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Last updated on Mar 08, 2022

How to Start Writing a Book: Jumpstart Your Novel

Starting to write a book can feel like a massive step into the unknown if you’ve never written one before. And while there's no "secret trick" that all successful authors use to power through their first draft, there are some steps you can take to get organized, energized, and even confident about the task ahead. 

Here’s a 7-step process for starting to write a book:

1. Sketch an outline, even if you're a pantser

One thing that can help alleviate the fear of the blank page is to have a half-decent idea of where you’re going. That’s why it’s a good idea to have a rough plan of your book ready before you ever set pen to paper. Whether you consider yourself a plotter or a pantser, you’ll find it useful to pin down your book’s beginning, a few ideas for the middle, and a clear endpoint. These lodestars will be fixed points that you’ll always be able to write towards.

How to start writing a book: James Salter outline
James Salters' first outline for Light Years

While outlining, you’ll want to consider:

  • What kind of themes and questions do you want to explore in your book? E.g. the power of friendship, the joy of romantic connection, an examination of grief
  • Potential plot twists, and any tropes you might want to use.
  • Building your world and the characters that live there.

Remember, an outline isn’t legally binding: you’re free to deviate from your initial sketch as much or as little as you like, so don’t spend too much time agonizing over it. An idea of what your midpoint and endpoint look like is enough to give your writing shape, and reduce the fear of the blank page.

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You can learn more about outlining your book here, and even download a free template to get you started.

2. Do your research before you start

The amount of research your book requires will vary significantly from project to project — your genre will have a great impact on the kind of research required. For example, hard science fiction or historical fiction often require a lot more research than contemporary romance (which usually requires less knowledge of quasars and Saxon bathing rituals).

If you have a stack of research planned for your book, it’s best to get this done before you start the first draft. Once you begin writing in earnest, you don’t want to leave yourself the option of “just doing a bit of research real quick” — when you really should be writing. We know that procrastination trick! 

In the same vein, don’t let research become an unwieldy, never-ending process that puts off you starting your first draft. Identify the basic information you need to know before you begin (key dates or details of settings), and trust that you’ll fix any factual issues during the editing process. To put your mind at ease, try leaving notes where you need to come back and double-check research.

3. Set word count targets and let them guide the way

Tangible, measurable goals can be a great motivator when you write, and you can use word count targets to set your pace.

Start by figuring out the target word count for your project. If you aren’t sure how long your book should be, take inspiration from the length of other books in your genre. If you don't know what that should be, try our quiz below to find out.

How long should your book be?

Find out what word count the industry expects for your genre — it takes 15 seconds!

Then divide that word count by the number of days until a self-set deadline. Voila! You’ve got that magic daily word count that will help you reach your goal. You can always revise your deadline or targets later on, just make sure you have some kind of starting point.

How to start writing a book: Reedsy Book Editor word count goals
Use the Reedsy Book Editor to track your writing progress.

To help you stay on track, the Reedsy Book Editor, our free writing and formatting software, will automatically calculate your daily word-count goals, track your writing progress, and send you gentle reminder emails when you fall behind. If you haven’t already, give it a try and see how it changes your writing experience.

When you’re deciding on a daily word count goal, be sure to schedule in days off. Not only does this give your creative batteries a chance to recharge, it will also give you a cushion for “cheat days” when you don’t hit your daily word count. After all, we’re only human and we can’t be super-productive every single time we sit down, so give yourself a buffer that lets you have some off days without derailing your overall progress.

4. Stop the clocks, cut off the phone

What often prevents an author from writing isn’t necessarily a lack of ideas, but the lack of ideal writing conditions. After all, how can you be expected to work without a comfortable chair, peace and quiet, perhaps a nice window with a lovely view, and complete freedom from interruption? But let’s be honest, this ideal is mostly unattainable.

Even if you’re regularly dealing with noisy neighbors, demanding pets, or children who insist on having you present in their lives, there are ways to minimize distractions during your dedicated writing times.

Start by reducing your digital background noise. Put your phone on Do Not Disturb, or leave it in another room entirely. Consider turning off your WiFi if your writing app supports offline work.

If you’re using an online app, consider downloading an app like Self Control, which limits the sites you’re allowed to visit while it’s running. At the very least, disable notifications while you work and make sure your flow isn’t ruined by the Duolingo app reminding you to take your French lessons.

5. “Stack your habits” to ensure writing consistency

Even if you’ve managed three hours of uninterrupted writing on Monday, there’s no guarantee that you will find it in you do the same on Tuesday. If you want to build a strong writing habit, you can try what author James Clear describes as “habit-stacking” — attaching a new habit to an already existing one, to make the likelihood of returning to the new habit greater.

Say that you normally start your days with a short walk. Why not make it your new habit to always come home and sit down straight away to write for half an hour— no in-between tasks. Maybe you always take a shower before bed — you can make it your new habit to shower, then sit at your desk and write while your hair dries off.  

Establishing a writing routine isn’t just an important part of starting your book: it’s crucial for finishing it. So use the early days of your writing to lay down your habitual foundations. Make sure to build in some rewards for hitting your word count targets and sticking to your habit. After all, what’s the point of writing 2,000 words if you can’t celebrate after with a muffin or an episode of Drag Race?

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6. Always sketch out your next day’s scene

Another tactic to keep the flow of your writing is one shared by author David Levinson in his webinar, How to Write a Novel in Three Months. When you finish writing for the day, always write two-to-three sentences to describe what happens in the next scene, so you’re not faced with a blank page when you sit back down tomorrow. This might look something like:

The aliens breach the war room, and Tully looks around for something to defend himself with. In the process, he spots the top secret document Rogers had long ago reassured him she had destroyed. He looks over at Rogers, suddenly suspicious of her and wondering if the invasion hadn’t been a surprise to her after all.

This practice of micro-outlining at the end of the day makes it much easier to pick up where you left off and helps you remember any great ideas that come up over the course of your writing. It’s especially helpful to keep you fresh should you take a couple of days off, so try and see whether it helps you build your habit.

7. Allow your first draft to suck

You’ve heard the advice before: “Don’t edit as you go.” Now you get to put it into action! In the drafting stage, your only aim is to hit your word-count goals. First drafts are not meant to be perfect. In fact, if you think your first draft is perfect, you’re probably in for some unpleasant news down the road…

Free yourself from the pressure to create something dazzling while you’re still trying to get the words out. Also, in case you need to hear this: it is genuinely okay if you don’t think your sentences are any good — in fact, you will definitely write some lines (or even whole pages) that make you cringe. This isn’t a sign that you’re a bad writer: every writer will produce more than a few clunkers in their first draft. Yes, even your favorite author!

How to start writing a book: self editing
The time for redrafting comes later, so focus on getting words on the page first.

The real writing magic can come in your second (and third, and fourth) drafts. As Anne Lamott puts it in her book Bird by Bird, “A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft — you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft — you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately.” And once you’ve self-edited your manuscript to within an inch of its life, professional editors (including Reedsy’s!) can help you polish it up to perfection. 

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For now, remember the old saying: You can edit a bad page, but you can’t edit a blank page. In that spirit: you can’t finish a book you never start. So take these tips and start writing your book — we know you can do it!

– Originally published on May 25, 2020