So, now the job of writing a book proposal is done. The next job is to actually write it. One might imagine that this involves sitting down and writing a lot of words, but before that can happen we need some idea of what to write. And so, we will be using the months of March and April to research the topics we want to cover and creating a detailed content outline (more on that next month).
Below are some of my favourite strategies for researching the book and making sense of all the information.
At one level it goes without saying that I will be reading books. But it is interesting to think about what this might look like. Oli and I were discussing just today our different approaches. He reads books meticulously, takes notes, redraws diagrams. In contrast I am much more like the incredible book eating boy consuming books in large chunks. Sometimes I eat them one at a time, at other times I have 3 or 4 on the go at once. I have over the past 5 years attempted to read 50+ books a year, from the inside legal notes (I kid you not) to the page about the font at the end. It was much easier when I could include my children’s picture books, and these days I skim the notes and acknowledgements. But I do try and read whole books.
None of these are ‘the right way’ to read a book. They all yield different outcomes. At the start of this year I intentionally read three books in parallel, looking for those serendipitous overlaps. At other times I have maxed out on one genre, or one publisher, or a single author. I have read books slowly – some too slowly (I am still only at page 54 of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed which I started in 2015). There are a few things I am looking for. I’m hoping to find some diverse voices (I have a particular love for fiction books in translation). I am looking for something that I can read (I am, after all, just a lowly engineer and not a natural book reader). And generally I am trying to read things that others (especially engineers) haven’t.
I am a terrible note taker, instead preferring to draw diagrams and connect ideas. Sometimes I suspect I do not correctly credit ideas, and for that I am sorry.
During lockdown I became a podcast enthusiast. I replaced my daily commute with a daily run. Off out into the countryside. I love to listen to things around all my interests and often listen to faith-based talks, but also have found myself gravitating towards stuff on design. From a series of talks on design thinking and process from TU Delft, to the recent podcast series released alongside the Flourish book. Something I have noticed is that if you listen to a podcast as you read the book, it really helps amplify the content. Helping me make connections which weren’t so obvious when you read a book linearly (and I almost without exception read from the front cover to the back, even if the book is designed to be read in other ways). By listening to people talk about the book concepts, without the linear constraints of the book, interlocking ideas become much clearer. This is especially useful when thinking about systems where everything seems to connect to everything else.
Probably the most important part of my process is spending time reflecting, processing, dreaming, imagining and questioning. I have always walked miles in my life – partly because I can’t ride a bike! Whether to/from work (where I have generally commuted between cities by train) or just for fun. This walking time is also valuable thinking time. At the moment much of my thought is given over to the question of regenerative design. I connect what I am learning and reading now, with many of the other books I have read, or talks I’ve listened to, or projects I’ve worked on, or chats I have had over the past decade or so.
I have, over the years, learnt to really value the space that is created for reflection in my life. Whether walking, or running (which I have grown into as I have become older and my lack of pace has become less of an issue) or Lego building (which is the most wonderfully mindful activity) or listening and singing in church. I regularly find myself making notes. I once wrote a book on Micro Record Labels whilst moving a large pile of logs. Now I know I didn’t write the book then. All the ideas were already in my head. But over the course of a day as I moved the logs from the log shed to the porch of my parents-in-law the ideas coalesced into a linear order which formed the book. As soon as I could I sat down and wrote them all out in order as a series of headings – and from there I filled in the blanks.
I have also created a routine in my day where I start with an excellent coffee and I try and just sit and be for 10 minutes. I am pretty rubbish at it, but it does really help. If I have a bit longer I may then start drawing diagrams, capture ideas, write blogs (like this one, although I wrote the majority of this one in an unplanned afternoon stop at a coffee shop) or read. Building into my day space for pause and reflection are incredibly important to me, not just for my creative out put but for my wellbeing (I started this practice after speaking to a councillor) and spiritual life.
All of this is to say that whilst it is easy to value the more active parts of research (reading, interviews, making notes) the act of processing the information in your head is much more underrated, and yet so valuable.
Discussing with Oli
For this book in particular (and other books as well) discussing the content is invaluable. Oli, my co-author, and I have built in weekly coffee chats and monthly writing days. This helps us push and pull ideas. I have been struggling (as many engineers do) to see how my work connects with the biodiversity emergency. Oli has a different perspective. Following a frank and honest debate a couple of weeks ago, I had a much clearer vision of how structural engineers are already part of the biodiversity emergency and how we can change. It’s an idea in process. Still needing finessing. But through conversation we can really develop each others thoughts. In many ways this book will capture those conversations. I don’t want to say be the product of those conversations, because that suggests a static outcome. The book is not aiming to be the definitive book on the subject, but instead it is looking to be part of the conversation, leading to more conversations, more questions, and ultimately more action.
A really important part of the writing process is to both listen to and share with engineers. The whole point of the book is to create a resource for them. So we need examples that they can relate to. We need to speak in ways they understand. We need to respect their context. Often these conversations happen behind closed doors. But for this book we wanted to have these conversations with some of our engineering friends in public. We have started with Buro Happold in Bath. A couple of weeks ago we ran a session on ‘what is regenerative design for structural engineers?’ and followed up with conversations over lunch. In a couple of weeks from now we are going back. We have asked them to share some case studies with us, but also with each other, which again we will discuss over lunch. The aim is that as they share the case studies with us they also share them with each other, creating further conversations. So a month or so later we are going back to listen and share again. I have also started conversation with another engineering practice. The idea is to make the process of researching the book regenerative in its self.
Finally, Oli and I have agreed to spend time being. Being in nature. Immersing ourselves in the systems we are looking to be inspired by. But also, as a counterpoint, immersing ourselves in the industry that engineering currently relies on. Today we took a trip over to Avonmouth. We tasted the air (and literally felt it on our eyeballs). We walked the busy A roads. We looked out over the industrial landscape (although when we tried to wander into the docks we were quickly stopped). We ate in an excellent local café. We dwelt on the industry of which we are a part. I wondered why I had never been before to see all the imported goods I so often specified as an engineer. Tried to make meaning of the systems. We went to try and comprehend. And it was fascinating, and beautiful, and disgusting, and sad, and inspiring, and baffling. I am not very good at just being, and I am not sure today I really fully paused and just be in the place. Quickly jumping to sense making. Or reflecting. Or thinking. But as engineers it is important to be in different places. The places that either we can learn from, or our work in some way impacts. And so each month Oli and I will try and find a place to be to write. Some connected to nature, others to industry.
And so next month we will start mapping out the detailed content of the book. Making plans. Drawing diagrams. Throwing them away. Until then have a great month and let me know your thoughts in the comments below.
Also, as an afterthought, I am in no way suggesting this is how you should write a book. This is what (up until now) works for me. I hope it is helpful to share, but I doubt it is helpful if you try and replicate. You may not work in the ways I do. You may be able to ride a bike and hence you haven’t spent the last 22 years developing a reflective practice as you walk to work. My approach is the outcome of my circumstances.
 If you don’t know the story of the incredible book eating boy by Oliver Jeffers I suggest you find someone with a child age 2-4 and buy them a copy, and read it first, it is a fantastic book.
 I can highly recommend Small St Espresso if you’re walking up from Bristol Temple Meads, the Cloakroom if you’re in the uni and Coffee and Beer if you are out the other side of the uni, all excellent places to sit and think.