each category and further expand on them. This outlining process serves as a blueprint for the structure of your work, much like a blueprint for a building that you intend to construct.
The research phase is primarily focused on building the blueprint and identifying the key ideas we want to convey. The actual writing, at least for me, is somewhat secondary in terms of style. While it would be nice to spend more time on the stylistic elements of words, like poets do, in business writing, plain and concise language often works best. Clarity is essential, using words that are easily understood, especially since there are many complexities in the business world. The goal is to reach people quickly and accurately.
When it comes to writing software, my go-to choice is Google Docs. While Wiley recommends Microsoft Word, which also has a mobile version, I prefer using Google Docs. The reason is that I'm not always at my desk and often get ideas while walking outdoors. Having my outline accessible on my phone is extremely useful. If I have an idea while walking, I can quickly incorporate it into the existing outline or reorganize it. Although Microsoft Word does have an app, I have found that the Google Docs app loads faster and displays nicely on an iPhone.
When it comes to landing a book deal with a major publisher, I can't speak from personal experience about the process of first finding an agent and then finding a publisher to accept your manuscript. In my case, I pitched the book to Wiley, but only after they reached out to me on LinkedIn. It was clear that they were interested in publishing a book on DeFi. However, I must mention that they only commissioned the book because I had already been posting on social media, specifically on LinkedIn, about the topic. They noticed my content and decided to commission the work. So, I believe that talking about your work and consistently producing good content can greatly increase your chances of being noticed as a potential author.
When it comes to referencing and copyright, it is crucial to acknowledge the use of other people's material in nonfiction. Whether it's research or professional work, you are building upon the existing knowledge of the community. There is a vast amount of research available, and it is important to reference it appropriately. However, finding a balance can be challenging, especially in academia. You must reference accurately to avoid accusations of plagiarism, but spending too much time on formatting each reference can hinder productivity.
Thankfully, Wiley helped with some of the referencing formatting, but for the most part, I relied heavily on using URLs. Unfortunately, this doesn't translate well in the printed version since you can't click on them.
in terms of referencing in terms of diagrams. Diagrams are actually a very kind of harsh I say copyright intensive workflow in the in the sense that you when you take someone's diagram, it is very kind of clear. That is the ass right and I think holding people is fine because that's those are words but when you take a diagram someone's book, for example, right, you are actually taking a piece of copyrighted information. And so this is another big area whereby you you technically speaking in the strictest level of things, when you submit a manuscript as many publishers will tell you about right? You need to submit kind of permission forms for the approval. Right for, for that someone has given you to reproduce the particular diagram in your book now, this is obviously another very kind of challenging area. Let me just give you a reason why. You don't if you are using say 100 diagrams in your book, you know, you then have to reach out to 100 people, first of all, secondly, they may have different people that handle copyright issues on their site. They may be individuals, they may be groups of researchers, they may be organizations that may have different policies around copyright. Some of them may have kind of declarations of their copyright status on their website. Some of them may not submit mcare Lots of men don't care. All right. So this is an area where essentially you need to have a system essentially a Google spreadsheet to keep track of all of these pieces of information, right and from my end, how I handled it essentially is I did get some help in the end to kind of help me to and you have a template for reaching out to these people and say, Dear Mr. So and so I have used your diagram you know, this is a permission form from Wiley. You know, if I'm going to please would be grateful if you could sign this. But then again, you know, it's like, why would you sign this all your rights away? It's a very kind of weird, you know, easy no, so to speak for people to make unless they really know you right. In most cases, you will not know everyone. So this is another very kind of challenging area for for copyright. Right. And then, you know, for some fields, you know, the way I did it is that I just essentially used all the diagrams that I thought okay, I would I would like to use and I will change them as I went along. Right? Thankfully by the end of it. While he had been through all of the permissioning they actually have a team that kind of assesses whether or not this is a these diagrams will be kind of very serious infringements say on copyright, and they have all been cleared by by Wiley. Alright, so that is that that's copyright which is actually a very important area. And especially more, but I guess, from also the feedback that I've gotten from Wiley is that for finance, because these things are kind of not directly monetizable like say for example art pictures is a little bit more relaxed. So that's with with copyrights. The rest of what I think I want to say about nonfiction writing is that it is just as with any type of writing is tremendously kind of lonely, and intellectually challenging area. It's great to see to have partners and colleagues along the journey people who are also writing books are very natural fit. And you kind of just have to persevere. You have to really, you have to really have faith in the mission and the work that you're putting out. You know, I found that kind of walking, kind of ticking time for this book project not having to focus on anything else was actually a fairly wise idea as a luxury that I could afford. But I guess for other other people, it also could be still working. It could take a long time, but it's also very doable. Right. And in terms of managing expectations of your publishers, I think this is also kind of quite key. Oh, right. And kind of the, the, the, the contract, right is that one part of it with Authors Guild. Checking is kind of quite important in terms of making sure that you're the one having the copyright. Right, this is quite a key area. And I would highly recommend this Guild and the society of authors, which are kind of the key organizations in the US and UK that represent the rights of authors for anyone looking to become an author. Yeah. That is pretty much all of what I want to see that at the moment. There's actually more detail around the working through say of commenting and working with PDFs, right, actually. I found that buying Adobe was very helpful because he kind of helped me to kind of corral all the documents in in Adobe Reader saving on the Cloud Storage. So being that I kind of was referencing hundreds of reports, some of them like print some of them you know, print some that goes through by by hand, some of them I just scan and by having all of them in any case on on a mobile device and desktop was also very helpful. And you know, kind of switching from various versions also can can kind of, kind of is is fairly complex on his own or that, you know, undoable thing, but, you know, for instance, whereas it went to the copywriting phase, you know, the copywriter wanted to kind of use Microsoft Word, right. And so, you switch from, I download the document from Google Docs into a docx file, and it goes to Word and when she's done with a formatting, suddenly the things that if you want to change the format, is kind of like, wow, you know, you have to learn how to change it using the format without as well. Right. And so that was kind of this there are certainly some issues with kind of change your formats. And in terms of getting feedback from from other people, yeah, I mean, the kind of the issue arises around how much do you send people, right? And how much do actually people leave your manuscript before it goes out? You know, just people have different ways to do this. But yes, I also love to understand how people do this kind of workflow. So yeah, that's think all I want to say about this one out there.
then the other thing talk about here is, is it worth doing a book? Right given that there are so many other options here when writing, you could write on sub stack you could write on the email list. You mean might not right? Right? You might do a video you might do a podcast, right like we are literally swimming in, in information overload world. And let me argue for for writing books and long, long form text here. I think one of the great things about book writing is that it fundamentally is about distribution. And it is about distribution of a type of communication that can be kind of processed by people where you cannot kind of go through a podcast or video teknicks But you can certainly go through a book and TEDx and and kind of read it slowly into one. That's the beauty of books. Actually, for this reason, I actually prefer physical books and ebooks I simply find that I cannot process information speaking to ebooks and some people like it. And I do love the physicality of books. Right? So that's, that's one. Really kind of like a one to many communication in a way that is very precise. can be as precise as four times when kind of wording of things are very important. And as it is decentralizing finance, the wording of things especially when it came to certain pieces of regulations a central bank digital currencies certain words needed to be kind of addressed very accurate. It's not like a podcast where so see, not everything is as informal as possible. Yes, right. So that's one. And number two is the demographic of people that read books, you know, kind of spans everyone, whereas not everyone. Think you definitely find a younger audience on online media. So if you want to reach, say, an older audience, right, see an older distinguished audience, right. But I think book writing also may be a very good way to do that. And thirdly, it is there's, there's a definite quality bar to cross especially and that's where major publishers, they're kind of a major gatekeeping role, type of making sure that the people that is selecting the content that they put out, meets a certain quality standard. Right. And that is also I think, a large reason why people buy books is that they want to see what's worth meeting right now we're kind of more meticulous with the time they paid for the information, because it just free and that took substantial time and effort to kind of format which is also a big part of it. Right? Is there was professional formatting editing involve so many processes, so many things behind the scenes that happened republishing, let me give you an example diagrams that he provided for my book, you know, will actually edit it. Imagine all the diagrams that provided nearly 100 diagrams. There was someone at Wiley, who, whose task it was to refine the content visually he's called a content refinement specialist. The job of the content refinement specialist is to look at all the diagrams and to see how it's pieced together the text and then he goes in and largest the text for the diagrams every single diagram he looks at in order to make sure that the flow of the content is is nice. This is kind of UX is good. Like damn, you know, it's like you know how much effort it takes for for for projects or the size. So there's, there's, there's, there's a lot that goes on behind the scenes to be published. That's one of the things that I think makes books kind of stand out. Especially so with books. It is as what that guy said, you know, there are some books to be tested some some will be digested some to be read through over lifetime. I think that's so true. You know, a lot of people can just kind of, you know, as chair gbta to write a book for you. Yeah, because you know, that's not a book to be digested. Then real books are kind of real books are part of the real masterpieces that change that changed the fate of humanity. Comics. That's company
Yeah, so going outside is also fairly important for brainstorming, I would see those very often these processes of writing, or sort of the exact thing to say, doesn't arise sitting at your desk. They may synthesize or they may come to you in rather strange ways. And in this case, you can also say there's some element of intuition involved. One of my favorite books about intuition is from Francis Vaughan was the wife of Roger Walsh. Right. They've already met her but her book is excellent. Now. We have a tendency you people have a tendency to equate work with less brain activity. And that's when people like, Oh, you must be in the office. You must be sitting down in a chair. You know, and if you're out having fun, you're not doing work. I disagree with that. I disagree with that. And that's not to say, this is easily kind of abused. And, you know, people can say, Oh, I'm on holiday, but I'm working as an author, you know, like, this is this is very measured, of course by output. You know, lots of people have different ways to work. I think that sort of, you can't do without this as a real artist. I mean, these things. So the process is, it takes time. It takes time to digest the information, right. And that's the difference in the quality of a book. Also, it's the kind of way in which you've digested information that you're trying to relate to other people. And in the book, actually, I'm digesting kind of a significant amount of information for a lay audience. Right, the things that I'm trying to convey here, you know, sometimes a whole kind of paragraph or two might take a day or two to to look at, you know, for instance, the EC and Y. Part. You know, it's not like everyone no one knows things about the ECN ye project. These are things that everyone is learning along the way. Right? It only comes to finding out what reports out there. What what information is out there. What are the secondary research people have done around this topic? Right. So what I'm saying is that there is an element of incubation that's involved with the work and this shouldn't be so discounted