Some nonfiction books are harder to write than others. If you're an expert in a topic, sometimes you can just bang out a couple of thousand words, repeat for a few days, weeks, and months, and publish your nonfiction book. In fact, many successful nonfiction authors have built careers by publishing short nonfiction books that cover a specific topic and then publishing these books frequently.
Now, this writing workflow doesn't work for every genre or niche. What if you're writing something that's more technical and involves more research or drawing on your expertise in a field? What if you're writing a psychology book, for example?
My guest this week is a professional psychotherapist working in London. His new book, Other People: Something You Should Know, is a must-read for anybody interested in learning more about mental health and its triggers.
For this particular book, Jonathan drew on his professional expertise and the years he spent reading the latest literature and academic papers and working with his clients or patients.
In this episode, we discuss:
Jonathan: I think journaling and meditation are very good ideas. I think anything that allows you to just take a little bit more time, to look more closely at what’s going on through your experiences, talking to a therapist can be very helpful too. There’s any number of ways of going about this.
Welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast with Bryan Collins. Here, you’ll find practical advice and interviews for all kinds of writers.
Bryan: Would you like to write a psychology book? Hi, there. My name is Bryan Collins. Welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast.
Some nonfiction books are harder to write than others. If you’re an expert in a topic, sometimes you can just open up Google Docs, Word, or your writing application of choice and bang out a couple of thousand words, repeat for a couple of days, weeks and months, and publish your nonfiction book. In fact, many successful nonfiction authors have built careers by publishing short nonfiction books that cover a specific topic and then publishing these books frequently.
Now, this writing workflow doesn’t work for every genre or niche. What if you’re writing something that’s more technical that involves more research or something that involves drawing on your expertise in a field? What if you’re writing a psychology book, for example? My guest this week is a professional psychotherapist working in London. His new book is called Other People: Something You Should Know and it’s a must read for anybody who’s interested in learning more about mental health and its triggers.
Now, for writing this particular book, Jonathan drew on his professional expertise when he retrained as a psychotherapist and also the many years and hours he spent reading the latest literature, academic papers, and working with his clients or patients. In the interview, it was interesting to hear about how Jonathan approaches his research for books like this. Now, my takeaway from listening to Jonathan is that every author needs a system for their research. Even if you’re writing fiction, it’s good to have a place where you can put your ideas for your stories or whatever it is that you want to turn into something that’s public facing. My current system for research involves building a personal zettelkasten and I’ve previously talked about the zettelkasten method on the Become a Writer Today Podcast. In fact, there’s a popular interview with Sascha Fast that I’d recommend you go and check out if you’re building your personal zettelkasten. If you’re not quite ready to take it that far but you still want to write something like a psychology book, it’s at least helpful to have something like a citation manager so you can manage all of your papers and research and so on. Papers is actually a great citation manager, as is Zotero. Those are two good apps I recommend you check out if you find yourself wading through academic papers, literature, and other types of materials that you want to turn into a nonfiction book.
In the interview, I also asked Jonathan about his goals for this particular book, because lots of authors have different goals for their books. Some authors, like the ones I mentioned about two minutes ago, write books because it helps them earn revenue and royalties and it’s part of their business. It pays the bills. Others write books because they have a message they want to get out into the world. And some people write books because they have a creative urge that they want to express on the blank page. So, if you’re considering writing a psychology book or a nonfiction book or even a fiction book, I’d encourage you to sit down and write out three to seven reasons why you want to write the book in question. Is it for money? Is it to make an impact? Is it to share your story? All of these reasons are fine and so are whatever other reasons you may have, but understanding the why to writing a book will sustain you when you run into trouble with your first draft, when the book takes a little bit longer than you thought, and when time comes to edit it. It will also help you become more comfortable with the process of marketing your book because you’ll know what it is that you’re trying to accomplish.
Before we go over to this week’s interview, please consider hitting the Star button and reviewing the Become a Writer Today Podcast, because your reviews and ratings will help more listeners find the show. And you can, of course, share the show with another writer or a friend on Overcast, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you’re listening. And if you’ve got feedback, I’m on Twitter at @bryanjcollins.
Bryan: My guest today is Jonathan Coppin, who is a psychotherapist and also the author of the new book, Other People: Something You Should Know. He’s also got a background in merger and acquisitions and I can’t say I’ve interviewed many people who’ve been involved in mergers and acquisitions, but welcome to the show, Jonathan.
Jonathan: Thank you, Bryan. Nice to talk to you.
Bryan: So I’m looking forward to hearing about all of the key ideas inside of your new book, but before we do that, could you maybe describe your writing journey and how you navigated from mergers and acquisitions to psychotherapy to now writing your new book?
Jonathan: Well, it would be a mistake to describe it as a plan or even a navigation, really. It’s two very distinct careers. The first one was working in law and M&A for about 20 years and, as most people do who work in that line of business, sort of deciding to leave it sometime in early middle age and then looking around for something to do next, thinking about a second career and that tracked me back to my first degree, which was in psychology, and involved taking myself back to college and doing a master’s degree and then working for some years in the NHS and emerging as a psychotherapist in private practice.
Bryan: My understanding is when you’re working in a career like psychotherapy, perhaps writing essays and academic papers could be one particular path. Was that something that you explored before becoming an author?
Jonathan: It is what I explored a bit but, in the end, I felt that the ideas that were most interesting to me were ones that really involved stepping back from clinical practice and looking at it from some distance and thinking around the subject a little more widely than you can really do in academic journals.
Bryan: Did it take you long to come up with the concept or the idea for your new book?
Jonathan: I think the seeds were germinating pretty much from the beginning, from when I first started reencountering psychology and mental health care. Took some time to formulate. It’s probably been about 10 years in gestation and it’s something that’s been influenced by a lot of thinking that’s going on around mental health care at the moment.
Bryan: It’s fair to say a lot of mental health and self-help books are very much focused on the self, with how the reader can make changes in their own life to achieve what they want and to accomplish their goals, but you’ve taken a slightly different track with your book.
Jonathan: That’s exactly right. I think, to a large extent, my book is a reaction against what’s a very highly individualistic approach in mental health care and well-being. There’s this idea that everybody has to go on a highly personal inward journey, that everybody’s different, we’re all unique, and, of course, that’s true, we are all different, but we have a lot in common too and we have a lot of similarities and I think something important is being missed there.
Bryan: What would you say are the common mistakes that people make when they’re trying to accomplish something in their own life or to fix a problem, if they’re just focused on themselves rather than looking at their external environment?
Jonathan: I think what gets missed is the importance of self-esteem to well-being and also to mental health. And pretty much everything we do is organized around a principle of trying to feel okay about ourselves and that’s a surprisingly difficult thing to do. Psychology has known for a long time that there’s an inbuilt mechanism in all of us to feel lousy about ourselves. And that was Freud’s superego, that’s imposter syndrome, that’s the inferiority complex, that’s the inner critic, the inner bully. It’s got lots of names and it gets everywhere. When people talk about things having purpose or meaning, what they usually mean is they’re talking about the things that help them to feel better about themselves. And an important aspect and a very vital aspect of how we see ourselves is how we see other people and it’s odd in many ways that when people are in trouble and they’re feeling acutely self-conscious about their own failings and sense of inadequacy, that we usher them into a dimly lit room and sit them down with somebody who’s pretending to be really very well and very resolved and subject them to an intense process of self-scrutiny, which is all inherently about them and when we know the evidence is that, from good therapy and from support forums, that one of the things that people find most valuable is recognizing that things about themselves which they had always regarded as being unique or highly personal are affecting other people too in the same way. And, in fact, in practice, when we treat, when we get involved in treating mental health care, we do pay quite a bit of attention to self-esteem even though we don’t draw a very explicit connection between it and well-being. All these ideas that you find about self-compassion, about self-forgiveness, about assertiveness, about setting boundaries, about saying no, it’s all to do with self-esteem but it’s not done very deliberately. And the essential component of how we see ourselves is how we see other people, so my book is an invitation for people to spend a little more time and attention looking at what’s going on for other people in the expectation of finding there what you should find there, which is the things that bother you most about yourself are affecting other people too. And when you can see that, those things become easier to live with, they become easier to manage, you can feel that you’re doing better yourself, and that’s going to help you feel better about yourself, and all of that’s a really vital component about how you find your way through life.
Bryan: It’s quite hard to do though. I mean, a lot of people are mostly concerned with what’s going on for themselves and in their own life rather than what’s happening with other people. So what steps could somebody take to change that?
Jonathan: Well, the book offers some practical guidance and offers some tips for how you could turn yourself into an amateur psychologist. It offers some guidance as to how you can recognize what’s going on for other people, some little insights and clues that people give us to what’s going on for them, and it tries to prime you to look for what you really should expect to find there, which are, as I say, the things that bother you most about yourself and cause you the most trouble.
Bryan: So the things that bother you most about yourself, are these potentially things that could bother you in other people?
Jonathan: Yes, they are. Because, in particular, this feeling that everybody would have experienced at time to time if things go wrong, that they are somehow messing up in a unique way or there’s something uniquely different and defective about them, which is what you hear whenever people come for professional assistance, that it’s something that affects everybody in every aspect of their life. That idea and trying to avoid that feeling is behind what most of us do that causes most of the problems in our lives.
Bryan: You mentioned that the book offers some specific steps that people can take or perhaps some takeaways that they can go ahead and apply after reading the book. Would you be able to give an example of one or two of those for listeners?
Jonathan: There’s a very common phenomenon which is referred to as reaction formation which you’ll see it when somebody will, let’s say, slightly out of context, apropos of something that, “I don’t have any regrets about deciding to leave law. I don’t have any regrets about that. That was fine,” and what that usually means is that there’s been some little unconscious process which has caused them to have a little qualm, a little regret, a little doubt. And, instantly, the mind has tried to evade that, tried to overcome it, and tried to stamp it down by the conscious part of the mind overruling it and saying, “You know, I really don’t have any feelings about that at all. I don’t mind that at all.” It’s the mind in conflict with itself, it’s the conscious mind trying to react against and quell this misgiving that’s arisen. And it’s usually quite effective in the sense that they might not be aware that this process has taken place but it shows that, actually, they do have some — most of the big decisions we make in life will give us pause for thought and some sense of missed opportunities and regrets and loss. And it’s an entirely natural process but it’s a little insight into something that happens all the time to everybody. When somebody says that they don’t blame you for something, it probably means that they do blame you a little bit but they’re really trying very hard not to.
Bryan: Oh, interesting. Interesting. Would practices like journaling or meditation be good for these types of insights or is it best to talk to someone like a psychotherapist?
Jonathan: I think journaling and meditation are very good ideas. I think anything that allows you to just take a little bit more time, to look more closely at what’s going on for your experiences. Talking to a therapist can be very helpful too. There’s any number of ways of going about this.
Bryan: So, for a book like this, I mean, obviously, you’re drawing a lot on peer reviews, academic papers, and evidence from psychiatry, psychotherapy, neuroscience, and so on, so, for our listeners who maybe have less experience with research and managing multiple different sources, what does your research system look like for your book?
Jonathan: It involves, first of all, the practical training and clinical training I had which started me going down certain directions. And then it involves spending a lot of time looking at academic papers and following from one paper to another. And it’s a little bit like going down the YouTube rabbit hole. You find one paper and that refers to something else and there’s a clue there and you go sniffing after that. I mean, I’m lucky because there’s an enormous amount being written about this subject at the moment and it’s coming from different angles and offering different perspectives on it and it’s a very creative time to be thinking about writing about mental health.
Bryan: In terms of reading the latest literature and papers, do you have subscriptions to particular journals? Is this something that you get through your practice or are you researching online?
Jonathan: I research online but also I did my master’s degree at London University and I’m still a member of the London University and I can access all their periodicals and I take myself out to the library at least once a week at Senate House and use that time for researching.
Bryan: Oh, nice. Did you write in the library as well?
Jonathan: Yeah, I did write at the library a bit. Beautiful room, it’s lovely.
Bryan: I can imagine. Yeah, I can certainly imagine. Yeah, I wrote a piece several years ago in Trinity College Library in Dublin. It was great to go into an environment like that and get out of an office.
Jonathan: Yeah, it really constrains the moment.
Bryan: When you have dozens of different papers to go through, are you filing them all away in like an analog system or do you have like a citation manager on your computer or is there some other way that you distill all of that information?
Jonathan: I’ve concocted my own database, digital database, that tends to work pretty well. Most things are available online these days and if you have a subscription through the university, then you can get hold of pretty much everything.
Bryan: And how did you manage like managing your psychotherapy practice with writing this particular book? What did the typical day look like for you when you were working on it?
Jonathan: I’ve kept my psychotherapy practice pretty small. When I retired as a lawyer, it was with the view to stepping back and having a much slower second career so I have a fair amount of time. I’ll only see four or five people at a time these days. When I was working in the NHS, you have to see maybe 20 people and —
Bryan: Wow, sounds very busy.
Jonathan: Yeah, it’s a lot. It’s a lot.
Bryan: So would you work on your book in the morning and then in your practice in the afternoon or…?
Jonathan: No, tends to be different days.so I keep my client base for a couple of days a week and the rest of the time I devote to researching, writing, and working on ideas, formulating.
Bryan: Interesting. You mentioned the book took about a year and a half to write. Did you show drafts at certain points to perhaps some of your peers or to an editor before…?
Jonathan: I did. I did, I did. I showed it to a couple of people and got various bits of feedback and that’s been very useful, I think, that’s something like my knowledge and so I had people involved. It would have been a lot harder without them.
Bryan: So I know you’ve published the book on Amazon and it’s widely available for listeners to go ahead and buy. So when you’re publishing a book like this for a general audience who’s perhaps interested in self-help and mental health, how do you bridge the gap between what can be traditionally seen as inaccessible academic works versus publishing something that’s accessible and readable for everyday book readers?
Jonathan: Yeah, that’s a good question and the answer is I don’t — I’m not sure whether I’ve done it and I’m not sure how you best go about it. Having published a book, I’m now in the process of trying to work out how to market it and, in fact, I’ve enjoyed listening to a couple of previous guests on your podcast and that’s really — it’s an area I don’t know a lot about and I’m going to have to find out about it. It’s given me a lot of food for thought.
Bryan: Yeah, podcast interviews can be one good way to promote a book. After you published the book, did you get any feedback from family members or peers?
Jonathan: Yes, I did and that’s all been very positive and very nice to receive. But, of course, you’re always a little doubtful when people you know read the book and say, “I thought it was really great.”
Bryan: Yeah, it can be — yeah, sometimes, you need constructive feedback, not somebody who’s giving you a pat on the back, so to speak. I certainly had that issue. So I’m also interested in how authors manage the structure of their books, particularly for something that’s quite complicated and involves lots of different ideas. Did you outline your book in advance? Did you write it out by longhand? What did your actual writing process look like?
Jonathan: The writing process really consists of about five or six years of taking notes and using those notes to flesh out themes and then researching those themes and that’s probably the bit of the iceberg that you just don’t see. The writing itself took about a year and a half and then, at that point it, yes, it’s highly structured. You’ve worked out already, or I’ve worked out already what my main themes are going to be, what the plan of the book needs to be, and it’s a matter of slotting down within those headings and subheadings, fleshing out the thoughts and putting the ideas together.
Bryan: Did you set yourself a daily word count or a weekly word count or did you maybe try to finish a certain amount of chapters each month?
Jonathan: No, but I set myself an hour count, maybe it’s the lawyer in me still. Every day that was designated as a workday, then I’m quite disciplined. I’ll sit here and I’ll plow through the whole day and work through ’til I stopped and sometimes you didn’t get as much done as you want to so you’re a bit impatient with yourself and you’ll carry on working into the evening.
Bryan: What did your self-editing process look like?
Jonathan: Self editing process involves a lot of rereading. So, every day, I’d sit down at my desk and I would intend to start from where I’d finished but, actually, invariably find yourself reading back a couple of pages and rewriting and then maybe going back even further or something and in that process is a major rethink, something 30 pages earlier. So the editing process was quite rigorous in the sense that everything got rewritten several times, but fairly spontaneous and organic. It wasn’t that structured.
Bryan: And then when you were working with an editor on the book, did you rely on them for line edits and copyedits or did you take care of that yourself?
Jonathan: No, a bit of both. A bit of both. I got some really useful help from the people I used to help me produce the book.
Bryan: Oh, nice, nice. Would you think you would do an audiobook version at some point?
Jonathan: I don’t think so. I might be wrong about this and, as I said, I’m finding my way through this but it seems to me at the moment it’s a book that, because it’s quite a data-driven book, it’s got quite a lot of dense ideas, that it would suit the printed page better, but I’m going to have to start thinking afresh about all of this stuff.
Bryan: Yeah, I found a lot of nonfiction readers enjoy audiobooks and audiobooks can sell quite well but I completely get what you say, it can be really difficult to represent data with audio. For example, you can’t exactly narrate a table so that can be a challenge.
Bryan: So you mentioned when I was talking to you before the interview about a number of psychotherapy and self-help books that have made an impact in you over the years. Would you be able to describe one or two of those?
Jonathan: Yes. The psychotherapist which had the biggest impression, made the biggest impression on me is a woman called Melanie Klein who’s not particularly well known outside psychoanalytic circles but is probably the most influential psychotherapist, in terms of clinical practice, certainly in the UK and Europe, even more influential than Sigmund Freud himself, and she was a follower of Freud who became his immediate disciple, at least in terms of Europe. But as I say, there’s a lot of very interesting writing going, very challenging writing going on at the moment, which is asking serious questions about established principles in psychiatry and mental health care and there’s writers like James Davis and Lucy Foulkes who are really pushing back on ideas that have been around a long time and are increasingly looking quite hollow.
Bryan: Did you read any popular self-help books, the types of books that you’d see in the airport? I mean, Melanie Klein, I suppose died in 1960s. She’s not traditionally somebody you’ll find when you’re going on your holidays in the gift shop.
Jonathan: That’s right. No, I haven’t, I haven’t delved into the mainstream self-help section and maybe that’s an oversight when you’re writing a book, which, at least in part, is aimed at the self-help audience.
Bryan: So lots of times when you interview authors, they have different goals for their books. Some have a story that they want to share, some have a message they want to get out into the world, some write books because it pays the bills for them, or some have a book as part of their business, but what would you say is the goal for your book?
Jonathan: I mean, really, I think I just wanted to write it. I think it’s partly written out of a degree of frustration about my experience reencountering the world of mental health care and well-being after 20 years of working in a very different environment. I came from a world which is very driven by results about getting things done.
Bryan: I suppose a lot of work is.
Jonathan: Yeah, that’s right, but I was disappointed and even surprised by the level of results that are achieved by mental health care. I was almost traumatized by the incoherence and inconsistency of a lot of the evidence base and a bit dismayed by the lack of cooperation between the different groups of people involved in mental health care. I mean, you can really see how much of clinical psychology and psychiatry isn’t right by how difficult we find to treat it. The NHS in the UK publishes its outcome results for treatment of anxiety and depression, which are far and away the most common mental disorders, and they report that about half, only about half of the people they treat recover. But, in fact, those figures only take account of the people who complete a course of treatment and at least half the people who started a course of treatment generally drop out so the reality is that there are only about one in four people who receive mental health treatment in the UK for anxiety and depression who recover so three-quarters of the people who were lucky enough to get it aren’t getting any better.
Bryan: And it probably doesn’t take into account people who were undiagnosed or never sought help.
Jonathan: It wouldn’t. And also, those are the conditions where people are meant to be able to get better and we see you get a diagnosis of personality disorder and that’s meant to be for life. If you get a diagnosis of schizophrenia, the expectation is that you’ll be on a maintenance dosage of medication for the rest of your life. So, despite the clamor for more resources and more money to be devoted to mental health care, it’s something that we’re really, really bad at.
Bryan: Probably doesn’t help that there’s a lot of conflicting information online as well.
Jonathan: It doesn’t. It’s a real mess. So I think part of the motivation behind my book was a sense of frustration. I wanted to call out just how little we really know about this subject and I wanted to talk about something which I felt sure could be helpful to people and I believe in the idea of using other people as a benchmark, spending more time looking at other people in order to overcome this sense of some unique sense of inadequacy is a very, very powerful idea and it’s not getting the attention that it really deserves.
Bryan: Do you think you’ll write another book at some point?
Jonathan: Yeah, I think I will. I think I will. I think I’ve got another couple of ideas which I’m already researching and putting notes together for.
Bryan: It sounds like you enjoyed the writing process.
Jonathan: I did. I really enjoyed the writing process. I’m one of those people who tend to find out what they think by writing it down and when I found the right form of words, it’s like, “Ah, there it is. That’s it.” And I’m in a fortunate position of being able to write because I want to be able to express myself and say something that I think is worthwhile and important and if it can get some attention, if it can join the choir of people who are drawing attention to some of these real failings in mental health care, then that’s great.
Bryan: Where can listeners go if they want to read the book?
Jonathan: They can find it online on Amazon or any other online retailers. They can find it by going into a bookshop and ordering it. It’s unlikely but, if you’re very lucky, they might find that it’s actually stocked in the bookshop.
Bryan: Thanks for your time, Jonathan.
Jonathan: Thank you, Bryan. I enjoyed that.
Bryan: I hope you enjoyed this week’s episode. If you did, please consider leaving a short review on the iTunes Store or sharing the show on Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you’re listening. More reviews, more ratings, and more shares will help more people find the Become a Writer Today Podcast. And did you know, for just a couple of dollars a month, you could become a Patreon for the show? Visit patreon.com/becomeawritertoday or look for the Support button in the show notes. Your support will help me record, produce, and publish more episodes each month. And if you become a Patreon, I’ll give you my writing books and discounts on writing software and on my writing courses.