Tom Kelley on How To Write A Book

Tom Kelley, the General Manager at IDEO and author of The Art of Innovation and The Ten Faces of Innovation, wrote this short piece for stationary company Levenger on the process he used to write Ten Faces.

Several years ago, my friend Tom Peters taught me how to write a book. He said, “Forget what you learned in school”— all that stuff about starting with an outline and then filling in the text. Just start with your very best stories. Capture each one as you think of it, so you dont forget. Write each one on a separate card and when you get a good solid stack of them—about as many as you can hold between your thumb and forefinger—then you’ve got the raw ingredients for what might someday be an interesting book.

So the stories come first, and the chapter outlines will emerge later, in a pattern-recognition process that involves spreading your story cards out across the entire living room floor.

I started capturing ideas on 3×5 cards, and although that method seems to work remarkably well for Tom Peters (at least seven international bestsellers so far), I personally found the size a bit small for this stage of the ideation process. I was dashing off quick notes, clipping quotes out of magazines, drawing diagrams to represent the ideas visually, and found myself eager to “color outside the lines” of the 3×5 format. I next experimented with large custom-made (and very labor-intensive) cards I cut from 8-1/2x 11 card stock, but they got unwieldy.

Finally, on The Ten Faces of Innovation, I tried the Levenger Circa notebooks in the junior size, turning them sideways and using the grid-style paper so I could write horizontally or vertically. It was perfect!

The pages were roomy enough for me, and since they could easily come out and go back in, I was able to arrange and rearrange the pages in ways that seemed to make sense.

Soon I realized I needed a separate notebook for each of the ten personas I was developing, and I made a special cover page for each notebook that instantly told me which book was which. Partway through the project I bought a Circa punch, so I could create full-custom covers for the ten notebooks that had become very central to my life as a writer.

The Circa notebooks helped me capture new ideas as they arose, and lent a structure to the process that kept me moving forward. Anyone who’s written a book will tell you that it’s a lot of work, so you need every bit of help you can find. These notebooks became an intrinsic part of my process.


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