Writing a Chess Book

After writing a number of articles for The Chess Improver, I was offered the chance, thanks to Nigel’s recommendation, to write a chess book. Within weeks, I had signed a publishing contract. Of course, I did little thinking before jumping into the project because I didn’t want to lose this opportunity. I was given six weeks to write the entire book because the publisher need one written quickly. The book would be 176 pages. I’ve written this article to give other budding chess writers an idea of what they’re getting into should they decide to write a book.

Having written for many years, I’ve come to the conclusion that the hardest part of writing is actually sitting down and doing it. I know many people who claim to be writers yet spend more time talking about being writers than actually putting words to paper. Writing doesn’t count for anything unless the words find their way to the page. Being contracted means you have to write or you’ll be sued for any advance money if you don’t produce something. The prospects of ending up in an English Court (the publishing company is based in the UK) for doing absolutely no writing served as a great incentive to get busy (while I’d like to experience the English court system, I’d rather do so as a spectator). Given the short period of time in which I had to write my first book, I knew I had to sit down everyday and commit words to paper. I write best in the mornings, so each morning I’d be writing by 6:30 am, stopping only to go teach classes. On that first day, I sat down in front of my laptop, staring at what seemed like the world’s largest blank page.

The hardest thing to face when writing any type of book is that first page, knowing hundreds of blank pages sit behind it. You can’t think about all the pages that haven’t been written. You have to think about the single page your writing. Otherwise, you’ll become overwhelmed and unable to move forward. However, before you start writing, you need a plan. I created an outline, laying out what needed to be covered in the book. Create an outline before typing a single word. The outline provides a guide you can follow and helps ensure you don’t leave anything out.

Fortunately, having taught chess for many years, I was able to use my own teaching program the to form the outline. I started with a broader outline first. The book was broken down into four parts: The Rules, The Opening Game, The Middle Game and The Endgame. I moved on to what would be included in these four sections. It’s fairly easy, if you read a lot of chess books, to know what to include in each section. If you’re not a chess teacher, consider looking at chess books, especially those that you’ve enjoyed, to see how they’re laid out. Don’t worry, you haven’t crossed the plagiarism line yet. You’re merely looking for a template to base your outline on. It’s important to use other chess books to create an outline because you want to make sure you don’t leave anything out. However, if you’re writing a book for beginners, don’t use a book geared for advanced players to create your outline. This brings me to another important point, don’t write above your audiences comprehension level. When you get really good at something (not that I know what I’m doing), it comes easily to you. Too many teachers assume their students will understand their explanations because they understand their own explanations. The reason the teacher understand the words coming out of his or her mouth is because they know the subject inside and out. Meanwhile, their students sit silently, becoming more glassy eyed with each passing minute. Assume your reader has no prior knowledge of the game.

Surprisingly, the hardest part of writing this book was explaining the rules. I teach chess visually, with a board and pieces. My students can see how the pieces move in a three dimensional environment. Explaining how the pieces move using only words to do so, isn’t easy. It’s as if you’re suddenly reduced to one dimension. Here’s where you dig through your collection of chess books. Read five or more authors and see how they describe pawn and piece movement. Then sit down and write an explanation of pawn and piece movement, in your own words. Castling was a challenge because there are many conditions that must be met in order to castle. I had to create a very simple explanation for each condition and group them in a logical order. I wrote, edited, wrote some more, edited some more, and eventually came up with a clear explanation of castling and it’s rules. Editing is what makes a book flow fluidly.

Edit each section as you go along. Write freely without editing and then go back and edit when you’ve finished a single section or chapter! Remove redundant or repetitive sentences and statements. Often, we say the same thing twice when trying to make a point. This wastes space. Cut the fat and your writing will thank you for it! Don’t get too wordy, a problem that’s a terminal condition for this writer. Your readers want to know how to play the game of chess and probably don’t have the time or patience to listen to your old college stories that you use as analogies. Analogies are great, but only use those that everyone can relate to. Planning your vacation to Fiji is not a good analogy for middle game planning unless your travel plans are undefined and prone to chaos.

Limit your use of sophisticated or “big” words. That’s what we have academics for. If your readers have to use a dictionary to figure out what your saying, they’re not learning chess! Of course, there’s nothing wrong with throwing in a few big words now and again, but don’t overdo it. Keep your explanations as simple as possible. Your readers will love you for it, or at least not mutter four letter words when hearing your name. Always assume your reader has never played chess. Keep it simple because the more complicated you make an explanation, the more lost your readers become. It’s not that your readers are simpletons. Far from it. They’re new to chess. Even if one of your readers is a genius, he or she will want an easy to understand explanation of the game not a PhD dissertation.

Always write from your heart. Share your passion for chess with your audience. Readers want to share your passionate for chess or they wouldn’t be reading your book. Always be truthful. Don’t tell your readers that they’ll become brilliant chess players in seven days. Don’t make any other guarantee than with hard work, their game will improve. Honesty is important. Encourage readers to achieve their goals as long as they’re realistic. Think of your reader a family member your helping with their studies (a family member you like). The best thing I got out of writing my book? It made me a better chess teacher. Be a teacher. The world needs them desperately. Try writing a chess book. You learn a lot about chess by doing so. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).