One of the most exciting, challenging commissions I’ve had was to design and deliver a two-week teacher-training course on literary analysis. Teaching teachers – always a challenge to raise your game, and, yes, “literary analysis”, all of it, without much more to the brief than that. Could I do it? Uh… hell, yeah! It nearly killed me, but I did, and loved it.
I realised afterwards that my process for creating the course was an excellent model for book planning. Of course it forces you to think wholistically about the subject, but thinking about potential students for a course also gives you a much better sense of what to include and how to arrange it. It returns the planning process to being helpful and communicating with real people, both excellent touchstones to keep in mind. So here’s your six-step guide:
1. Your brief
You’re going to plan a two-week intensive course on your subject – whether that’s marketing, entrepreneurship, time-management, whatever. Choose your subject (it can be broad, at this stage) and think about who’ll come to the course. It helps to think of clients you already know, but if not, at least describe the likely student to yourself. My students were French-speaking high school teachers who taught English language and, since recently, literature.
2. Brainstorm everything you want to include
At this stage, include everything. Gather every last idea from your own head and go scavenging online for lists of other people’s ideas (tables of contents are a good place to look). If you have clients to ask, email them for what they’d like it to include. On the left of the pic, you can see the teachers’ replies to my email.
Don’t be afraid to get physical with your ideas: planning on paper is always best. On the right, you can see the titles and authors I thought the course should include, each on their own scrap of paper. I didn’t colour-code them at that stage, because this part is all about gathering ideas, not organising them. Keep thinking This is a two-week intensive course. What else should it cover?
3. Use what you already have
You already work in your field so go combing through your materials and – look! Here’s one I made earlier! Any workshops, coaching notes, handouts, blog posts, and documents that you already have, throw them in. I had a good stock of literary lessons from my fiction courses and other teaching which matched the brief very nicely, and could select the best from that. I also have an impressive personal library to pull books off, a stack of blogging behind me, and a loft full of files from years in academia – including a comprehensive summary of feminist postcolonial theory, booyah! You forget how much you already have, so keep thinking What else do I already have that could make creating this course easier?
4. Find a useful grouping principle
At this stage, you’re just putting things into groups; you’re not necessarily organising the groups into a particular order. Shuffle all your ideas around (another reason paper helps). Start with the ones that fit most naturally together and keep playing with the rest. At this point, you start finding that some just don’t fit and you collect a pile of misfits – it’s a natural selection process. (Amazingly, I kept in 50 works of literature!)
Remember, you’re planning a course for real people so you want to find the most useful grouping principle for them. You don’t always have to invent your own, either. Although the course I was designing would be used for a wide range of countries, the French BAC had an especially lovely set of themes to work around, so it made sense to use that. Ultimately, you want about ten groups – one for each day of the course – but don’t forget you might want two days for introductions and consolidation / reflection as well. Keep thinking What groups will be most helpful for the people on the course?
5. Plan a structure for your groupings
Think about the shape of each day on your course: what will its structure and routine be? You want to be consistent, so they know what to expect and feel that it’s well-organised, but also flexible, allowing that some days will need a slightly different shape. I divided my groupings into two sections for each day: an overview of the topic looking briefly at a batch of appropriate works, and an in-depth session on just one or two. (I also had a third session taking them right through a novel in parallel to the course.) Keep thinking How will this look on their timetable? Is it balanced? Does it vary the pace and energy level?
6. Organise the flow
Finally, arrange your groups into the order they should go in. Think about the people who’ll attend your course: what order will they want and need the information in? Do any groupings suggest a natural progression? Can you organise them around a typical workflow, a natural order of information, the easiest way to stage the info for understanding it? Again, it helps to be working physically here so you can keep moving things around, stepping back, and considering the whole experience. In my case, the third strand of teaching gave me my order of groupings. I was taking the students through a complete novel, Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, and arranged my themes to match key sections of the book. Keep thinking How will this course feel to the students as they move through it? Does it flow sensibly?
Your map for a two-week intensive is now a coaching course and a set of workshops you could run – and it is also an excellent, coherent plan for a ten-chapter book, built with your readers at heart through every stage. If you want more help and coaching to create your outline, look at Month 1 of my Springboard programme: Create your book’s perfect plan.