How to Write a Book: Structured or Emergent

I believe most authors apply the hybrid approach to writing. They start anywhere they want, either with a logical outline or with some random writing, but then they bounce up and down continuously to ensure that their writing has both structure and surprise.

Once upon a time, one of my best friends started writing a book. He has been writing it for a long, long time. And he’s still writing it. I’m sure he could have finished the book a year ago, if he simply had considered for a moment his most suitable approach to writing. He hadn’t. Which is why he is still (re)writing, and why he recently told me, “I will never write a book this way again.”

The Writing Process

There are three approaches to writing: the structured method (top-down), the emergent method (bottom-up), and the hybrid method (up-and-down).

With the structured approach to writing, you start with a purpose (“why should I write”) and a target audience (“who should read it”). You then create a list of topics, an outline of the book chapters, and you start filling in all the blanks, until the book is done. Easy. 🙂 Basically, this is how I wrote courseware materials in the past, and how I structured most of the writing process of my first book, Management 3.0. Some benefits of this approach are a logical flow and a consistent whole. If you do it well. Obviously.

With the emergent approach to writing, you just write about whatever comes to mind, based on the things you experience, the ideas you generate, the conversations you have with people, or the direction in which your dog barks. The more you write, the more you can discover what topics interest you most, and a structure may emerge over time. No guarantees. This has been the main approach to my new #Workout book, and the benefits are spontaneity, creativity, and surprise. If you have it in you.

Both approaches are extremes. I believe most authors actually do something in the middle, which is the hybrid approach: You start anywhere you want, with a logical outline or with random writing, but you bounce up and down continuously to ensure that you have both structure and surprise, logic and creativity. Sometimes you write something weird to add some playfulness to your flow; sometimes you go back to tighten the stories and add some discipline to the creativity.

What Is the Best Approach?

It depends!

It depends on what kind of book you’re writing, the kind of readers you want, and the type of information in the book. If you’re good, you will probably use a hybrid approach, but you are also likely to lean a bit either toward structure (as I did with my first) or toward emergence (as I did with my last). It’s your book, your choice.

The only way you can go wrong is to not think about it at all. And then you could be writing, unhappily, forever after.

p.s. This text emerged. When I started writing an hour ago, I had no idea what would come out. However, the topic “write about writing” was on my list for today, because I have an outline of topics in a series. You see? It’s the hybrid approach again. I let structure meet emergence.

photo credit: (c) 2015 Wellness GM, Creative Commons 2.0


Other articles in this series:

My new book Managing for Happiness is available from June 2016.

Managing for Happiness cover (front)
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  • Luca Minudel

    How do you see structured and emergent approaches related to the iterative approach?

    Here some context about the question.

    Writing an article, a book, together with acts like designing a fashion collection or authoring a choreography are examples used to describe creative type of work as distinct from task work type such as printing 100 copies of an article or a book, industrial production of a collection, making 100 physical copies of the recording of a performance.

    This distinction is often used to explain that creative type of work, is best done in a fast iterative empirical way where each iteration generally achieve some form of learning and/or some value.

  • bebraw

    I started from structured approach with my first book. We even tried pitching the initial structure to a publisher but in the end they weren’t interested. After I started writing the book, it went into hybrid mode. As I wrote and received feedback, better ideas started to appear. This in turn made the book completely different compared to the starting point. It’s a different book than the one we pitched.

    I can see this on chapter level as well. Normally I start out with something terse and minimal. Feedback will shape the rest and allow me to expand on the parts that are difficult to understand or need more explanation otherwise.

    Of course now that I’ve written a lot about the topic, I can go more structured in my subsequent efforts. I’ll have a better idea of what sort of structure works and why. The problem with emergence is that it is time consuming. But in turn you gain more experience and will be able to deal with the same problems more effectively in the future.

    As an author the hardest pill for me to swallow has been related to the scope. I know there are interesting topics in sight that might fit the book. The problem is that you can grow a book only so much. At some point you’ll have to lock the scope, get it done, and move on.

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