How to Write a Book in 6 Steps
The funny thing about wondering how to write a book is that each author ends up pondering it at different points in their writing careers. Maybe you’ve just had your lightbulb moment mere seconds before landing on this blog post. Or perhaps you’ve been mentally churning over a single idea for the last two years, telling yourself you’ll put in paper one day.
Well, there’s definitely no one-size-fits-all prescription for writing a book. But there are tips and tricks that seasoned authors have picked up over the years, and we’re excited to share them with you.
The tips in this guide are directed at non-fiction writers — and while most of the advice can also be applied by novelists, we’ve got fiction authors covered as well with this step-by-step guide to starting (and finishing!) a novel.
Alright, is everyone’s pens at the ready? Without further ado, here’s how to write a book.
Step 1: Identify the what, why, and who
Before you start writing a book, there are three questions you unequivocally want to answer:
- What is it about?
- Why does this topic matter?
- Who will want to read it?
Once you’re able to answer these questions, you should be able to fill in the blanks of the following sentence:
[The who] will read my book about [the what] because it offers [the why].
For business book writers, for example, this might be: CEOs will read my book about workplace culture because it offers insights into the practices of the top ten companies voted “best places” to work in the USA.
Let’s look at each “W” a little closer.
The “what” — or the topic — is the seed of your book: hold it in your hand all you want, but until you plant it, nothing will grow.
To go from forming this idea to actioning it can be hard if you haven't nailed down the essence of what you want to say. So before you get too far, ask yourself how you would describe your topic in one very brief sentence.
With the lessons and life experiences people acquire over the years, we all have tons of books that we could write. So why is this the one you should write? And, just as importantly, why is this the one you should write?
In other words, determine: why will this book matter to other people and why are you the right person to address this topic?
In order to write a book that resonates with other people and sells, you first need to know who that person is and what they’re looking for.
To do this, determine who your ‘proto-persona’ is — the made-up person that represents your ideal customer? For instance, if you’re writing a beginner’s guide to vegan cooking, your proto-persona is probably going to be a vegan person with limited skills in the kitchen.
The more specific you can get here, the better. Perhaps your book contains recipes that can be achieved on a shoestring budget — and with nothing more than a cutting board and a microwave. We can now say that your target reader could also include students.
Step 2: Gather all available research
This can come in so many shapes and sizes, depending on the type of book you are writing.
- If you’re writing a memoir, you might start by interviewing yourself.
- If you’re writing a how-to, your research might involve testing the strategies you are proposing, or collecting existing material on the subject — like blog posts or previously published essays.
- If you’re writing self-help, you might want to reach out to other experts on the topic.
- If you’re writing about a historical matter, you’ll likely be spending lots of time in libraries and archives.
Step 3: Outline your book
“Let’s just see where the journey takes us,” said the author before sitting down to write without an outline. They were never seen again. Some say they’re still writing to this day, trapped in an endless loop of rewrites.
Spooky stuff, right? Luckily, there’s a way to avoid this terrifying fate: all it takes is an outline. And here are a few suggested methods for creating one…
The mind map
This is an approach for visual thinkers. On a piece of paper, draw a big circle and write your main idea in it. Around the large circle, draw a series of smaller circles with supporting ideas that connect to the main one. Next, draw and connect smaller circles around your second series, and put related ideas in those as well.
The chapter outline (or “beat sheet”)
Write an “introduction” and a “conclusion” header. In the introduction, write down the premise of your book. In the conclusion, write down the main point. In between, take note of the chapters you will need to include (and the point each one will make) to get readers from Point A to Point B.
Or maybe the skeleton outline or post-it approach is more your speed? There’s an outline for everyone out there — and we highly suggest you spend time finding the one that works for you.
This chapter of the book-writing process is especially important for non-fiction authors: in order to really get your point across while keeping readers engaged and excited, you need to ensure your information is provided in the most logical and cohesive way. Novelists can rely on exciting plot twists, romance, and murders to keep readers gripped. non-fiction authors, however, can't always rely on these luxuries.
Now you’re ready to start writing the book, right? Well, not so fast. If you’re:
- Planning to pursue traditional publication, you’ll want to consider getting start on your book proposal first. Go to the next step that’s all about book proposals.
- Planning to self-publish, feel free to skip the book proposal step and head straight to Step 4.
Step 4 (optional): Write a proposal
Novelists have to finish writing their books before submitting them to editors or agents. non-fiction authors looking for a publishing deal generally write and submit the book proposal before writing a book. Then, if a publisher is interested, they will pay you to write the book.
Typically, book proposals run anywhere from 15-50 pages, and comprise a compelling and complete argument for your book’s idea. It does this by outlining your:
- Target audience,
- Author bio,
- Marketing plan,
- Competitive titles,
- Chapter outline,
- And sample chapters.
Step 4: Establish your writing routine
Without proactively creating a writing schedule, your chances of having your manuscript avoid the “in progress” pile grows smaller. Here’s how you can create a writing routine that works for you…
Step 5: Write your first draft
Once you’ve gotten to this point, there’s nowhere left to run: it’s time to actually sit down and write the damn book.
Here’s what you want to keep in mind along the way.
Refine your “author voice”
When it comes to defining the abstract topic of an “author’s voice,” DIYMFA.com founder Gabriela Pereira says, “You have to understand that it's kind of ingrained in your personality. There's some element of your voice that will be part and parcel of who you are.”
Who you are is of the utmost importance when it comes to non-fiction. When you publish non-fiction, you are asking readers to trust your credibility to speak about the given topic. 'Your “author voice” — the personality and personability you inject into your writing — will go a long way towards developing this trust in a reader-author relationship.
So how do you develop your own voice? We’ll let Gabriela explain…
Don’t underestimate this step! For a cautionary tale about broken reader trust, look no further than the outrage that unfolded when it was discovered that James Frey did not actually live many of the depicted experiences in his so-called “memoir” A Million Little Pieces.
Don’t edit-on-the-go for your first draft
Put away your red pen and build a glass case around your ‘delete’ key. Getting a first draft down on paper is already hard enough: you don’t want to make it even more intimidating by insisting that the first draft is also a perfect draft.
Focus on just getting all of the content out, without censoring yourself or wondering if what you’re writing is good/interesting/insightful/factual enough — you’ll have time to address all of those valid concerns later.
Track your progress
It’s been said that Ernest Hemingway wrote between 500–1,000 words each day, and Stephen King has been quoted as writing a whopping 2,000 words per day. The reason we have these numbers is likely because those authors made a point to track their progress — a common tip suggested by a number of prolific authors.
John Steinbeck eloquently explains why why this tip is effective: “Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day; it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.”
Setting the goal of “writing a book” is an intimidating one. But setting the goal of writing 500 words is less so. If you can set that small goal for yourself again and again, you might just find you have a first draft before you know it.
Writer’s Block who?
Studies have determined four broad reasons for writer’s block: 1) self criticism, 2) self-consciousness that their work won’t be as well-received as others, 3) lack of inspiration, or 4) lack of motivation.
When you don’t feel like writing right now, chances are the solution to this creative quandary lies further back. Here are some strategies for pinpointing the cause of your writer’s block — and how to get rid of it!
Step 6: Ruthlessly edit and rewrite
Once you’ve finally committed all your great ideas to paper and you have some semblance of a manuscript in front of you, it’s time to work on turning that first draft into… well, a second draft. And then probably a third draft — maybe a fourth, fifth. You get the idea. A solid book goes through several rounds of editing and rewriting before it’s ready for readers.
These are a few tips you can keep in mind as you polish your manuscript into a masterpiece.
Nail the opening hook
Both editors and readers are prone to quick judgements. If they positively judge your book by its cover and make it to the first page, the first lines is the next test in holding their attention.
Consider the following non-fiction opening lines:
“Louvain was a dull place, said a guidebook in 1910, but when the time came it made a spectacular fire.” — The War That Ended Peace
“The traditional disputes of philosophers are, for the most part, as unwarranted as they are unfruitful.” — Truth and Logic
“In the fall of 1993, a man who would upend much of what we know about habits walked into a laboratory in San Diego for a scheduled appointment.” — The Power of Habit
“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones.” — Unweaving The Rainbow
Through the use of strong, powerful statements, or interesting anecdotes, each of these openers creates intrigue concerning the topic of the book. Don’t go for clickbaity, flashy, car salesman exclamations here. Consider the aspects of your topic that will naturally peak human interest, and lead with that: the desire to learn more.
Get rid of sticky sentences
A great way to bore your readers is to fill your book with sticky sentences.
A sticky sentence is one that contains over 45% glue words — and glue words are the 200+ most common words in the English language. These words include…
While there are exceptions to the rule, in general a sentence with over 45% glue words is one that meanders before getting to the point. Let’s consider an example from Lisa Lepki, Editor of the ProWritingAid blog:
A sentence with 64% glue words: At that moment, Karen walked out onto the middle of the stage with her violin and looked out across the room at the big crowd.
The same sentence, redrafted to contain exactly 45% glue words: At that moment, Karen appeared on the stage with her violin, her eyes wide as she surveyed the growing crowd.
As you can see, the same image is portrayed more clearly and succinctly in the second version. So nix those glue words to ensure you keep the reader’s attention longer by getting to the point faster!
Keep an eye out for wishy-washy words — or intensifiers
As mentioned before, when you publish non-fiction you’re asking a reader to “take your word for it.” Therefore, you don’t want to come across as doubting your own information or second-guessing facts. Comb through your manuscript for wishy-washy words such as “could,” “should,” “might,” “maybe,” etc. Replace these with firmer, definite words that show your confidence with the subject matter — “does,” “will,” etc.
Also avoid intensifiers that feel flashy or insincere such as “very,” “really,” or “so.” The ideas in your book should be strengthened by strong research and solid premises — don’t tell readers that something is “very effective” or “really powerful.” Show them.
Don’t try to fix every issue at the same time
Today it’s commonplace to multitask constantly — but you don’t want to take this approach when you’re editing. It’s best to break editing tasks down into a list and then tackle each item separately. For example, your first task might be to look for extraneous adverbs, your second task might be to break up run-on sentences, your third task might be to remove any unnecessary repetition, so on and so forth. Doing all of these items at once is sure to lead to oversight — and not to mention exhaustion.
Get a fresh perspective
When you know a subject intimately, it’s easy to take for granted the learning curve for beginners. For this reason, it’s important to have people not as versed in your book’s subject matter read your manuscript and look for any leaps of logic or gaps in cohesion. Of course, these people can also look for any grammatical errors as well.
Friends and family are of course a great resource, but you might also want to consider looking for outside beta readers. Finally, it’s always advisable to hire a professional set of eyes to refine your manuscript.
You can check out our handy tool for estimating the cost of working with an professional editor — simply enter in your genre and wordcount and hit enter!
After your book is finished…
Congratulations! You’ve written a book! Now what?
Well, your publishing journey still has a lot of mileage ahead. Luckily, this path is not a lonely one, and you can call upon these resources to help you on your way:
For traditional publishing…
How to Write a Query Letter That Agents Can't Resist [free course]
How to Submit a non-fiction Book Proposal [free course]
Traditional Publishing 101 [free course]
And before you go, we can’t forget our last tip when it comes to how to write a book: when you’re finished, reach out to us with your top tips so we can add them to this post and help other aspiring authors reach their goals. 😊