As a best-selling author, one of the questions I get asked the most is how to write a book.
A lot of people have a book they want to write one day. But the task of writing it seems so overwhelming and grand from the start that, invariably, they put it off.
It’s time to stop that nonsense and get started.
The topic of how to write a book essentially breaks down into two areas:
- How to write a book
- How to get your book published
In this article, I’ll tackle how to write the actual book.
To go into the full details on publishing would require a separate post. And until you’ve figured out how to write a book, if you enjoy writing and if it’s worth investing your time in there’s no point in really going into detail on all the publishing options.
You can figure that out later.
People get so bogged down in the question of “But how will I find a publisher?” when really the first question you should be asking yourself is “Do I have a book?”.
Let’s start there.
Note: I’ve broken this post up into 4 parts, corresponding to the different stages of writing, in order to make it more manageable to take in.
If you’d like to skip ahead to any particular section just click one of the links below.
Part 1: Before You Start Writing a Book
Step 1 – Find Your Idea
Whether it’s a fiction or nonfiction book there should be an idea for your book. There’s no need to get caught up in the details yet but what is the idea?
How is the idea for your book different?
Why do you think the book will interest people?
A lot of people say they want to write a book because they’ve lived an interesting life and therefore want to tell their story.
But any story you tell isn’t for you, it’s for your readers.
If you just want to tell a story for yourself, write a journal.
Make sure your idea is strong from the standpoint of those who will be reading it.
Will the idea allow you to build sufficient excitement for readers or share enough useful information?
You should be able to articulate what the unique idea of your book is clearly in a paragraph before you even think about starting to write.
Step 2 – Establish Your Writing Schedule
I’ve heard Tim Ferriss say hundreds of times that all the great writers he knows write at night.
What a load of boo-hockey (I promised myself I wouldn’t swear in this article, trying something new!).
Different people work best at different times of the day.
And different people are more creative at different times of the day.
Find your time.
Do not let anyone bully you into thinking you have to write at night, or any other particular time of day, in order to be a great writer.
The writing schedule Ferriss talks about would annihilate my creativity.
I write best in the morning.
Early-morning, with a clear head.
That morning time can even extend as far as till 3pm for me (especially if I forget to eat). But nighttime? Not a chance.
I’m slow at night. My brain just isn’t firing off in the same way.
Try writing at a few different times of day that suit your schedule and work out which one will be the most productive for you.
Step 3 – Believe You Can Do It
When I started writing my first book I didn’t believe I could do it. I put off writing the book for six months for that reason until one day I decided to simply start.
Whilst I still didn’t believe I could do it what I did believe I could do is write down the thoughts I had in my head about the book.
And keep writing them down.
So can you.
That’s all you have to do. Start.
Maybe, in the end, it won’t be enough for a book and you decide to abandon the project altogether.
But you’ll never know unless you begin.
Bonus Tip: If you’re ever feeling really doubtful as to whether you’ve got what it takes to be a writer, read a book by another published author in which the writing could not possibly be described as anything other than abysmal.
It will remind you that, worst-case scenario, you can do better than that!
Part 2: How to Write the Book
Step 4 – Sit Down and Write
School of the bleeding obvious here I know but really, you need to sit your arse down and write.
And you need to write without thinking too much.
If you spend your whole time worrying about whether every single sentence is constructed correctly you’re never going to write anything.
The first thing you need to do is write.
Don’t worry about how good it is, or how perfect it is. Write what it is that you want to write.
Even if it’s dreadful, it doesn’t matter.
No one’s going to see it but you.
The first draft should always be for your eyes only.
“In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts. The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.”
If you write with the awareness that no one will ever see what you’re writing and without second-guessing yourself on every little thing you will get into a state of flow.
Writing works best when you’re in a state of flow.
And it feels fantastic too.
Flow is when the activity you’re engaged in just happens. You almost don’t need to think about it anymore but you’re not thinking about anything else either. You’re entirely focused on that task at hand and it is literally flowing out of you.
So much so you could forget to eat or move.
It’s just happening almost independently from your body.
“And work itself, after awhile, takes on a rhythm. The mechanical begins to fall away. The body begins to take over. The guard goes down. What happens then?
And then the men are happily following my last advice:
Which results in more relaxation and more unthinkingness and greater creativity.”
You only get into a state of flow from writing in an uninhibited manner.
Don’t worry, you will come back and fix it but now is not the time.
Step 5 – Keep Track of Things to Amend
To get into a state of flow and write without interruptions obviously turning off your internet is very helpful.
Turning the internet off means you can’t stop, “just quickly” fact-check something and end up in a black hole of cat videos on YouTube.
You have to keep writing.
There should be no fact checking in the initial laying down of your ideas and content.
But, so that you know what to check later, include a marker in your text. This way it doesn’t break your flow but it will allow you to easily come back and double-check all elements that you noted.
I, for example, include “(@check)” at any point in my text where I will need to come back to something.
That way at the end of writing you can just hit “Search in document” and search for whatever symbol you used as your marker to go back to and check your content when you’ve turned the internet back on.
Step 6 – Structure
A lot of people think structure should come first in writing.
Having a pre-determined structure constrains you and therefore makes it much harder to get into a state of flow. Having one means that every time you veer out of that structure you’ll be telling yourself off and thinking you’ve failed.
Structure is extremely important.
But the time for it is after you’ve written your first draft.
Writing has a mind of its own and sometimes what we think we’ll write isn’t what we end up writing.
Ideas change as we write them down, explore them and expand on them.
Characters develop their own free will and go off and do things we never expected.
That’s why I encourage anyone who wants to write a book to just write it first.
Then you can go through and tear it to shreds; get rid of all the rubbish and re-order it into something that is structured and clear.
As Stephen King puts it in On Writing, when talking about writing fiction books:
“I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.”
He said that because he believes in putting characters into situations and then watching what they do.
The same is true for writing nonfiction books.
You start with your idea and how you think your subject will help people but you have to start writing before you know exactly where that idea will take you.
Sometimes your ideas and characters have plans that differ from your own.
Let your characters and your ideas play first.
You can scold them later.
Step 7 – Research
You should set aside separate time to learn everything you can about the subject you’re writing about, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction.
Learning about those ideas and characters will likely incite a fire and anger in you that makes you almost unable to do anything other than write.
Sometimes your inspiration or excitement will waver.
Go get yourself mad and get it back.
Obviously, fact-checking becomes even more important with nonfiction but most good fiction books are researched thoroughly too as you can’t draw a reader into a story if they keep finding gaping holes and factually incorrect information.
Plus the more information you collect the more material you will have to use as inspiration at your disposal.
“Always collect more material than you will use.
Every article is strong in proportion to the surplus of details from which you can choose the few that will serve you best”
Step 8 – Set a Daily Word Count
Depending on how motivated you are to write your book, and how much time you have to spare, you may not need to set a daily word count in order to keep the momentum going.
But if you’re struggling, setting a daily word count is a really helpful tool to keep you going when things get tough.
And they will get tough.
Having a daily word count to stick to will allow you to figure out when your book will be completed and therefore provide you with a solid goal to work towards in order to keep your motivation strong through the hard times.
All you need to do is set what you think will be a manageable daily word count for yourself, decide roughly how many words you think the book will be and then calculate how long completing it will take as a result.
To give you an idea, you should be aiming for a minimum of 20,000 words if your book is going to be a short e-book but most nonfiction books are about 40,000-60,000 words and most fiction ones 60,000-80,000.
Part 3: Overcoming Blocks and Improving Your Writing
Step 9 – Get in the Zone Instantly
If you’re going to be writing every day being able to get yourself in the zone, the state of flow I referred to in Step 4, as quickly as possible each time you sit down at your desk will greatly increase your productivity.
Building a routine around your writing will make this much easier to do.
It’s up to you to choose whichever anchors you feel will most quickly snap your brain back to your optimal writing state.
Some people do it with a ritual they perform before sitting down to write; from pouring a certain drink to doing some stretches or breathing in a certain way.
I do it with a musical trigger. I have three playlists on my computer that I use just for writing.
As soon as I sit down to write I put one of them on.
Since that’s the only music I listen to while writing, my brain has connected those songs with a state of flow and almost as soon as I start listening to them now, that’s exactly where my mind goes.
It’s a trigger, the same as Pavlov’s dogs and the bell.
Your trigger is just going to be set to cause you to get into a state of flow as quickly as possible rather than to salivate. That’s the only difference.
Step 10 – Overcome Writers’ Block
I have a number of techniques to get over this, a lot of which are similar to how I encourage people to improve their creative thinking skills, but the first thing I will say on this is:
STOP USING WRITERS’ BLOCK AS AN EXCUSE.
If it was your job, your full-time paid job, to write and you had deadlines every day to deliver written work, you sure as hell wouldn’t be sitting there at any point going “Oh I can’t write today, I have writers’ block”.
Yes, sometimes writing will be harder than other times and sometimes you will feel like the well is dry, but it isn’t.
You need to stop allowing yourself to believe that writers’ block is real. That doesn’t mean there won’t be times when writing isn’t harder than others but what you’re feeling isn’t an immovable block that you can use as an excuse not to do anything.
You simply need to kick-start your creativity again to get through the rough patch:
3 Tips to Kick-Start Your Creativity Again
1. Read an Inspiring Book
Reading is the best inspiration for writing. It sparks off new ideas in us and improves our writing skills by seeing how other writers structure their stories and sentences.
It’s a tool you should be using all the time anyway, see Step 11 below, but when a quick burst of inspiration is needed reading is one of the fastest ways to start those sparks firing off again in your head.
Ten minutes of reading might be all you need.
2. Get Out the House
Go for a walk or a run. Go do something fun with your friends. Go out dancing.
Go do something.
You don’t have to be sat at your desk to write.
In fact, going out and living life is essential to writing. It’s the source of almost all inspiration.
“In a lifetime we stuff ourselves with sounds, sights, smells, tastes, and textures of people, animals, landscapes, events, large and small. We stuff ourselves with these impressions and experiences and our reaction to them. These are the stuffs, the foods, on which The Muse grows…
What is The Subconscious to every other man, in its creative aspect becomes, for writers, The Muse…
Here is the stuff of originality.
For it is in the totality of experience reckoned with, filed, and forgotten, that each man is truly different from all others in the world… All that is most original lies waiting for us to summon it forth.”
Zen in the Art of Writing
On top of this, as well as life being the source of almost all creative inspiration we have, when we take a break from forcing our heads to think about something ideas start to flow again. Doing other activities, or what some might call procrastination, actually allows our brain to work through the problem and form connections in a way we wouldn’t otherwise have done while staring at a blank piece of paper.
As Benedict Carey points out in the brilliant book How We Learn:
“The mind works on the problem off-line, moving around the pieces it has in hand and adding one or two it has in reserve but didn’t think to use at first.”
3. If All Else Fails, Just Start Writing
Even if you’re writing nonsense to start, keep writing and at some point the nonsense will turn into an idea.
If you’ve set a daily word count you need to meet, as per Step 8, that will mean you have to keep writing anyway. Even if you start by feeling like you have nothing to say. Putting in the seat time matters.
“If I sit there long enough, something will happen.”
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
Step 11 – Read, Read and Read Some More
I mentioned this above, in relation to overcoming writers’ block, but reading is one of the single most important habits someone who wants to be an author can build. I read prolifically and take meticulous notes on everything I read.
Doing so allows me to discover new ideas, to see the world in different ways and to improve my writing skills all at the same time.
All creativity comes from us connecting ideas and information in new and different ways.
Therefore to be a great writer you need to take in as many ideas and as much information as possible.
You should be reading a lot before you start writing, while you’re writing and once you think you’re done.
The more you read, the better a writer you will become.
“You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so. It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written…
If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.
Simple as that.
Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life.”
All of the books I’ve quoted here I didn’t read for this article, I read them because I love reading.
And what it means for me as a writer is that when I sat down to write, I had all these resources and references ready and available to use in the back of my mind.
Some of these books I haven’t read in years, but the seeds they planted are still there and appear at moments when they could be used to back up a point or bring it to life in a different way.
Reading is the research we do for writing over our entire lives.
Step 12 – Keep pushing
There’s a point in writing where it’s going to get really hard. Where you’ve done most of the fun part and you feel so close to finishing but yet actually having a published book still feels so far away that you just want to give up.
Maybe, for you, this will kick in once you’ve written three-quarters of the manuscript or maybe you’ll be like me and it will hit you when you start editing and have to tear apart your baby (trust me, that’s what your book will feel like by then).
For me, editing is the hardest.
I could happily write a thousand books and articles but once I know I have to edit them I become the biggest procrastinator in the world.
Sometimes I find that when I feel like giving up and just never finishing a book, or article, I have to take myself away from it for a few days.
Then come back, continually reminding myself that this last push may feel like the hardest but the feeling at the end when it’s done will be worth it.
And I promise you it will be worth it.
As Napoleon Hill says in Think and Grow Rich:
“Before success comes in any man’s life, he is sure to meet with much temporary defeat, and, perhaps, some failure. When defeat overtakes a man, the easiest and most logical thing to do is to quit. That is exactly what the majority of men do.
More than five hundred of the most successful men this country has ever known told the author their greatest success came just one step beyond the point at which defeat had overtaken them.”
Take that last step.
Part 4: Editing
Step 13 – Amending the Structure of the Book
Any book, fiction or nonfiction, needs an introduction and a conclusion as part of its structure but I’ll cover that in Step 15.
This is just about the body of the book.
When looking at what you’ve written in your first draft, look at it like you would a business presentation.
What are the unifying themes and thoughts and ideas in each chapter at the moment?
Write them down and put them on Post-It notes.
Then plot them out in the order they currently are along a wall.
Ask yourself, honestly:
- Does the current progression make the most sense?
- Are there any ideas which could be grouped together in sections within the book, especially if it’s nonfiction you’re writing?
- Is the escalation of climaxes and challenges faced by your characters progressing in a way that will hold the reader’s attention till the end?
- Do events need to be moved around?
Looking at what you’ve written in terms of the themes of each section of the book will help you see the current overarching structure without the details distracting you.
And from that more removed standpoint it’s much easier to see what it would help to change.
Like with presentations, people tend to forget that the aim isn’t just to get it over and done with.
The aim shouldn’t simply be to finish writing your book so you can say “Phew I did it”.
The aim to take people on a journey, either an entertaining one, a persuasive or an informative one.
Taking a step back from the book, and laying the structure out on Post-It notes, really allows you to make the sort of large amends to the narrative progression that likely need to take place.
Step 14 – Editing the Copy
Editing your book is just as important as how you write it.
As discussed above the initial draft of your book is more similar to a brain dump than anything else.
And then the hard work begins.
There is the editing of the structure, as looked at above, but also the editing of the words and sentences themselves.
When editing always keep these 3 rules in mind:
1.The Simpler the Better
Using a longer more complicated word does not make you a better writer. The point of writing is communication so whichever word most clearly communicates what you want the reader to understand is the one you should use.
“Remember that the basic rule of vocabulary is to use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful. If you hesitate and cogitate you will come up with another word – of course you will, there’s always another word – but it probably won’t be as good as your first one or as close to what you really mean.
This business of meaning is a very big deal…the word is only a representation of the meaning; even at its best writing almost always falls short of full meaning.”
2. Cut It All
Editing is largely an exercise in deleting what doesn’t need to be there.
The aim is to communicate what you intend to in the most succinct way possible.
Cut out all words, sentences and paragraphs that don’t need to be there for your text to make sense.
“The adjective that exists solely as decoration is a self-indulgence for the writer and a burden for your reader.”
On Writing Well
For example, if a writer describes the sea as blue or the sand as yellow, neither of these characteristics are unusual for that object so nothing has been added by the inclusion of that description.
3. Choose the Right Word, Don’t Amend It
Don’t say someone was extremely tired, say they were exhausted.
If you’re having to use an adverb to modify the verb you’ve chosen ask yourself whether there’s a more appropriate verb that would describe that state or action instead.
Did she walk quickly back and forth or pace?
Did he hit the ball forcefully or did he whack it?
When I wrote in Step 2 about Tim Ferriss’s writing schedule, I didn’t stay that his schedule would “completely destroy my creativity” even though that would be true. I said it would “annihilate my creativity” because that’s the more accurate word to use which encompasses the whole of that description in one.
It doesn’t need a modifier.
Sometimes an adverb is needed but a lot of the time the right solution would be to choose a better word.
Not a fancier word necessarily, see editing tip 1, but a word that more accurately describes the thing you’re trying to say.
Again, the aim is clarity of meaning in the most succinct manner possible.
Step 15 – Nailing the Introduction & Conclusion
“Your lead must capture the reader immediately and force him to keep reading. It must cajole him with freshness, or novelty, or paradox, or humor, or surprise, or with an unusual idea, or an interesting fact, or a question. Anything will do, as long as it budges his curiosity and tugs at his sleeves.”
On Writing Well
How you write the introduction to your book is almost as important as how you write the book itself.
If you don’t write the introduction well no one’s going to find out how great the rest of your book is, or isn’t.
The introduction to your book, or first Chapter, needs to hook readers immediately. It needs to draw them in.
Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction.
Simply because someone has your book in their hands it doesn’t mean they’re going to read all of it.
And you spent all that time writing it. You want people to actually read it.
How much intrigue, excitement or suspense the first few paragraphs of your book contain will determine how engaged a mindset the reader has going into your book.
That said until you’ve written all of the book and let your characters/ideas go as they please you won’t be able to settle on what that introduction or conclusion should be.
When starting your book, just write something as the introduction.
And then when you’ve actually finished the book write what will really be the beginning and the conclusion.
For those writing nonfiction, depending on the exact topic, it can help to write a recap of what people have learnt in the book as your conclusion so your reader walks away clear on the value they got from your book. Or if it’s a tough task you’ve set them up for, leave them with an inspirational message.
Speaking of which…
If you follow the 15 steps above, the process of creating that book that’s been gnawing away at your insides for years will be much simpler.
And much less painful than it might otherwise be.
Writing, when it works, is honestly one of the most beautiful activities we can have the privilege to take part in.
I’ve included a lot of quotes from other authors in this article since what you’ll discover as you write more is that sometimes you’ll need to hear their voices. You’ll need your long-distant colleagues close through the dark times. Just because you haven’t met them, doesn’t mean they can’t cheer you on.
“Writing can give you what having a baby can give you: it can get you to start paying attention, can help you soften, can wake you up”
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
Writing is hard sometimes but there is such beauty to be found in it too. Use this guide to take you through the practical process of how to write a book, but when you feel your soul needing a boost, grab one of the books by the people I’ve quoted in this article.
They got you.
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