Did you make a New Year’s resolution to write a book this year? Perhaps you‘re planning to write a novel in November, during the month-long sprint that is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Or, you’re not sure yet— maybe you want to keep thinking about it until it’s more than a vague idea.
I used to work for a university publisher. That experience taught me that it’s almost always better to think about a book first as a proposal: a one-page outline of your idea, along with a table of contents and a sample chapter. This is true whether you’re planning to send the book to an agent, directly to a publisher, or publish it yourself.
Whatever your final plan, it’s a good idea to be familiar with what other books might compete with yours. Publishing is a risky business, and any editor will want to be convinced that what you are offering is new and, most important, sellable. It pays to do your homework. (A good place to start is to recall what books you bought in the past year. Make it a habit to frequent brick-and-mortar bookshops. Know what’s hot in your field. Be honest: is your idea a book, not just an article or a blog post?)
Once you’ve decided for yourself that a book is a good plan, something that people will want to buy, spend some time working on an outline which will help you develop ideas in a coherent trajectory. This is where a graphic recorder can help: visually mapping out the flow of your book. I’m always happy to help people with projects like this. A little time up front can save months later.
Never miss another post--sign up to receive regular emails here.
When we're in a presentation or lecture, the most important thing to listen for is content . We are on the receiving end of information transfer. Sometimes the information is very complex and is strictly nonlinear, which is why sketchnoting can be so powerful -- it liberates you from the bullet-point format.
Of course, we can't get everything down, nor should we. The key is to get the essential points. If your neighbor is sketchnoting they might be on a completely different planet as far as understanding what the essential points are. DON'T GET DISTRACTED! You're distilling the essential points for YOU. Don't forget to capture questions afterward if they're relevant, or ask clarifying questions yourself.
Meetings are, or should be, different. Information is transferred but is then discussed, ideas are exchanged, and new meanings or purposes can emerge from the collaborative space. Again: non-linear. Catch the flow. Enjoy the messiness of a creative team at the top of its game!
Listening for content takes concentration, but in terms of a skill, we've had a lot of practice. There are other ways of listening: for empathy, for tone, for what's not being said (particularly valuable, particularly hard). Listening is one of the most valuable tools in a manager's toolkit—it builds trust, which improves the performance of the team. Almost all great managers are good listeners—almost all great leaders are even better ones.
You're in a meeting or a lecture. It's important and you’re interested, but the lights just went down for the PowerPoint, and you're afraid of dozing off after lunch. You want to concentrate! Taking graphic notes will help you do just that, and research shows it will also aid in memory retention. Grab your pen and a notepad--they're all you need. Just go for it! Some tips:
a) Listen. Listen for the essence. Don't get distracted by too many bullet points or general wordiness. b) Don't know where this talk is going? Start in the center of the page so you won't run out of paper. c) Think hierarchy. Bigger > smaller > smallest. Bolder > normal > light. Caps > printed > script. d) Make containers (boxes) to group content. e) Connect the containers with different kinds of lines. f) Finish. At the end of the talk you can add shading, make additional connections. Work fast. Did any questions after the talk clarify things for you? Add them. Add color if you want.
When I'm doing graphic recording, I get a lot of comments. Often, it's something like "Wow, I could never do that." I'm a strict egalitarian when it comes to art -- remember, we all drew as children! -- but if you look at the example above, I haven't asked you to draw anything more than a goofy face with ears. You can draw two boxes and connect them with a line!
Next time, we'll dive deeper into the first step, which is listening.
After I had finished my degree in French and Spanish at university in England I knew I'd be spending a year living in Paris. My French was good but I had no idea what I'd do for work. I enrolled in a 6-month secretarial course in Cambridge, where I learned Teeline shorthand.
Teeline was relatively new (1967), invented by a teacher of Pittman shorthand, the standard in the UK. Its advantage was that it was based on the alphabet, not phonetics, so it was fast to learn. I got (briefly!) up to 120 wpm in my course, then set about studying how to do this in French. I bought a book. Shorthand relies on contractions and blending of words for higher speeds; in Teeline, the contraction "dst" meant "je vous prie d'agréer, Messieurs, l'expression de mes sentiments distingués," the French florid equivalent of "yours sincerely."
I was astonished to learn that Teeline is still being taught. In an era where executives, I imagine even in Paris, now type their own correspondence! But it's being taught to journalists. Think about it: recording devices are not allowed in courtrooms or other places, plus they just make people clam up. Fast. Efficient. And Secret! It was like having my own cryptographic system, assuming I never ran into anyone who learned Teeline. (For what it's worth, my mother still writes memos on checks she writes in shorthand, though she learned Gregg.)
I've been considering resurrecting my shorthand for use while graphic recording. Why? Sometimes what people say is too good to paraphrase. Or it's a mediation where verbatim recording is essential to reaching agreement. I have post-it notes with lines on (marks relative to lines have meaning in most shorthand systems). I just have to start practicing again.
Every recording system throughout history has had its advantages and disadvantages: speed vs. clarity vs. expressiveness. Consider this:
It takes a lot of guts to get up in front of 80 people and declare, as a scientist, that you don't have all the answers. Answers they need -- in this particular case, what the best way is to protect their livestock from predators. When some of those predators are protected by law, lethal control becomes less of an option.
Yet this is what happened on Thursday, August 31, at the Hopland Research and Extension Center. Researcher Alex McInturff provided a survey of what works, what doesn't, and most importantly, what we still don't know. It opened the way for a panel of ranchers to say what their greatest challenges have been with predators. (For many, two-legged predators and dogs, rather than coyotes, mountain lions, bears or even wolves have been the biggest problem.)
I was privileged to be able to capture the conversations over the course of the days as participants saw demonstrations of different control methods then came back together to talk about it. When you say "we don't know" you are opening up the question: what if? what if we knew? and -- most important -- opening the way for coming up with a collaborative solution, where all stakeholders contribute their knowledge and experience. (For now, the biggest way forward seems to be to try a combination of techniques and keep switching them up to stay a step ahead.)
Received wisdom is that publishing a book can help you establish your authority in your field. Nathan Berry,Robert Bly,Gerry Robert and many others are very confident that it's the way to be seen as an expert. But book publishing is a beleaguered industry and editors are overwhelmed; the odds of finding your manuscript accepted for publication are slim; the odds of the book making it to the remainder shelves seem to grow with each passing year. Publishers are always eager for the great new bestseller, but what they mostly see are manuscripts they'd have a hard time persuading anyone to buy, manuscripts that end up on the dreaded dec pile I described in this post.
There is, of course, self-publishing. Publishing-on-demand is a relatively low-risk way to enter the self-publishing game. That said, it would probably be a great idea to follow the same rules as you would if you were sending in a book proposal to a publisher. Ask yourself these questions: Is this book covering something that's been published elsewhere? If it is, does it have a new take on the subject? Have you bought books by the competition? If not, what makes you think your intended audience will want to buy yours? (Does your intended audience even buy books? Do you have a good sense of who your intended audience even is?) Is a book the best way to say what you have to say? Might a journal article, or even a blog post, say it better, more succinctly, with a lot less time and aggravation?
If you've given thought to all these questions and you're not sure whether you should go ahead, consider having a graphic facilitator draw out your book plan. You might be on to a major winner, though definitely do the math to see whether it's worth your time, energy and cash. Writing a book and getting it published takes a lot of all three, so it might be worth spending a little up front get help asking yourself the tough questions.
People who are interested in genealogy are told over and over to interview the living before it's too late. To ask them what they know of their own forebears, or even rumors about them; what it was like when they were young, whether they can identify people in old photographs. It's a big project and can seem overwhelming.
I have started to interview some of our elders to ask these same questions and realize that graphic capture of oral history can be an excellent tool for genealogists. Best if a family member does the interviewing, they can focus on the subject while I quietly capture in the background. Using a digital audio or video recorder helps too, but the essence is caught in one sheet of paper.
Below is a prototype "short sheet" I made with a friend; working larger would allow more room for material.
Incidentally, speaking of connecting with our elders, be sure to check out Susan MacCleod's Humans of St. Vincent's on Instagram. A project of great humanity.
The best job I had in college was as a translator for a project of hail suppression in southeastern Spain funded by the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture. This region of the country is almost entirely agricultural and was at risk of weather patterns often resulting in damaging hail. It was fun, it was very lucrative for a poor college student, and it taught me to listen, hard.
Graphic recording feels to me very much like translating. You get input in a certain form -- spoken language, perhaps with PowerPoint slides thrown in to the mix -- and your job is to output the results visually in real time. You have to listen to every word and make sure you understand what's said, and get the essence down, quickly.
Of course a lot of the work is also interpretation: deciding on the fly what to put in and what to put down. A lot gets left out. My job is to capture the essence and make the connections. (People are better at this than they usually think -- we do it all the time. If someone asks you what a book you've just read is about, you don't recite the whole book, after all.) Yet selecting what's REALLY important, synthesizing on the fly, getting it down quickly and making the pieces work together: this is my work.
I've been honored to work as a graphic recorder individually with people with serious illnesses, to help them face their fears and, more importantly, visualize hope. It is a great gift to be able to bring people clarity in the midst of overwhelming (and terrifying) information. We can help map out the intricacies of our medical system to make it easier for patients to navigate their care once the scary diagnosis has been made, which also allows multiple support team members to see all the same information.
In this work, I use a large pad of paper while sitting down, not large boards -- I need eye contact. Then I ask them how they are, how they are feeling. They usually give me involved medical information which I'm obviously not qualified to evaluate, but I can usually tell pretty fast whether they trust their doctors or not, which takes me in the direction of their actual treatment. Acute patients are usually on multiple medications which usually means they tire easily, so it's important to be efficient -- and ask them to envision what their healing (medical / spiritual) looks like. They are sometimes a bit stumped so I offer some possible images -- like a flower opening, say. I show them the paper during the process several times and make sure this is where they're comfortable and that almost always causes them to say "can you draw a XXX here?" -- they do get it and then start to drive the visualization process.
I can imagine this process also to be very helpful for patients in hospice. Dying people have many fears -- being alone, being ignored, being in pain -- and acknowledging these fears honors them and holds space. With sick and dying people it's essential to let go of our own religious ideas/principles and respect theirs, but I don't probe this -- I let them bring it up if they want to. If they do, it's pretty easy to guide them to envision it!
One client put her five different sheets (done on five different sessions) on her ceiling, so when she was in bed awake at 3:00 am wracked in fear, she could look at her metamorphosed butterfly and calm down. This client had also had some pretty negative initial medical contact and wanted me to record that to shake it off. I gather this is not unusual at all in cancer diagnoses; in her case, she ended up with a stellar team (much further away, but that's how it goes), and I was able to record them as a group, each helping to heal her, with herself in the center. I included all her friends and family -- her non-medical support team -- so that the circle of healing is holistic and substantial.
I was once sent to a meeting to represent an organization whose board I'm on. Sitting in a meeting with people I mostly didn't know, addressing a topic with which I was unfamiliar, I started to sketch their faces and surround them with the things they said. They were likenesses, not portraits as such, but recognizably (mostly) to the people whose faces they represented.
People came up afterwards and wanted to take photos. It was a very different record of their meeting than the usual meeting notes. It was engaging. It was whimsical. And it caught the essence of their meeting in a way they all recognized. Most important, it helped me remember who had said what, and that gave me a greater connection with them to be able to work as a colleague.
James Lake has a great post here where he gives shortcuts on how to draw faces.
In Scott McLoud's UNDERSTANDING COMICS, he offers a very powerful reason why my artless caricatures work...
The more REALISTIC a drawing is, the less universal it becomes. The more GENERALISED the drawing is, the more universal it becomes.
So, think of the most basic version of a smiley face... The circle with the big arc representing a mouth. That is almost universally recognised across multiple cultures, education levels, and class strata as a happy face.
As you add detail, so the recognition factor narrows. As an extreme example, consider a realistic picture of a man smiling broadly, showing his teeth, and his eyes clearly wide open and looking directly out of the page at the viewer.
In many Western cultures, this will be identifiable as happiness. But in many other cultures, it could be confused with arrogance, anger, deception, violence. The realism of the depiction makes it MORE AMBIGUOUS.
So back to my artless caricatures... They take the minimum recognizable trait of the person being depicted, and they abstract everything else. They lack any sense of realism. This makes it easy for viewers to identify them. And they aren't judged aesthetically.
I love this approach and I am working to make my faces more generalized.