I think you’ll agree with me when I say learning to write a book for the first time is a challenge. Let’s tackle that.
Over the past few years, I’ve written a 60,000+ word book about productivity, a novella and several short stories. I’ve also recently completed a 60,000+ word book about creativity.
I’ve faced a lot of painful mistakes while writing books, and I’ve also learned a little bit about how to write a book.
In this post, I want to explain exactly how to write a book based on what I’ve learned. I also want to reveal some of my mistakes and how you can avoid them, so you can get started writing a book today.
Although I write fiction and non-fiction, my specialism is non-fiction writing.
In this guide, I focus on how to write a non-fiction book. That said, you can still use some of the lessons from this post if you want to learn how to write a fiction book.
Commit to Writing Your Book
Writing a book is a time-consuming creative project that demands months (or even years) of your time.
Before you decide to write one ask yourself if you have the mental resources, the creative energy and the time to do it.
You do? Great.
Great. You’re going to have to write almost every day and sacrifice other things in your life or rearrange your day so you can put writing first, if only for a little while.
When I wrote my first book, I gave up playing Call of Duty and Halo because I didn’t have the time to write and to play games.
In other words, like anything worth doing, you must stick to your commitment when times get tough, when you feel like you’re not progressing as fast as you’d like or when the writing is more like work and less like something you’re passionate about.
You must adopt the mindset of a professional writer who doesn’t call in sick or give up because he or she doesn’t feel like doing the work, you must become a professional writer who goes in and gets the job done.
Know Why You’re Writing This Particular Book
Most people leave out how lonely the writing process feels when you’re starting off. You have to spend hours researching your book, writing and rewriting it, and sitting alone in a room with only your words and ideas for company.
If you’ve never written a book the isolation is difficult to get used to but don’t worry, it’ll pass as you get into the process of writing a book.
Now the people close to you may understand what you’re doing, but don’t count on it! Listen to this: one new writer struggling with his book emailed me to say: “One of the reasons I have not gone farther with writing is because family sees me working at a computer, or like today with a cell phone and thinks I’m goofing off.”
You’ll be able to handle isolation, other people’s judgments and keep motivated if you understand why you’re writing a book in the first place. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Is my book a passion project?
- Am I writing this book to improve my craft?
- Will this book help me advance my career or become an expert in my field?
- How will I serve existing or new readers with my book?
- Is a book the best medium for me to express my ideas?
- Do I want to generate a side-income from my book and if so, how much?
- Do I have a plan for the marketing, promotion and distribution of my book?
- Will this book help me advance my dream for writing full-time?
Have at least five to seven reasons for why you’re writing a book in the first place because they will help you keep motivated when you feel isolated or when others question what you’re doing.
Research Your Audience
Spend an hour or two browsing Amazon and finding Kindle books about your topic. Look for books in your niche with a sales ranking below 30,000.
Typically, these books sell at least five copies a day, meaning they’re popular with readers and earn a return for the author.
Read at least five of the books in your niche, taking note of the titles, categories and ideas behind each book.
So, how do you get new ideas for your book? Study the good and bad reviews for these books, so you can see what readers liked and disliked and how you can do better.
One great way to do this is to combine several different ideas from different books and then remix them with your writing. Figure out what you’re going to say that’s different because if you want to add value for readers, you must offer something other writers (your competition) don’t.
Establish What Your Book is About
Although you may have a vague idea of what you want to write about, you’ll save a lot of time if you clarify your idea before you start writing. Get a blank piece of paper and spend an hour asking and answering questions like:
- Who is this book for?
- What’s the big idea behind my book?
- What am I trying to say?
- How is my book different to everything else that’s out there?
- Why should people spend their money (or time) reading my book?
- What can I offer that no one else can?
Nobody has to see your answers, so be as honest as you can.
You might know what your book is about, but does your reader?
Unless you’re writing fiction or literary non-fiction, craft a positioning statement for your book, so you know what it’s about in one sentence.
Here are three templates:
My book helps ________________ who ________________ get ________________.
My book teaches ________________ how to ________________.
My book helps ________________ who ________________ achieve ________________.
And here’s my positioning statement for my book about creativity. “My book helps people who don’t think they’ve any ideas become more creative.”
Doing this extra work upfront will help you avoid spending hours writing a book, only to find you hate your idea. And if you’re self-publishing your book, your answers will also help you market your book so readers care.
Decide What Type of Writer You Are
There’s two types of writers: pantsters and plotters.
Pantsters are writers who sit down in front of the blank page with only a vague idea of where they are going or what the story is about. They write from the seat of their pants inventing things as they go along and are happy to see to see where their characters take them. They write with a connection to God, their muse or their sub-consciousness. Stephen King is a pantster.
Plotters are writers who spend weeks or months organising their ideas, deciding what they want to write about in advance. When plotters sit down to write, they have a strong idea of what they’re going to say and they’ve the research to back it up. Robert Greene, the author of Mastery and the 48 Laws of Power, is a plotter.
I’ve tried both approaches, and there’s nothing wrong with either.
You’ll discover what type of writer you are (and your voice will emerge) if you turn up and do the work.
Remember, as Seth Godin says, everybody’s writing process is different.
After years of painful rewrites, unfinished manuscripts and pulling my hair out, I found out that I’m a plotter. I like to know what I’m writing about in advance. I NEED to know what I’m writing about in advance. Today, I’m convinced being a plotter lends itself well to most types of non-fiction writing.
Budget for Your Book
I’ve written before about how much it costs to self-publish a book. Writing a book is free (unless you count your time) but publishing a book is not. So please, budget for hiring an editor, proofreader and a cover designer. Recently, I spent:
- USD2000 on an editor for a 60,0000-word book about creativity
- USD500 on a proofreader
- USD250 on a cover designer
And what else did I budget for?
Well because I’m self-publishing this book I set aside several hundred dollars for Facebook ads and for various book promotional services on Fiverr. You can get all of the above for cheaper (which I’ll explain), but please understand that having an editor, proofreader and cover designer is non-negotiable.
Here’s the truth: If you want to write a book readers enjoy, you must invest more than just time in your book.
Research Your Book
Robert Greene says he reads 300–400 books over the course of 12–24 months before he starts writing a book. He uses an analogue system of flashcards to record lessons and stories from each of these books and highlights what he reads. He says “I read a book, very carefully, writing on the margins with all kinds of notes. A few weeks later I return to the book, and transfer my scribbles onto note cards, each card representing an important theme in the book.”
You may not be writing a book as dense as Robert’s but research is an important part of learning how to write a book. Have a system for recording and organising your research.
You could use Evernote like I do, create a mind map or use index cards like Robert. I use my Kindle to highlight key sections in books I read. Once a week I review these highlights and record notes about them in Evernote. This way, I have a digital filing system of everything I’ve come across.
Interview Experts for Your Book
In another life I was a journalist, and part of my job involved interviewing politicians, business people and even authors.
Can I be honest with you?
The interviews that caused me the most problems were over 60 minutes long because they took hours to listen to and transcribe.
Don’t make my mistake. I recommend keeping your interviews between 30–60 minutes and working out what you want to ask interviewees about in advance.
You can also save a lot of time by getting your interviews transcribed for a dollar a minute using Rev.
Know When to Stop Researching and Start Writing
So, how much research is too much?
Well, Robert Greene’s books are dense 500+ page non-fiction books filled with historical stories and psychological insights. In other words, research forms the backbone of what Robert writes.
Your book might not depend on so much research up-front. There comes a point where research stops being helpful and transforms into a type of procrastination.
Besides, you can always continue to research you book as you write… once you have a system for capturing your ideas as you go.
Organise Your Ideas and Outline Your Book
I outlined my book about creativity in advance. I started by reading dozens of books about creativity over the course of a year before deciding to tackle this topic.
Then, I free wrote about creativity for an hour or so.
Then, I extracted the ideas I wanted to write about. I turned them into provisional chapter titles and recorded on them on twenty index cards, one for each chapter. On each card, I created a rough list of ideas in the form of five to ten bullet points. I also noted other books and stories to reference.
Then, I pinned these index cards to a wall near where I write so I could live with this outline for a few weeks. I spent several weeks working on this outline before transferring it to my computer and expanding upon each of the bullet points.
Why did I do this? I wanted to spend as much mental energy during the planning stage as I could so that when the time came to put words on the page, I wouldn’t have to worry as much about what I was saying.
Outlining my book with pen and paper, and then later with Evernote, helped me figure out what I wanted to write about in each chapter, identify gaps in my research and problems in my work UPFRONT.
Obviously, my outline and table of contents evolved while I was writing the book, but when I was starting from ‘Total word count: 0’, my outline served as a map. It saved me time and helped me beat procrastination.
Set a Deadline
Professional writers work to deadlines.
A typical non-fiction book is between 60,000 and 80,000 words, and a typical novel can be anywhere between 60,000 and 120,000 words. (That said, there’s a case for writing shorter non-fiction books if you’re self-publishing)
So, if you want to write a non-fiction book, and you commit to writing 1000 words a day, it will take you 60 days to write a first draft if you write every day.
Do you need to write every day? If this is your first book, it’s unrealistic to expect you can write every day for several months. Instead, aim to write five or six days a week. If you haven’t written much before, set a more achievable target daily word count along the lines of 300 or 400 words.
Then, with some basic maths and a calendar (I use Google’s), you can work out how long writing the first draft of your book will take and set yourself a deadline.
Write That Messy First Draft
Writing the first draft of a book is intimidating. You look at the blank page in front of you and you wonder how you’re going to fill this page and hundreds of other pages to come. Don’t overthink it.
Instead, find somewhere you can write quietly for an hour and do all you can to get the words out of your head and onto the blank page.
The first draft is sometimes called the vomit draft because you just need to get it out! Don’t stop to edit yourself, review what you’ve written or to see if what you’re saying makes sense.
I find it helpful to set a target word count for my writing sessions. I usually aim to write 1500 words in an hour, set a timer and open Scrivener. Then, I keep my fingers moving until I reach the target word count or until the buzzer sounds.
While you’re writing your first draft, keep your outline and notes nearby, to guide you through each section in your chapter.
My writing isn’t good enough, I feel like I’ll never finish my first draft! A writer asked me this question a few weeks ago.
First of all, the job of your first draft is simply to exist, so please don’t worry about the writing… that comes later. If you feel like you’ll never finish it, start writing in the middle of the chapter that’s causing your problems.
Here’s why: Introductions explain what you’re about to say next, but how can you write an introduction if you don’t know what comes next?
Similarly, conclusions wrap up what you just said, but how can you write one if you don’t know what you just said! Jumping straight into the middle of a chapter will help you gain momentum faster. Then, take your first draft chapter by chapter.
Tip: Speech to text software will help you write faster.
Manage Your Writing Time Like a Pro
I wrote my first book when I was working in a job I disliked, just after my wife had our daughter. I didn’t have enough free time to write eight hours a day. Even if I did, I lacked the mental discipline to do it.
When I was starting out, I wrote every night after 9 PM when the kids were in bed. However, I quickly found that when I put writing last in the day, it was least likely to happen.
Now, I block-book time in my calendar for writing every morning at 6 AM, and I do all I can stick to this. It helps that my daughter is now five. I
If you’re a new writer or you’ve never written a book before, you’re probably balancing writing your book with a job and family commitments. So, pick a time that you’re going to write every day, block-book it in your calendar and do all you can to stick to it.
Managing your writing time also means saying no to other activities and ideas… if they take you away from the blank page.
Did I ever tell you about the podcast I almost launched? Well, I had a great idea for a podcast, and I even bought all the audio equipment, but then I realised spending time on a podcast would have taken away from writing my creativity book.
Track Your Progress
Ernest Hemingway recorded his daily word count on a board next to where he wrote, so as not to kid himself.
Tracking your daily word count will help measure your word count and see how far you need to go to reach your target.
Your daily word count becomes less important when you’re writing the second and third draft or editing your book. During these rewrites, you should be more concerned about shaping your ideas and working on the flow and structure of your book than an arbitrary word count. When you’re at this point, it’s more helpful to know long you spend rewriting or editing your book.
No matter the stage of your book, you should be able to :
- Review your word count and how long you write for
- Identify if you reached any milestones like finishing a chapter or section
- See what’s holding you back
- Figure out what you need to write or research next
Remember, what gets measured gets managed and what gets managed, gets done.
Let Your Work Sit
When you’re finished your first draft, let it sit in your computer for a week or two and do something that has nothing to do with writing. Celebrate your success!
After spending weeks or months working on an idea, I find that the work becomes too hot to touch, let alone edit. When you let your writing sit for a while, the ideas cool down and your memory of it fades.
Once you’re ready, print out a draft of your book, sit down with a cup of coffee or tea, and read your draft in one or two sessions. When you read the draft, you’ll look at it and think ‘Oh yeah, I remember this’. Best of all? You’ll be able to see problems you missed previously.
Highlight and underline sections with a red pen that you need to change. Look for words and sentences to changes, ideas to remove and expand upon. Don’t change them now! Mark your manuscript with a pen and continue reading.
Please don’t feel disheartened if your prose disappoints. Ernest Hemingway said, “First drafts are shit” while the American novelist and editor Sol Stein likens the process of reviewing a first draft to performing triage on a patient.
Write Your Second and Third Drafts
Great writing is rewriting. Before you get into small changes during a rewrite, like tweaking a chapter title or editing a sentence, fix the big problems in your book.
What does this look like? While I was rewriting my creativity book, I dumped two unnecessary chapters and wrote a new one one. I also found additional research to back up holes in my arguments. Only then did I get into performing line-edits.
While rewriting ask yourself:
- Does my introduction invoke curiosity in the reader?
- Have I told stories in my work?
- How can I strengthen my arguments?
- How can I bring an original insight to my work?
- Do I invoke at least one of the five senses in each page of my work?
- What’s the weakest part of this chapter? Now can I cut it?
- Have I eliminated as many unnecessary adverbs and adjectives form my work as possible?
- Have I removed every cliché?
You may perform the process of writing, reviewing, editing and rewriting several times before you’re happy with your book. Take it sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph and chapter by chapter.
As you work, your book will teach you how to write it.
But what if you still need help? Well, Stephen King advises: “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.” While working on your second or third draft, enlist the help of a family member, friend and later an editor and ask them to provide frank feedback about your work.
Hire an Editor
You may be able to write the first or second or even third draft alone, but at some point you need outside help.
When you’re immersed in a writing project it’s difficult to see gaps in your research, stories that don’t work, chapters that are too long. And so on. If you’re encountering roadblocks, you can waste a lot of time trying to get around them yourself.
Editors are trained professionals whose job it is to turn manuscripts into something that readers enjoy. A good editor will help you write a far better book and improve your craft as a writer. They’ll also help you speed up the process of rewriting your book.
Like any professional, editors are not free. You’ll have to hire one in advance and give them several weeks to review your book. Depending on the length of your book, you can spend anywhere between 500 and several thousand dollars on an editor.
Getting frank editorial feedback about your work is difficult to take. There are times when you should ignore criticism, but in this case, your editor’s feedback is about your work and not about you.
After a book cover, budgeting for an editor is one of the most important things that you must do if you’re going to publish the book that you’ve just written.
Hire a Proofreader
You could try proofing your book yourself, but I don’t recommend it. It’s time-consuming, and because you’re so close to the material, you will inevitably overlook some typos and mistakes.
I wasted a lot of time trying to proof my first book myself, only to have readers email me about the typos. I don’t know about you, but typos keep me up at night!
In the end, I hired a proofreader, asked them to fix my book and re-uploaded the proofed version to Amazon.
Instead, I recommend hiring a proofreader or giving chapters of your book to beta readers, family and friends to check. Hiring a proofreader will cost several hundred dollars depending on the length of your book.
Giving chapters of your book to trusted friends and family shouldn’t cost you much (beyond returning the favour!), but you’ll need to be sure they’re eagle-eyed.
Formatting and Publishing Your Book
Covering how to self-publish a book is a post in itself. Suffice to say, Scrivener simplifies the process of formatting your book for Amazon and other online stores. There’s a modest learning curve, but it’s time well-spent.
Gwen Hernandez book Scrivener for Dummies explains all you need to know.
The other thing you’ll need to do is hire a cover designer, and I recommend 99 Designs.
It’s relatively easy to upload your ebook and cover to Amazon and the other sites. However, if you want to learn more about self-publishing, I recommend reading Joanna Penn’s Successful Self-Publishing. Chandler Bolt has also put together free video training that will teach you about self-publishing (Chandler and his team also blog about self publishing).
Know When You’re at The End
It takes a tremendous amount of hard-work and mental discipline to write a book and most people spend more time talking about writing their book instead of turning up and doing the work.
It also takes guts to know when you’re done. Please, don’t fall victim to perfectionism. When you’re done, you’re done.
There will always be a gap between what you want to write and what you end up writing… but you can narrow this gap with each book that you finish.
Whatever happens once you finish writing your book, congratulations! Celebrate your success then act on your plan for publishing your book or start writing the next one. Because the best way to sell the last book is to write a better one.