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How to write a book: Even if you don’t know what to write about
Now that I have written several books, people often ask me how to start writing a book. They say “I want to write a book, but I can’t get started,” or they say, “I don’t know what to write about,” or ask me “how long does it take to write a book?” If you need help writing a book for the first time, the following is what I would suggest.
Here are shortcut links to the various sections in this post:
- Step 1: Start with a tiny writing habit
- Step 2: Learn about books before you write a book
- Step 3: Build a publishing habit
- Step 4: Build an email list
- Step 5: Write a book title that will sell
- Step 6: Write an outline for your book
- Step 7: Write the first draft of your book
- Step 8: Read the first draft of your book
- Step 9: Restructure your outline
- Step 10: Write your second draft
- Step 11: Write your final draft
Step 1: Start with a tiny writing habit
Turn your writing into a habit. Find a ten-minute window each day where you’ll have the best chance of completing your habit. Most people keep habits best if they do them in the morning. The chaos of life hasn’t gotten a chance to throw all of your intentions off-track. You’ll have a better chance of keeping your habit if you put it after a habit you already have. Maybe right after you brush your teeth, you write.
Make your writing habit tiny
Aim for a volume of writing that is way below your ability. I’m a big fan of one-hundred words (take my free 100-Word Writing Habit course), but it may be fifty. Keep in mind that you’re merely trying to build a habit. It doesn’t matter how big the habit is.
If you want to keep going after you’ve hit your target word count, keep going. Do not punish yourself by burning yourself out. Your goal is to feel good about writing today, so you’ll want to write again tomorrow. Quit whenever you like.
Step 2: Learn about books before you write a book
If you haven’t published a book before, you may not know what a book is. I say this because even after I had published one best-seller, I still didn’t know what a book was.
A book is a product
A book is no different from any other product. People buy books to get something. They might want to learn something, they might want to make a personal transformation, they might just want to escape for a bit during their train ride to work, or they might buy a book so they can say they’re reading it and feel smart at parties.
Get your free Kindle-sample education
If you have some idea of what kind of book you want to write, start with books like that. If you have no idea, look at your favorite book and download Kindle samples of the related books under “customers also bought.”
Set aside an hour sometime, and read a Kindle sample. Ask yourself, Why would somebody buy this book?
Do this on a regular basis. Once in awhile you’ll read a sample of a book that you can’t help but buy. Take note of that, and pay attention to your internal monologue as you read and decide to buy.
Step 3: Build a publishing habit
After you’ve had a writing habit for a month or so, start building a publishing habit. There are two key points of resistance in writing: Quieting your internal critic enough to actually do the writing, and quieting the imaginary critics you hear when you think about publishing.
Publish somewhere – I recommend Medium
Publish anywhere people have a chance to see your work. You could go through the trouble to create a WordPress blog, but I’m personally a big fan of publishing on Medium. Medium gives you two of the most valuable things you could have as a writer: Readers, and feedback.
Turn your writing habit into a publishing habit. Publish a post of every day on Medium. You can set a lower post-length limit that you allow yourself to exceed, such as 100 words.
When you set a target word count, you get better at expressing your ideas in that length. You get better at keeping yourself from going on tangents, and your writing gets tighter. 250, 500, and 1,000-word posts – and multi-thousand-word pieces like this one, all have a different flow to them. It’s helpful to master one length before you attempt another length.
Use tags to get in front of readers
Be sure to add “tags” to your posts so there’s a chance someone will read them. As you add a tag while publishing a post, you’ll see a little number next to the name of the tag. That tells you how many people are following a tag.
Read your comments
Eventually, people will start commenting on your posts. This is where you start seeing how well your writing is working.
Your job as a writer is to write so engagingly and clearly that your readers turn off their podcasts, sit up in their seats, and pay attention. Then your job is to write so that the thoughts you want to put in their brains successfully make it into their brains.
You can respond if you want to thoughtful comments, but don’t stress about it. For negative comments, take a deep breath, try to understand, look for constructive criticism, and – if there are more productive ways you can use your precious energy – ignore.
You’ll also start seeing highlights on your post. I can’t stress enough how valuable these are. This alone gives Medium an edge over any other place you can publish your work.
Each time you see a highlight someone has made, read it over and over again. Ask yourself what it was about that statement that stood out for them.
Over time, you gain a sense of what people will highlight. While you’re writing, see if you can tell ahead of time what the most popular highlight will be.
Step 4: Build an email list
Having an email list – where people can sign up to hear about your work via email – isn’t a requirement to write a book. But, it makes going through the work of writing a book worthwhile.
If you have a couple hundred people who you already know are interested in reading your work, it’s much easier to find the motivation to write your book.
Which email marketing platform should you use? I personally use Active Campaign, which offers a lot of control. I’ve written detailed comparison of email marketing platforms, such as ConvertKit vs Active Campaign, and Mailchimp vs ActiveCampaigne. Or you can try out an ActiveCampaign free trial.
Step 5: Write a book title that will sell
Coming up with a good book title is worth writing a book about. There are so many factors to consider. Here’s just a few:
- What keywords will people use to search for the book?
- How does it feel to tell someone you’re reading a book of that title?
- Is it an easy title to understand when spoken?
- Does the title sound cool? Does it have a nice rhythm that rolls off the tongue?
- What are secondary meanings of the words in the title? Does it conjure up imagery that supports or detracts from what you want to convey?
Step 6: Write an outline for your book
It’s much easier to write about what you know. It’s also much easier to know something once you’ve written about it.
By this point, you’ve been writing every day for a few months, and you’ve been publishing every day for a couple of those months. Eventually, you form a point of view about an entire subject. When you have a point of view about a subject, you find that writing an outline about it is much easier.
This isn’t something you’ll get right the first time. You may try this early on in your writing quest, and find it difficult. If you keep revising your outline every once in awhile, you’ll find that it starts to solidify.
Step 7: Write the first draft of your book
Plan out roughly how many words each section will be, and plan out how many words you can write on each day. Put your writing sessions on your calendar. If you’ve been keeping a writing and publishing habit, it should be easy to know what time works best for you, and to feel confident you can stick to your schedule.
Step 8: Read the first draft of your book
Print out your first draft. Leave a wide margin on the right side of your document, and print on only one side of each page, so you have space to write. I take it to the Office Depot down the street, and I clamp together the pages with a binder clip. Then, I go sit outside at a cafe in the temperate Medellín air.
Reading your book on paper, with no computer and your mobile device hidden away, brings you a new level of focus. You need it, because you’re going to take your book in for the first time.
Step 9: Restructure your outline
You may have to take several cracks at your new outline before it feels right. You may find that you have to restructure your book completely.
If you’re writing your first book, it’s very common to try to cram too many ideas into your book. Now that you’ve been studying books regularly, you’ll have a better idea of what should stay, and what should get cut.
Step 10: Write your second draft
In the second draft, you’re thinking about:
- Structure. As the author, you are the tour guide in the jungle of your own mind. The challenge of non-fiction is presenting a complex interconnected network of concepts in a somewhat linear manner. Show your readers you have a plan, that you won’t get them lost, and that they won’t get eaten by a tiger if they follow you.
- Opening and value proposition. Think back to all of those great Kindle samples you’ve read. Is the opening of your book strong? Does it clearly lay out the concept? Is it clear to the readers how the book will help them? Will it motivate them to buy?
- Connective tissue. The outline and flow of concepts are the bone of your book, and then there is the “connective tissue.” Are there smooth transitions from the end of one chapter to the beginning of the next? If you pass over a complex subject do you calm readers by letting them know you’ll cover it later?
- Story. No matter what the subject, your book will be a more enjoyable read if you’re paying attention to story. In The Heart to Start, I tell my own story of going from cubicle dweller to best-selling author, but each chapter also has little stories from guests on my podcast, Love Your Work. My story is woven throughout the book, while there’s a story or two from other creators in each chapter.
I would recommend printing out your book once or twice while working toward a second draft. I personally find it very motivating, and it helps me think about my book on a higher level.
Step 11: Write your final draft
No matter how perfect you think your book is, you need some kind of editing help. You can hire editors off of sites such as Upwork or Reedsy. How much you spend on an editor is up to you.
Your editor might suggest a restructuring of your book yet again. Or, you might prefer to keep the structure as it is, and focus on spelling, grammar, and punctuation.
You want to strike a balance here: Every book you write is going to be imperfect. How imperfect can you handle it being? Are you willing to invest thousands of dollars and many more months tweaking this book?
If you’re a first-time author, even when you call your book “done,” there’s still so much left for you to learn. You might be better off getting your book done, knowing that your next book will be even better.
Congratulations, you know how to write a book!
When you think you’ve picked up all of the changes, print out your book one last time. It’s really a thrill to have a stack of words that you’ve written. You can publish it anywhere: Kindle, iBooks, Google Play, as an IngramSpark hardcover – or you can sell it directly to your readers!
The most powerful thing I’ve felt after writing a book is the confidence that I can do it again. Like riding a bike or salsa dancing, you now have a new skill that you can use over and over again for the rest of your life.
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