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How to Write a Book: The Ultimate Guide

Posted in: Perfecting your Craft, Understanding Publishing on March 25, 2019 Leave your thoughts đź’¬

How to Write a Book: The Ultimate Guide

Just about everyone has thought of writing a book at some point — even if you don’t consider yourself a “writer,” you probably have an inkling of a book somewhere in your head. But whether you’ve only just had your lightbulb moment or you’ve been mulling over a great idea for years, there’s no time like the present to learn how to write a book!

Of course, there’s no one-size-fits-all formula here, since every writer has their own unique process. No doubt you’ll discover what works for you over the course of your authorial journey. That being said, there are still certain things you absolutely need to know if you ever want to cross the finish line! We’re excited to share our very best tips, tricks, and other info in this all-inclusive guide to how to write a book.

1. Nail down your book idea

Nailing down your book idea involves more than just being able to state what it's about — although that is part of it. To really nail down your book idea, you should be able to answer the three important "W" questions:

  • What is it about?
  • Why does it matter?
  • Who will want to read it?

Once you’re able to answer these questions, you’ll fill in the blanks of the following sentence:

[The who] will read my book about [the what] because [the why].

For example: "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."

Or: “Female fantasy readers will read my book about the first queen of a patriarchal land because it’s unique and empowering to a new generation of fantasy fans.”

Let’s break down the various elements of this equation and show you how to identify them in your own premise.

The What

The “what" is the seed of your book. It’s the beginning of something, and before it can sprout into something more, you have to nail down the essence of what you want to say. This often coincides with the eventual theme of your book — but don’t worry too much about that right now.

Instead, just figure out how you would describe your topic to someone in a single sentence. If someone were to ask you right now, “Oh, what are you writing about?” then the what would be your answer. Whether it’s an adventurous mouse’s tale (tail?) or a vegan cookbook, your “what” will become the crux of your book.

On the off chance that you’re reading this guide and don’t yet have a “what” — you just know that you want to write a book — consider checking out some writing prompts to inspire you!

The Who

If you’re writing fiction, the “who” will typically come down to genre — “romance readers,” “fantasy readers,” “sci-fi readers,” etc. You’ll also consider age, i.e. if it’s a children's, young adult, or new adult novel.

If you're writing non-fiction, it’s all about utility. Who will find the information in your book most useful? The exception here is memoir, in which case your readers may just be looking for entertainment. But if you’re writing a guide, an informative tell-all, or even a historical book, your target audience will be people who want to learn from you.

No matter your wheelhouse, it’s extremely helpful to come up with a proto-persona for the person who’ll be buying your book. This should represent your ideal customer and is key to reaching your target audience. Coming up with a hypothetical reader makes it much easier to specifically write to them, which will make them more inclined to buy your book.

The Why

And finally, the “why.” With the innumerable experiences and wild ideas that people have in their lives, we all have plenty of books that we could write. Indeed, as we reveal in the Reedsy podcast Bestseller, up to 81% of all people believe they have a book inside them. (Not literally — that would be a lot of stomachaches — but in the “potential writer” sort of way.)

So why is this particular book the one you should write? And, just as importantly, why are you the one who should write it? What makes you qualified, and what makes you passionate about this particular subject? You need to determine a) why this book will matter to other people, and b) why you are the right person to address this topic.

Your final result of answering these three "W" questions will be the essential thesis from which you work throughout this process. Once you have this prepared, you can move onto the next step: outlining.

2. Outline your book

Creating an outline is one of the most important parts of writing a book — in addition to your “three Ws” thesis, your outline forms a huge part of the foundation on which you will build your book. Even if you’ve never worked from an outline before, or don’t think you need one (i.e. if you're a pantser, not a plotter), there’s no harm in cobbling one together.

Also, don’t make the mistake of thinking every book outline has to look exactly the same. There are a few different methods you can use to outline your book, which we’ve “outlined” here. Feel free to experiment with them and go with whichever works best for you.

The mind map
This is an approach for visual thinkers. On a piece of paper, draw a big circle and put 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.

Alternately, if you like the general concept of the mind map but feel like you need a bit more structure with it, you can also try the Snowflake Method.

The chapter outline (or “beat sheet”)
Often times, fiction writers aren’t quite sure how their novel will end. Luckily for you, nonfiction writers already have a clear idea of the point their book is trying to make. Write an “introduction” and a “conclusion” header. In the introduction, write down the preposition of your book. In the conclusion, write down the main point. In between, take note of the chapters you need to include (and the point each one will make) to get readers from Point A to Point B.

3. Research your topic or genre

Research comes in so many shapes and sizes, depending on the type of book you are writing, and is especially important for nonfiction titles. Here are a few different types of research that are suitable for different genres, though you can always mix and match these according to what your subject matter requires.

  • If you’re writing a memoir, you might start by interviewing yourself. Though you may think you already know yourself pretty well, you’d be surprised at the blind spots that can be revealed through a simple interview. You can always have someone else interview you too!
  • If you’re writing a how-to, your research might involve testing out your own instructions, or collecting lots of existing material on the subject — such as blog posts and previously published essays.
  • If you’re writing self-help, you might want to reach out to experts on the topic, such as psychologists and motivational speakers. Or if you're already an expert on this particular topic, you can interview yourself as you would for a memoir!
  • If you’re writing a history or biography, you’ll likely spend lots of time in libraries and archives — unless you’re writing about someone who’s still alive, or something that’s just recently happened, in which case you’ll likely gather the information yourself.

As for fiction, it can still be helpful to research where your book is set or the subject matter it involves, especially if you’re writing historical fiction. While you might be purely "writing what you know," the research phase for fiction writers can also include more literary planning, such as theme or character development. Speaking of which...

Incorporate themes

No matter what kind of book you’re writing, it should have at least one uniting theme, and probably more. Even if you’re just writing instructions, some kind of theme-inclusive narrative can help make your book much more compelling!

For example, Chrissy Teigen’s bestselling cookbook Cravings includes personal stories along with her recipes, all about how she came up with them and why she loves them. The theme of these humorous anecdotes is how food is a huge part of her life, and how getting a recipe exactly right can spark immense joy (as another very popular instructional author would say).

Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to get a handle on your theme(s), regardless of what your book is about.

  1. How does my narrative reflect the human condition?
  2. What (if any) social or political commentary do I want to make?
  3. Why am I writing this book in the first place? (think back to your “big Ws”)
  4. What do I want my readers’ takeaways to be?

Create character profiles

Again, this is relevant whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction. While it’s true that most people think of “characters” as people you invent for a story, the term can apply to all figures who crop up in a book. After all, Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow is a non-fiction biography — but what kind of narrative would it be without Washington and Jefferson? They’re essential characters in that story! The only difference is that in non-fiction, you can’t embellish them like you would in fiction.

So if your book includes characters of any kind, whether they’re real or not, consider putting them in a roster. The following template will help you keep track of important character details and traits you want to include in your book.

Enter your email address to download the Character Template & Worksheet!

You'll get it in your email inbox right afterward.

Now it’s time to get down to the nitty-gritty: the actual writing process. Let’s get into goals, routines, and what you should focus on during your first draft.

4. Establish a writing routine

Establishing a writing routine is vital to actually completing your manuscript. Here are the best actions you can take (or avoid!) to establish and stick to a writing routine.

Create word count targets

Most authors primarily think about their writing progress in terms of word count. They set goals for how many words to write per day, per week, and per month, so they’ll know if they’re keeping up a reasonable rate of progress.

In terms of what is a reasonable rate of progress, every writer has to define that for themselves. However, if you’re really determined to make this book thing work, you should aim for at least 1,500 words a week. That’s 6,000 words a month and 72,000 a year — well past NaNoWriMo standards for what constitutes a novel (50k words)! Bear in mind that you can break this up however you want: 500 words per day/three days a week, one day of 1,000 words + two shorter days of 250 each, etc.

Schedule non-negotiable-writing-time

Besides word count, it’s important to set goals for your writing time as well. Only you can decide what’s right for your schedule, but here are some general guidelines.

Consider both a) when you have the most free time, and b) when you have at least a little bit of free time. The trick is this: don’t devote every single day off to writing. Contrary to popular advice, you don’t really have to write every single day in order to finish a book. The important thing is that you designate a schedule and keep it up. Whatever schedule you set for yourself, make sure that your friends and family are aware of it — and know not to try and schedule other activities with you during your non-negotiable-writing-time!

Never skip two sessions in a row

Countless writing experts champion the “two sessions” rule as the key to writing success. Here’s why: skipping one writing session — whether because you’ve had a super-busy day or you just can’t summon the energy — doesn’t mean you’ve fallen off the wagon. One missed day is a fluke, an anomaly that can easily be compensated for over your next few sessions.

But once you skip two sessions in a row, you’re setting a new routine of NOT writing. And not only that, you’re getting farther behind on your word count goals. You start to feel like you can't catch up, and the pressure often leads you to quit altogether. So don't let yourself miss two consecutive sessions. Believe us, you’ll be glad you persevered.

Get an accountability buddy

Ideally, this will be another writer who understands what you’re going through, and who may even be working on a project themselves — this way you can swap encouragement, tips, and stern lectures when needed.

If you don’t know any other writers in real life, you can always join an online writing community! The advice and support in the forums of these writing websites can be an absolute lifesaver when you’re feeling discouraged.

Track your progress tangibly

What do we mean by “tangibly”? Well, instead of just entering data in a spreadsheet of “words written per day,” you might actually print out the pages you’ve finished as you complete them. As you write, your manuscript pile will grow — plus it’ll be all ready for proofing at the end!

You can also do something silly but fun, like making up a calendar and putting a sticker on it for every day of accomplished writing. Or you can put a marble in a mason jar for every 500 words written, and when it fills up, take yourself out for a nice dinner. Rewarding yourself at certain milestones is a particularly effective means of staying motivated. And in that vein...

For more detailed tips on how to create a writing routine, check out this Reedsy Live webinar from author, ghostwriter, and writing coach Kevin T. Johns.

5. Write your first draft

Once the what, why, and who has been set, you’ve got notebooks filled with research that have been transferred into a rock-solid outline, and you’ve come up with a concrete and realistic writing schedule, there’s nowhere left to run: it’s time to actually sit down and write your write draft.

Refine your “author voice”

When it comes to defining the abstract topic of author voice, author and writing coach 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 nonfiction. When you publish nonfiction, you are asking readers to trust your credibility to speak about the given topic. To establish trust with readers, you need to develop a relationship with them — and the author-reader relationship is largely established through the reader connected to your “author voice” — the personality and personability you inject into your writing.

So how can both fiction and nonfiction authors develop their writing voice? There are a couple of exercises you might try: Pereira suggests journaling, and a “retelling” exercise which involves rewriting nursery rhymes in the voice of a famous author, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald or Virginia Woolf. This will help you get a sense of what voice is, since it’s a pretty slippery concept — plus, the natural tension that arises between your own voice and that author’s voice should tell you about how you want your prose to sound.

Create a narrative arc

Like voice, narrative arcs are for all writers, not just fiction authors! Every good book (that isn’t a cookbook or reference guide) contains conflict, tension, drama, and resolution — a collection of elements most aptly described as a narrative arc.

Hopefully, you mapped out a pretty satisfying arc in your outline from Step 2. But if not, here’s your chance to redeem yourself! Think about the following questions in relation to the contents of your book:

  1. What are the most interesting events and elements of my narrative?
  2. How do they connect to one another and incorporate my major themes? (from Step 3)
  3. What is the “high point” (climax) of the narrative? (should occur toward the end)
  4. How will my ending wrap everything up?

It’s also true that, no matter how extensively you outline, there’s no telling what your final arc will look like until you’ve actually written it. You may find yourself expanding elements you thought would be minor; skipping over others that you thought would be integral. If this is the case, don’t worry too much about deviating from your original outline — trust your gut and know that you can always edit later.

Don’t edit as you go

Put away your red pen and build a glass case around your “delete” key. You don’t need every single word, phrase, and sentence to be well-constructed; you just need to get them down on the page. 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. Trust us, you’ll have plenty of time to nitpick later.

Develop practices for defeating writer's block

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.

  • Self-criticism: Go back to the what. Does this idea still hold up? Are you still invested in this premise? Remember why you started writing this book.
  • Self-consciousness: Go back to your outline. Reinvestigate the points you make that take the reader from start to finish, and what lessons and takeaways each chapter will leave them with
  • Lack of inspiration: Go back to the who. Get better acquainted with your ideal reader and use the image of them connecting with your book as inspiration.
  • Lack of motivation: Go back to the why. Remember that sweet spot in between why you want to write this book and why readers will find it valuable.

In addition, a big part of avoiding writer's block is managing your expectations. Your first book is not going to be your magnum opus, nor should it be; you have plenty of time to get there in your writing career! So do yourself a favor, and don’t compare your writing to literary giants, because it’s not fair to you or your work. Secondly, remember that not everyday will be full of creativity, inspiration, and the ability to translate the value from the world around you on to the page. Indeed, being able to stick to a routine when you’re not in an artistic mindset is the hallmark of a TRUE writer.

Put the reader first

Finally, and perhaps the most important piece of advice we can give you: remember to always put the reader first. This is especially difficult as a first-time author. For one thing, you’ll want to demonstrate your stylistic prowess, and for another, you don’t have the best idea of how to implement structure yet. This combination means that your main ideas can easily end up muddled.

So try to constantly, consciously think about the reader over yourself. Keep the language accessible and the pacing fairly quick, the way most readers want in a book. You might feel compelled to write long, drawn-out metaphors to get your point across — but the narrative should always take precedence, because that’s what the reader cares about.

All right: in theory, the hard part’s over now. But the process of refining and deciding what to do with your book isn’t exactly a walk in the park. Now we'll take you through what you need to edit your book and eventually publish it (if that’s the path you choose). Come on, final push — let’s go!

6. Revise your manuscript

The vast majority of manuscripts need to go through several rounds of revisions before they reach their final form. So don’t hold back: it’s time for some ruthless editing. And whether you do it yourself, ask a friend, or hire a professional, it’s important to know exactly what needs fixing. Here are our best tips re: the editing process.

Get rid of glue words and intensifiers

If you want to bore your readers, all you need to do is 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.

how to write a book

While there are some exceptions to this rule, a sentence with more glue words than non-glue words tends to meander unnecessarily. Let’s take a look at this 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 onstage with her violin, her eyes wide as she surveyed the growing crowd.”

As you can see, the same image becomes clearer and more succinct in the second version. So make sure you cut out those glue words!

Tackle inconsistencies with fresh perspective

When you’re drafting your first book ever, it’s easy to accidentally include inconsistencies, whether about something as minor as a character’s eye color or as gap in supporting evidence for one of your book's arguements. Naturally, one of the main objectives of editing is to rid your manuscript of these.

It’s pretty hard to do when you’ve only just finished writing, however. You’ll be so familiar with the subject/story that gaps in logic will automatically bridge themselves in your mind — plus, you’re probably feeling a bit “precious” about your writing, and may not want to admit to any mistakes (especially if they’ll take a lot of work to fix).

Hence why it’s important to wait before you edit: a useful practice for any mode of editing, but especially when scanning for inconsistencies. You should try to wait a week at minimum, ideally more, before taking a close, honest look at your manuscript for possible plot holes and overall cohesion.

 

If you don’t want to wait, or if you don’t trust your own judgment, you can get someone else to look over your manuscript with fresh eyes! Friends and family are a great resource, but consider looking for beta readers, or hiring one of those pro editors we mentioned.

Don’t try to fix every issue at the same time

These days we’re all apparently expected to multitask flawlessly, but take it from us: do not multitask your editing. If you’re doing it yourself, it’s best to break editing tasks down into a list and complete each item separately.

For example, your first task might be to look for glue words and extraneous adverbs, your second task might be to break up run-on sentences, your third task might be to look for inconsistencies, and so on and so forth. Doing all these at once will surely lead to oversight — and exhaustion — so just take them on one at a time. You can go here to download a comprehensive editing checklist.

7. Write the second draft

Edits all done? That means you’re ready for rewrites: the part where you actually transform your first draft into the second. It’s a magical process, even if does require a good deal of work. The following are some things to think about as you take this penultimate step of writing a book.

Nail the opening hook

Like reducing glue words, nailing the hook is another simple but pivotal fix you can make to your manuscript. That’s because 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 opening lines are the next test — and failure to pass could mean they give up on it entirely.

Consider the following opening lines:

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” — Anna Karenina

 

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones.” — Unweaving The Rainbow

 

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York.” — The Bell Jar

 

“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

Through the use of strong statements or interesting anecdotes, each of these hooks creates intrigue right away. But that doesn’t mean you should go for clickbaity, flashy, second hand-car-salesman exclamations here. Rather, consider the aspects of your book that will naturally pique human interest, and lead with that.

Rework those inconsistencies

Inconsistencies are the plague of edits and rewrites: you have to deal with them or they’ll just get worse. So after highlighting them (or having someone else point them out) during the editing process, you need to prioritize inconsistencies in rewrites. Basic factual inconsistencies and superficial descriptive contradictions should be pretty quick to deal with. But for deeper plot/structural problems, here are a few tactics you can try:

1. Examine character dynamics. One of the most obvious indicators of inconsistent characterization is character dynamics — think of them as the canary in the coal mine. If character dynamics seem unnatural, there’s probably something else wrong… probably because you haven’t made your characters well-rounded enough to sustain themselves.

As a result, this is one of those fixes that will probably take some time. But if you sense something wrong with your character dynamics, don’t be afraid to take a deeper dive into overall characterization.

2. Eliminate subplots. Luckily, this one's a bit less labor-intensive. Sometimes to root out confusing inconsistencies, you need to delete subplots or side stories that contradict either the main narrative, or your characters’ personalities and motivations. You may also have a subplot or secondary story that you love, but that doesn’t really go anywhere. We know that cutting it out will be hard; just bite the bullet and do it.

3. Explore different endings. The ending is often where spotty characterization rears its ugly head. For instance, a character who hates another character throughout the book does a 180 and falls in love with them (how many poorly plotted romances fall victim to this?). Or maybe a character who was seemingly making progress reverts to their previous, terrible self (we’ll call this the Andy Bernard phenomenon, one that any devoted fan of The Office will recognize).

So don’t just leave a bad ending in place if it contradicts what would realistically happen. Again, it might be a lot of work to change, but your readers will thank you for “keeping it real” (as the kids say).

Consider your conclusion

Speaking of your book’s ending, it’s important to consider not just potential inconsistencies, but the overall impact of your ending. Have you worked through all the problems you’ve posed throughout the book? Did you tie in all the themes you wanted to address, and does the ending subtly re-emphasize them? Will readers be satisfied with this point of resolution? (You may have to ask other people for their opinion on this.)

Unlike rewriting your hook/intro, reworking your conclusion may involve going back throughout your book to insert other bits and pieces as well. For example, you might realize that you haven’t incorporated a certain theme enough for it to resonate in the conclusion. This means you have to retroactively work it into previous chapters. Again, don’t be afraid of the workload: embrace it as the thing that will make your book the best that it can be.

8. Publish your book (if you want to!)

Our heartiest congratulations to you — you’ve written a book! 👏 Your journey’s not quite over, though: now you get to decide what to do with it.

Though we’ve titled this step “get it published,” that’s not necessarily what you have to do next. Maybe you’ve written a book just to prove you that you could. But even so, it’s good to have the necessary information, in case you do eventually decide to pursue that route.

Here’s a selection of our best resources on both traditional publishing and self-publishing, in the order that you’d most likely have to use them.

Self-publishing

If you want to self-publish your book, but don’t know where to start:

How to Self-Publish a Book (free course)

All the considerations and requirements that go into self-publishing:

The Essential Self-Publishing Checklist (blog post)

For after you’ve self-published and you’re ready to start marketing:

How to Create the Ultimate Book Marketing Plan (blog post)

Traditional publishing

Want to lock in a publisher before you start your non-fiction book?

How to Submit a Non-Fiction Book Proposal (free course)

If you’re hoping to acquire an agent who will represent your book:

How to Write a Query Letter That Agents Can't Resist (free course)

A comprehensive overview of traditional publishing:

Traditional Publishing 101 (free course)

Ultimately, what you do with your manuscript is up to you. But whether you keep locked in a chest (/untouched folder on your desktop) or publish it for all the world to see, just know that you’ve achieved something amazing — something you may not have believed possible just a few short months ago! So once again, well done. And if you do decide to publish, we can’t wait to see what you’ve created. 📖


Before you go, we can’t forget our last tip: once 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. Or if you have some already, leave them in the comments below!


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