How I Organized the Writing of The Business of Walt Disney and the Nine Principles of His Success | Part 4: Writing the First Draft

[Other posts in this series can be found here.]

Starting with my original Internet essay “Walt Disney and His Business Philosophy in Action” as a sketched out framework, I began to fill in the chronology of Walt’s career based on my own assessment of key events and without getting caught up in too much detail. I read the best-known Walt Disney biographies and marked up the sections highlighting the business-related facts potentially pertinent to the thesis of my book and the story I wanted to tell about the challenges faced by entrepreneurs in creating something of value to consumers.

I also made notes in the margins and captured my thoughts on issues in a notebook or my computer. Typically, I would write a quote with a book and page reference, followed by my thoughts on presenting a particular issue. Or I would write a condensation or summary of events in my own words based on research to convey aspects of a story.

Here are some examples.

Bob Thomas in WDAAO [Walt Disney: An American Original]. “Frank Thomas remarked that Disney always sought a positive atmosphere in meetings: ‘If you said no to his proposal, he’d say, ‘why the hell can’t I do that? We’re trying to get ideas here. Maybe we won’t get any good ones, but we sure won’t if you take a negative attitude.’” P. 10.

John Hench, Designing Disney, P. 139. “I watched Walt go through two or three disasters and in every case it only took him a day to recover. Walt was always able to think through a problem to see what benefits might lie in misfortune.”

On December 12, 2013, I wrote the following in my notebook.

Where animation in the early years was a job or a commercial venture for most studios – for Walt it became a devotion. He was committed to the potential of animation, more than he was committed to making commercially successful cartoons. While the sheer amount of physical work in the form of drawing and photography was overwhelming to create an animated film WD proceeded with a larger purpose and a commitment more than a plan that he would discover and leverage the potential. Walt was on a mission, doing what he loved, learning and discovering along the way, and he would not be stopped by the mundane.

As a result, notes Don Peri, “In just a few years, Walt had almost singlehandedly raised the quality of cartoons from a novelty to an art form.” (Working With Walt, p. xix.)

Another entry:

Walt saw aspects that created authenticity but cost money as value adding to the customer experience. Others looked at these things more narrowly by assessing the individual value of each specific thing, instead of considering the entire system as a totality. From one perspective, a bathroom [at Disneyland] is a necessary waste, but from Walt’s perspective, it is part of the total value.

“Feelings are also facts,” I wrote in one entry. “WD focused on feelings – emotions – and leveraged them in his delivery of entertainment. Feelings arise from values, and WD focused on those values that are universally sought – love, affection, friendship, community.”

Sometimes I’d relate aspects of the WD story to other things I had read. I have quotes from author Ayn Rand about creativity and references to Elliott Jaques and Requisite Organization theory. Here’s an entry on January 1, 2014: “Much of WD’s creativity came from questioning assumptions. Assumption denial – see Ackoff, Beat The System. Question assumptions and think through the implications.”

Some notes were reminders to myself: “Relate Mike Vance’s Fig breakfast story. Walt didn’t want to spend time with people who wouldn’t think on their own.”

Others were pointers to specific topics, like Walt’s sense of humor: “Another example of sense of humor similar to Ollie’s with the train was Grumpy’s large finger and Walt constantly referring to it, bothering Freddie Moore. [WP, Vol. 10, p. 124]. This can be interpreted as relentless bullying or as humor. It is important to note OJ’s words: “They had a really good relationship…. Fred could talk to him without being inhibited at all.”

With each book or interview or article I read I would do the same thing – mark in the margins the parts of the book that were valuable to me and take notes. Doing this enable me to rely on the original research by these biographers, with each resource bringing new facts and stories to the party and interpreting things differently.

After reading the key Walt Disney biographies and rereading the Bob Thomas biography of Roy O. Disney, Building A Company: Roy O. Disney and the Creation of an Entertainment Empire, which I had read when first published in 1998, I read the many autobiographies, memoirs and biographies of artists and people who worked for or crossed paths with Walt and the Disney Studio at some point in their career.

And then there were essays and articles in books and available on the Internet dealing with different aspects of Disney history, including such things as Harvard Business Review case studies. There are also books about the major animated movies with well-researched histories where I could draw out pieces of the business story as distinct from the artistic and technical aspects.

Sources of The Business of Walt Disney Research (Photo by Barry L. Linetsky, © 2017, All Rights Reserved)

Among the most important research sources available to me were the thousands of published pages of transcribed interviews with artists and others who worked directly with Walt and at the studio under Walt’s leadership. This material has been made available to everybody thanks to the work and vision of Didier Ghez. At the time of this writing there are twenty-one volumes of transcribed interviews under the title Walt’s People, edited by Ghez and published by Theme Park Press, with still more on the way.

Many of these interviews are published transcripts of the original interviews of Walt’s colleagues conducted by Walt’s early biographers, giving interested readers access to the original sources used in earlier Walt Disney biographies, and the same material that these pioneering Disney historians had in hand as they wrote their ground-breaking biographies.

There are other collections of transcribed interviews published by Don Peri (Working With Walt and Working with Disney) and David Johnson (Snow White’s People).

So, as I read each book, article, or interview, I would take notes and write. At the beginning I would take my written notes and enter them into my computer in appropriate chronological sections that served as file folders for each book chapter. In general, most days for years, when my time wasn’t consumed by management consulting projects,  I would  sit with a book at my computer to capture the information, stories, and quotes I felt were important to the narrative I was creating. I would make notes and write into the appropriate sections, and then move on to the next resource.

When I had decided I had done enough to sufficiently capture the details accurately, and had exhausted the key resources available to me, I considered the research portion of my process to be done. Of course, one can always do more, but I was satisfied I had the key components of the Walt Disney business story from beginning to end.

If and when I later discovered something new, I would go back and add the new facts or change the narrative as appropriate, in the spirit of accuracy.

I easily read and referenced over 100 books in researching and writing TBWD, and hundreds of essays and interviews to discover details and ensure the story was appropriately detailed and accurate.

Once I had compiled my notes and narrative on my computer, I went back and rewrote everything. This was the process of converting notes into a manuscript. The challenge here was to try to create a coherent and connected fact-based narrative, with the sources of key facts properly identified and footnoted.

At the end of this process, I had what I considered to be the first draft. It was a bit of a dog’s breakfast as they say, but the key content I wanted was captured. The key sources I wanted to include had been exhausted.

I considered this to be the first draft of my book – a key milestone. At some point one just has to stop and move on.

© 2019, Barry L. Linetsky. All Rights Reserved. 

Barry Linetsky is the author of the acclaimed book The Business of Walt Disney and the Nine Principles of His Success (Theme Park Press), and an Honorary Disney History Institute Historian. Barry is a writer, photographer, researcher, and business strategy enabler.

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