Episode 297 – The 12-week Year for Writers with Trevor Thrall

‘No one wants to be preached at or talked down to, or made to believe it’s fancier than it is. This is not rocket science. This is just good, plain common sense. You need a framework. There are lots of them out there. This is the one that works for me. And I think there are some good reasons it will work for you. And I’ll just explain that to you.’

Trevor ThrallDiscovering the 12-week year approach saved Trevor Thrall’s career as an academic, and now he teaches it to other writers. In this conversation he tells me how it transformed his own writing, and how he’s built the idea beyond the book into a community.

This system is GENIUS, and might just transform your writing life too…

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Alison Jones: Today I’m here with A. Trevor Thrall PhD, who is a writer and Associate Professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, where he teaches courses in international security. He’s a senior fellow at the Cato Institute in the Defense and Foreign Policy Department and the author of The 12-Week Year for Writers: A comprehensive guide to getting your writing done.

So welcome, Trevor it’s great to have you here.

Trevor Thrall: Thanks Alison, I appreciate the invitation.

Alison Jones: And I’m just imagining lots of people who started listening to your introduction were a bit baffled, thinking that’s interesting, we don’t normally talk about defence policy on The Extraordinary Business Book Club. So let’s start there. How did you end up writing a book on writing?

Trevor Thrall: Ah, yes, that’s a very fair question. And the answer is simple but for me pretty profound. The 12-Week Year system, which existed before my book, saved my career. So I like to tell the story because it tells you exactly why I wrote the book. And when I got my first job as a professor, I had been out of the academic world for about five years. So this was my first job as a professor, and as a graduate student I was terribly disorganized. And if people from my middle school or high school were told today that I was a professor, wrote a book about organizing people’s writing lives, they would fall out of their chairs laughing, because that was not me.

So when I got my first job as a professor, I faced the publish-or-perish reality, which is if you don’t get enough published in six years, you’re going to lose your job. And so I panicked and ran around with my hair on fire for a little bit. But I was lucky because at the very time I was staring at my whiteboard, trying to figure out how to publish all this stuff, my good friend Mike Lennington was working with his partner, Brian Moran, to develop the system that would become The 12-Week Year execution system.

And so I was complaining to Mike about my problem one day on the phone. And he said, you know what, I think I have just the thing for you. And he sent me a binder of The 12-Week Year materials. It wasn’t even called The 12-Week Year yet, but it was all the tools.

And I read through them and I said, oh my gosh. The light bulb went off for me, because I had sort of adopted some other productivity tools, but they weren’t right, when I tried to use them for writing, they just didn’t work for me.

I was a big 7 Habits person before in my non-academic life, but it just didn’t port over to writing at all. But The 12-Week Year did. And so the happy story was that it helped me be organized enough and productive enough that I was able to get tenure. At the same time, I did a number of unproductive things, like start a business on the side, raise three kids with my wife and, basically do a lot of things that weren’t writing.

If I hadn’t had this system, I never would’ve gotten tenure. I would not be in the position I am now. And, the success I had with this, at some point I realized I just need to share this because it worked so well for me. I need to share it with other people,

Alison Jones: It’s brilliant when you’ve lived it. And I think when you say that people from your school will be laughing at you, but actually that’s kind of the point. That’s what makes it so valuable for everybody else. I don’t want a lesson in organizing myself from somebody who was born doing it. I want somebody who’s been there, had to learn the hard way and then says, look, this works, so I think that that’s a really good thing to remember, isn’t it?

You don’t have to be naturally good at something to teach it. In fact, it’s quite hard to teach it if there’s somebody who’s not naturally good at it, if you are.

Trevor Thrall: People who are organized don’t understand any of the stuff because they’ve never had to do it. There’s a saying, I don’t know where it comes from, it’s very old, but that people write the books they need to read.

Alison Jones: Teach what you need to learn. That’s the one.

 Now, I mean 12-Week system, The 12-Week Year kind of has a strong clue in the title as to how this works, but just for the slow of uptake, just explain to us, sort of the basic principle and then how you translate that across specifically to writing.

Trevor Thrall: As suggested in the title, the main hook of the system is a shortened planning cycle and it was originally kind of conceived, borrowed from the world of sports where Brian Moran and Mike Lennington, were trying to help people in companies sort of execute their various plans better.

They were looking at athletes and realizing that there’s this strategy that athletes use to get really good at things. And that’s what they do, is they focus on one very specific skill at a time, for a short period of time. And they work very intensely on like your backhand or one specific, shooting free throws or penalty kicks or whatever it might be. Nothing else, that’s your main focus for maybe 12 weeks. And when you’ve kind of plateaued or you’ve gotten the improvement that you were looking for, you move on to another specific skill and you do it again. And this is the way that all Olympic athletes or top-flight athletes in every sport get better.

This is just how you do. it. And they, and Brian and Mike said, well…

Alison Jones: I think that periodization, that is, it’s just an interesting phrase. I haven’t come across it.

Trevor Thrall: So this framework, Brian and Mike said, you know, this is really powerful. What if we use this ourselves in our personal and professional lives and try to leverage that focus? And so The 12-Week Year for us other folks, for writers and others, is the logic is just that by shortening your plans and your sort of horizon to 12 weeks, you get rid of a lot of the vague, fluffy bologna that you probably wouldn’t see in an annual plan.

Whereas, I mean, because if you think about it, a plan is like a forecast of the future. First I’m going to do this, then we’re going to do this and then 11 or 12 months from now, we’ll do this. But you have no idea what you’re going to be doing 12 months from now. And so those plans aren’t even worth writing, they’re just a waste of time and they’re not realistic.

You can’t create concrete to do’s for 12 months long. We’ve tried. We’ve all tried probably. But when you reduce it to 12 weeks, all of a sudden you know what you can get done in 12 weeks. You don’t sort of magically think I’ll write a book in 12 weeks, you know, you’re not going to do that. So what are you really going to get done? And you can kind of be more strategic. You can be a lot more concrete and those plans are really a lot more helpful.

So the first big piece of The 12-Week Year is just shrinking your time horizon for planning and execution to 12 weeks. You focus on the small number of most important things that you have to do right now. You do that for 12 weeks and then you figure out what the next most important things are and you’d do it again.

And so for me, I was looking at a six-year clock and I knew I had to write ump diddly ump pieces of published material, and that’s like staring at a mountain. It drives you insane to try to imagine doing that all at once.

And so when I embraced The 12-Week Year, I was just looking sort of one semester at a time, and that was much more doable. I just need to win every semester one at a time. And it was a lot more manageable and also it sort of keeps the motivation going because you’re completing things successfully every few weeks.

Instead of imagining I have to write a book, it’s going to take three years, hard to keep yourself motivated for three years for something that’s that far away. So the 12 weeks, it sounds like a really simple concept but it’s actually super powerful.

Alison Jones: And actually 12 weeks, it’s like I work on quarters and I’m now a convert to 12 weeks because you get week 13.

Trevor Thrall: Yes, exactly.

Alison Jones: In week 13 you get to go, oh, look what I did. Reset.

Trevor Thrall: Yes.

Alison Jones: Yes, really like that.

Trevor Thrall: Yes no, I do too. And I think that’s the other thing is that, if you’re working on a quarterly system or something short like that, you get a chance to review the strengths and weaknesses of your recent sort of period and fix it for the next one.

Whereas an annual plan, the time people usually figure out that it’s not working is the Fall and now it’s nine months too late to switch gears. And so people are in a mad dash by the end of the year to get things done and I’ve seen professors do it too, assistant professors don’t have a fire under them and then they’re are about a year or two away from the tenure decision and they realize they need to write six years’ worth of stuff. And it’s too late. It’s not a good idea.

Alison Jones: It’s like everybody ramping everything up in November because they suddenly realise…

Trevor Thrall: …exactly.

Alison Jones: Which of course is what businesses do as well, as you made the point in the book. So yes, if only we could keep that performance going throughout the year. Yes. And I mean, it’s interesting that you come from the academic writing background as well, and you’re right, that it’s an absolute imperative, publish or die, and obviously your institution is measured on its quality and the quantity of its output.

And then you wrote a book which… I’m guessing that this book is not recognized in any of the research output metrics of George Mason. So tell me about the decision to write the book.

I mean I love that it’s philanthropic, but you know, what else was going on there? And also how it was different to writing the papers and writing a normal research output.

Trevor Thrall: So the decision was kind of a weird and non-linear one. I had started a different business a few years ago and I had gotten in touch with Mike Lennington to see if he and Brian might want to create some online course content that might work with this business I was creating.

 And they were sort of talking about it and hemming and hawing. And then in the middle of all that hemming and hawing my partner in that business, we sold the business and we didn’t have it anymore. And I was like, well, okay, that idea is dead. But I had such a good time talking with Mike and sort of reconnecting on 12-Week Year things and so on, that I said, you know what Mike, I think it might finally be time for me. I’ve had about a seven-page memo… So backing up, about four years into my first job as a professor, one of my senior colleagues came in and looked at my whiteboard and it had my 12-week plan on it and then had sort of in the corner, it had a longer list of things that were going to be happening.

And he looked at it and he said, you’re so organized, would you please come and speak to the faculty about writing? And I was like, wow, that’s cool. Sure. Why not? And I wrote a little memo, maybe five, six pages at the time. It wasn’t just copying The 12-Week Year, it had some other stuff in it. That was sort of the first version of the book, was about a five-page memo and I’ve been giving it to students for 20 years and they come back at me and ask me more questions and so I’ve been teaching different elements of it for a very long time.

So after reconnecting with Mike on this other thing, we were in the middle of the pandemic, where we were just sort of shut down for the pandemic and I was like, this would be more interesting than the other stuff I’m doing. And I think I was also kind of looking for a longer-term side hustle that would grow, which I had been thinking the other business was going to be, but all of a sudden we sold it so that wasn’t going to be it.

So I said, I need a new side hustle. What’s it going to be? And I thought, you know what? I love teaching people how to write. And I love, you know, I work with a lot of graduate students on their graduate theses, dissertations. I really enjoy doing that. You know what? I think this could be a really great opportunity to share The 12-Week Year and really, really spend some time thinking about how to explain, how to use it for people who write like I do.

And so that’s where the book came from. And writing it was both very different and not very different from writing other things that I do. I used The 12-Week Year to do it. Mike and I had a team 12-week year plan that we sort of both shared on their online system that they use to do that.

And the main difference for me was tone. The sort of the blocking and tackling of outline and the research and stuff, not very different to any sort of book you might write, really. The only big differences I knew I didn’t have to do a lot of research because I’ve been essentially collecting notes and experiences for 20 years.

So I didn’t have a long ramp up to learn stuff for the book. But the main thing was just tone and writing in a more conversational tone than you would if you’re an academic writer. You don’t have to use so many bologna, long, expensive words when you’re writing a business book.

Alison Jones: Almost like a human.

Trevor Thrall: But happily, and maybe you can already tell just by the way I talk, I just wrote the book like I talk and one of my kids was reading it and said, and this was let me know I was on the right track: oh, it sounds like talking to Dad. And I was like, okay, I guess I must have the tone about where I want it because I think that’s how people learn best, is in conversation. So no one wants to be preached at or talked down to, or made to believe it’s fancier than it is. This is not rocket science. This is just good, plain common sense. You need a framework. There are lots of them out there. This is the one that works for me. And I think there are some good reasons it will work for you. And I’ll just explain that to you.

That was my goal. And so I actually had a blast writing it because freed of the shackles of worrying about what reviewer two is going to think, I really just had a very fun time writing it.

Alison Jones: Yes, I can imagine actually, and less of the literature review and more of the drawing from experience. And one thing that’s interesting about the book as well, and you’re completely upfront about it all the way through, and the title nods to it and everything, is it’s an odd one because it’s based on someone else’s intellectual property in a sense, but it’s expanding and developing it.

It’s the sort of thing you can’t do unless you are doing it with the full permission and blessing of the people. But tell me how that played out. Was it something you were anxious about? How did you square it?

Trevor Thrall: So, I mean, this is one of those things where it probably, you know, I was very well placed to be the first person that worked with the guys from The 12-Week Year to do this because I was good friends with Mike before he joined forces with Brian to build it. And, you know, Mike and I had always been trouble when we get together.

I mean, I met him when he was a consultant and he came in as part of a consulting group to the organization I was working at the time, we got to be such good buddies. We actually tried to start a business incubator back in the late nineties, you know, while we were working together for our different organizations, we tried to start something.

So we kind of have a long history of looking for ways to collaborate. And, I thought the pitch was pretty straightforward to them, which is: you guys have this awesome system, I’ve been using it. I’m a walking case study of how it works in a specific domain. And, you know, we can look around and see different sort of franchise kinds of situations where people have taken the base concept and then add for writers, add for teachers, add for students, for marketers, and when I pitched this to them, they’re like Oh, that might be a very good idea. You could be the test case and if it goes well, maybe we’ll sign somebody up to do a book in some other niche.

And, again, the trust level that I had because Mike and I were long-term friends, made it pretty easy. And so they were super, super, I mean, they were immediately into it and it was never a matter of convincing anyone. It was just like, okay.

So that’s probably not a very common occurrence, I don’t know, but,

Alison Jones: No, it is quite uncommon actually. And I guess it’s because you haven’t got that relationship behind it, but also because publishers tend to get nervous of third-party permissions and that of sort of thing.

Trevor Thrall: Sure. No. And it wouldn’t have been able to happen without, you know, obviously without a high confidence level on all parts that it was going to be an honest deal and I think, you know, the fact that I’m a professor who like has a known address and I’m not like some new person no one’s ever heard of.

So I mean, I’m not going anywhere. It’s not like I’m going to toddle off to Russia with their profits or something like that. And I think from the publisher’s standpoint, this was kind of like hitting the button again because The 12-Week Year is a New York Times bestseller and they’re like, well sure, you want us to publish something else with that title? I think we’ll do that.

There was no convincing of the publisher, I don’t think either, that was like, okay, good, this could be part of an interesting series now, if we think of it that way.

And I think the value of the series, you know, I’m sort of hopeful that they’re going to tee up some other people here soon, because I think every one of those books that gets on the shelf is going to strengthen the whole collection and draw attention to everyone’s books.

So, I mean, that’s what they…

Alison Jones: …absolute virtuous circle of marketing

Trevor Thrall: Yes, I think so.

Alison Jones: Really powerful. And going back, I love the ‘we’re trouble’, going back to the hustle thing, and it isn’t just the book, is it? Because you’ve got the community behind it as well. So, obviously the book is at the centre of it, but tell me how you built that out.

Trevor Thrall: Yes, so it’s a work in progress very much. I’m tiny, I’m a tiny side hustler at the moment. But, the way I envisioned it was that the book would indeed be the tent pole, as I think many sort of authorpreneurs are doing these days, you know, to establish the credibility and to let people know there’s some intellectual content, that is there, that’s valuable.

And as with any book, I think most of us are happy to read a book, but then all of us, I think, understand that to really master something takes more than just reading a book. It takes putting it into practice, sometimes getting some coaching. And then in the case of writing in particular having a community of peers who are going through the same challenges, struggles, and who you can learn from.

Because I think, don’t you think, like in my classes, yes, I’m the professor, but my graduate students learn more from each other over a four or five-year period of being in school than they do from their professors. We guide, but they are really the ones who teach. And so I think the same is true. So I have several weekly writing groups that meet now, still have spaces if anyone’s open… but you know, having a weekly meeting and that’s part of the 12-week system itself, is to have a weekly accountability group.

And so that’s key, but for me, one of the big sort of transitions from 12-Week Year the execution system to 12-Week Year for writers is that you want that weekly accountability group to be writers, because that’s who you’re going to learn the most from. Those are the people who are going to understand your pain and your struggle, and who are going to help lift you up through all the issues that writers deal with. You know, lonely, frustrated, blocked, stuck, rejected, all the things that we go through, no matter who you write for, or what you’re writing, those are the same everywhere. And having writers to talk through that stuff with is invaluable.

So that’s what I’m trying to build. I’m trying to build a community of peers who are all sort of going through these same things together and who believe that a system plus a community is the best way to do it.

Alison Jones: And it’s interesting because quite often people try and build communities off the back of their book, rarely is it so embedded in the methodology that you’re setting out in the book

Trevor Thrall: Yes, that’s cheating, I guess. I mean it almost calls for it in the system, but yes, no, that’s true. But I’m having a blast with the writing groups. I mean, it is a lot of fun and I won’t speak for them, but I think the people in the groups are getting a lot out of it. So.

Alison Jones: I’m interested as well in the range in there, because obviously you have an academic background. I’m guessing you have a lot of academic connections that are coming in there. And again, you’ve got that imperative to write, so there’s a real kind of, you know, skin in the game reasons to join a writing group.

You’re also talking about novels, fiction, screenplays. I’m guessing there’s business books and so on in there. That’s an awful lot of different reasons, a lot of different kinds of writing, how do people rub along there and what can they learn from each other?

Trevor Thrall: You know, well, I am learning it too, just right along with every one, I have a lot of fiction writing relatives. So part of me isn’t terribly surprised to see how much commonality they find. But part of me is surprised seeing them all in the same room, virtually speaking anyway, just how much they have in common.

Because I do, I have professors, I have multi-published novelists. We have business book writers. We have ebook writers. We have people who are transitioning into writing for the first time. So we have the whole gamut and all of them are grappling for the same basic things. They all want to be more consistent and more productive writers, every single one of them and they all, because writing is writing, they all have the same basic challenges.

How do I organize my stuff? How do I decide what’s first? How do I keep going when I don’t feel like it? What do I do… you know? And I’m not saying it wouldn’t be super useful for fiction writers to all meet in a fiction writing group too, absolutely I’d certainly recommend that.

But I don’t think it’s an either/or, I think there are some things you’re going to get from a group that’s got lots of flavours and then there’s different things you would get from a group that are just like fantasy writers or whatever. Because those are the super, you know, peers who really know how to judge the work that you’re doing in that specific domain.

But in our group, we’re more worried about process than we are about content. And so process-wise, man, writing is pretty much writing.

Alison Jones: I always think writing is actually a billion things under the one term, it’s researching, it’s talking to people. It’s trying to draw out the deepest part of you. It is looking out the window quite a lot, you know…

Trevor Thrall: … and here’s the thing that I have just recently, over the last few weeks, found out. Maybe re-found out, I don’t know, because it’s been so long since I started using The 12-Week Year that I no longer can remember this in my own background, but what I’m seeing as people are learning it in front of me is that the first thing people have to learn in order to use The 12-Week Year is their own process.

Because as it turns out most of us, that’s just something we don’t even think of. It’s like when you make food in the kitchen and you know how your great-grandma from the old country, like she doesn’t have a recipe. She doesn’t know what she does. And you have to sit down and watch her.

And that’s what everyone I’m seeing go through, is they’ll make a 12-week plan and about two weeks into it, they have got to redo it because they didn’t know all the steps they actually do to write their novels or to write their book, didn’t even know they had that step. And so they’re like, oh my gosh, I forgot that I’m going to have to take three weeks to do this role building. You know, they’re making explicit, so that that’s actually another thing they all have in common, is they all need to learn their own process.

And you’re right writing is, everyone has their own process. It has the same basic chunks in there somewhere, but everyone does those a little differently. But what’s common is in order to plan and sort of organize ourselves to do it, you have to learn it. So that’s been a really interesting commonality.

Alison Jones: And it’s fascinating as well that you’ve actually got a system that can accommodate those individual quirks and preferences because so often, you know, people come along with a writing system and it worked for them, but…

Trevor Thrall: … and I’m curious to see who, you know, so far I don’t sense, I mean, I would say, let’s see, probably still a slight majority of the people in the writing group and people that I’m interacting with are fiction writers. Which is great to me because I wasn’t 100% sure whether The 12-Week Year would resonate with fiction writers the same way it does with sort of more left-brain academic types or business types and so on, which I sort of figured, you know, if 12-Week Year’s audience probably has big overlap with that group of writers would be my group, but a lot of fiction writers.

And I wasn’t sure they would like hearing from an academic, but I mean, the system resonates with people who want to increase the amount of sense of control they have over this process. And I think actually a lot of fiction writers struggle with that more than others because the way we think of creative writing is sort of the creative part. And we think of that as being very amorphous and not having parts, but being an unmanageable, big thing, but that’s not actually how creative people do their work. When you ask them to sit down and figure out what their steps are… And, there are a lot of books on novel writing and if you look into those books you can figure out that there are steps, right? And most of them have steps. The 27-chapter structure, the six stages of plot, the snowflake method, whatever. There are lots of them out there. They’re all great. You just have to find the one that works for you because it turns out that you are doing things in some order, you just might not know it. Even the creative stuff and yes, you can’t break it down like: ‘imagine the world’. Okay, that doesn’t have steps, but you can still write it down, you know, that you’re doing it.

Alison Jones: Love that. And I think there’s so many lessons actually for anybody, any kind of writing, from other kinds of writing. So cross-fertilizing is really invaluable.

 If I were to ask you for one tip and this is kind of cruel because you haven’t got just a tip, you’ve got a whole system and it’s all interdependent, however, I’m going to do it anyway. One tip for a first-time, specifically business book, author, what would you say?

Trevor Thrall: So I actually cheated a little bit because I knew you were going to ask this question. And so here’s my tip. Make a plan, make an outline of a short book that draws on your deepest area of expertise or authority.

Alison Jones: Tell me a bit more.

Trevor Thrall: So it’s really three tips buried into one. See how you got to.

Alison Jones: Don’t think I didn’t notice.

Trevor Thrall: Yes, you have got to have a plan.

You have to start with an outline because you can’t write a book. We don’t write books. We write a bunch of different pieces that end up being a book. So you first figure out what the topic is and what that outline looks like. It should be short because if you’re new to writing, if this is the first time you’re going to write a business book, you don’t want to be overwhelmed with the scale and scope of the project.

You’re also a busy person, so you don’t want to overwhelm yourself with another to do.

Alison Jones: Well, and your readers are busy, so…

Trevor Thrall: …and readers are busy. I mean, if you look at a bunch of the really, really, really popular business books out there, many of them are no more than a hundred pages long. Who’ve Moved My Cheese is 96 pages long. So a 20,000 word book is perfectly good.

 And especially if it’s your first book and likely, your best books are going to be the things that people know you for. So what do you already know well enough to teach people how to do? So if it’s stuff you’re teaching already, if it’s the stuff you’ve been studying for years, if it’s your greatest passion, those are the things that you want to write that first book for, because that’s your most confident step forward?

Alison Jones: And then put it into a 12-week plan, right?

Trevor Thrall: Oh, absolutely. I mean, without a question.

Alison Jones: And I’m going to ask you for recommendation of a book. I mean, obviously The 12-Week Plan For Writers. Yes. And.

Trevor Thrall: If I can’t offer you that one, so this is a tough one for me, because I read a lot. And so to limit myself to one is brutal. And I apologize if someone’s already offered this up in the recent past, but a smart young fellow named Tiago Forte has a book that’s coming out based on the course that he’s been teaching for many years, several years now anyway, it’s called Building a Second Brain. It’s available for pre-order right now. And it’s the second brain concept is sort of about note taking and kind of information management. So you can generate more ideas and more writing and stuff like that.

I’m a big fan of not only his writing, which is very wonderful but his business is really impressive. And so if you want to see how someone wrote a book based on their deep experience and authority. This is a phenomenal book. And what you can do is you can read the book and then you can subscribe to the blog and look through all the years.

Because you can see the whole book in blog post form coming in, sort of similar to how James Clear wrote Atomic Habits. You know, he spent years blogging and then wow there was a book Tiago has done the same sort of thing, I’m looking forward to reading the book.

Alison Jones: I haven’t heard of that one. It sounds really interesting. I wonder if he’s got anything on AI and how AI can support your kind of external brain as well? because I think there’s some really interesting stuff going on there. Yes.

Trevor Thrall: Very much so.

Alison Jones: …virtual assistants, brilliant.

Trevor if people want to find out more about you, more about The 12-Week Year For Writers, more about all the stuff that you do in your hustles and everything, where do they go?

Trevor Thrall: Yes. Yes, sure, that’s easy, it’s getyourwritingdone.com. I just decided to keep it straightforward. I’m a Midwesterner, we’re not very imaginative. I apologize for the lack of creativity there, but I didn’t want people to miss it. So I thought, what are those people trying to do?

So there you go, getyourwritingdone.com, and like I said, right now, the weekly writing groups are up and running and I have some spots left if people are interested and come January, I’ll have a new online course as well that really walks people through from start to finish, so that they’re ready to blast off using The 12-Week Year.

Alison Jones: Fantastic. And this it’s a really good time for people to start thinking about how they’re going to organize the coming year and get their writing done.

Trevor Thrall: New Year, new plans.

Alison Jones: Absolutely, brilliant. So much fun to talk to you, Trevor. Thank you. And yes, thank you so much for your time.

Trevor Thrall: Thank you for having me. Appreciate it.

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