How to Write a Book in 15 Steps: An Author's Guide
For many people, writing a book has been a lifelong dream, yet one that’s always seemed just out of reach. Indeed, as we reveal in our publishing podcast Bestseller, roughly 80% of Americans have wanted to write and publish a book at some point — but fewer than 0.1% have actually done it.
So what’s the secret formula that will unlock your creativity and help you write the book of your dreams at last? Some authors would tell you that there is no single path to authorship, as every writer’s journey is unique.
We’d counter with this: almost all bestselling authors have highly effective writing patterns and habits that help them reach their goals. If you want to write a book of your very own, all you have to do is emulate them!
To help you achieve just that, we've put together this 15-step guide to how to write a book, chock full of information and advice from the most prolific, successful writers in the business. Whether you’ve been an aspiring author since childhood or since five minutes ago, this article will give you all the knowledge you need to write a book and do it well.
1. Find your “big idea”
The one thing you absolutely need to write a book is, of course, an idea. If you don't have that, you'll never get past the first page of your draft.
You may already know what you want to write about, or you may be at a total loss. Either way, you can settle on a “big idea” for your book by asking yourself a few simple questions:
- What do I want to write about?
- What do I feel is important to write about?
- Who will want to read about this story/subject?
- Will I be able to carry out this idea effectively?
Your answers to these questions will help you narrow it down to your best options. For example, if you have several different ideas for a book, but only one that you're truly passionate about and feel you can pull off, then voilà — there's your premise!
On the other hand, if you lack ideas, these questions should steer you in a firmer direction. Think about the kinds of books you love to read, as well as books that have made a significant impact on you. In all likelihood, you'll want to write a book in a similar vein.
If you're really grasping at straws, consider using creative writing prompts or even a plot generator to get the ball rolling! You might stumble upon an interesting concept or story element that sparks a “big idea” for your book. (And if you're still uninspired even after trying these tools, you may want to reconsider whether you really want to write a book after all.)
2. Research your genre
Once you've found your big idea, the next step is to research your genre. Again, if you're writing the sort of book you like to read, you already have a leg up! Reading books in your genre is by far the best way to learn how to write in that genre yourself.
But if not, you'll want to select a couple of representative titles and analyze them. How long are they and how many chapters do they have? What does the story structure look like? What are the major themes? Perhaps most importantly, do you think you can produce a book with similar elements?
You should also conduct market research on Amazon to determine the most popular books in your genre. If you want your book to succeed, you'll have to contend with these bestsellers. Go to the Amazon Best Sellers page and find your genre in the lefthand sidebar:
Then read those books' blurbs to figure out what really sells. What do they all have in common, and why might readers find them appealing? Does your book hold up to these standards?
Finally, think about how your book can offer something NEW. For example, if you're writing a psychological thriller, will there be a particularly sneaky unreliable narrator, or maybe a series of twists that the reader never sees coming? If you're writing nonfiction, do you have a unique take on the subject, or a particularly deep well of knowledge? And so on.
Going above and beyond is the only way to give your book a chance in today's hyper-competitive market. So don't skimp on the genre research, because this will tell you where the bar is and how you can surpass it.
3. Create an outline
If you want to write a great book, you need to outline it first. This is especially important if it's your first book, since you need a solid blueprint to rely on when you get stuck! (Because believe us, you will get stuck.)
So how do you go about creating that outline for your book? We actually have a whole other post on the subject, but here are the essentials:
- Pick a format that works for you. There are so many different types of outlines: the free-flowing mind map, the rigorous chapter-and-scene outline, the character-based outline, and so on. If one approach doesn't work for you, try another! Any kind of plan is better than none.
- Have a beginning, middle, and end. Way too many authors go into writing a book with a strong notion of how their story should start... yet their middle is murky and their ending, nonexistent. Take this time to flesh them out and connect them to one another. Remember: the best books have endings that feel “earned,” so you should try to be building toward it from the start!
- Consider your conflict points. Conflict is at the heart of any good book — it draws in the reader, conjures tension and emotion, and ultimately reflects the themes and/or message you want to convey. You don't have to know exactly where your conflict will manifest, but you should have a pretty good grasp of how it works throughout your book.
- Get to know your characters. If you haven't done much character development yet, your outline is the perfect opportunity to do so. How will your characters interact in the story, and how will these interactions demonstrate who they are and what matters to them?
4. Start off strong
Let's get into the actual writing. One of the most important parts of writing a book is starting the story! It's no exaggeration to say your first few pages can make or break your book — if these pages aren't good enough, many readers will lose interest, possibly never returning to your book again.
First off, you need an opening hook that grabs the reader's attention and makes it impossible for them to look away. Take a look at the first lines of these hit bestsellers:
“Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” — Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
“Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum's Grand Gallery.” — The Da Vinci Code
“If all the Saturdays of 1982 can be thought of as one day, I met Tracey at 10 a.m. on that Saturday, walking through the sandy gravel of a churchyard, each holding our mother's hand.” — Swing Time
All of these books fall into different genres, yet all their opening lines do the same thing: capture the reader's attention. You can imitate them by making a similarly strong, slightly furtive statement in your opener!
From there, your job is to maintain the reader's interest by heightening the stakes and inciting the plot. You should also make the reader care about the main characters by giving them distinct personalities and motivations. (Note that “main” is a key descriptor here; never introduce more than a couple of characters at a time!)
Of course, there are infinite ways to write a first chapter. You might have to experiment with lots of different opening lines, even opening scenes, to find the right balance — but it's worth the effort to set the stage perfectly.
5. Focus on substance
Many writers believe that the key to writing an amazing book is style: impressive vocabulary, elaborate sentences, figurative language that would make Shakespeare swoon.
We're here to dissuade you of that notion. While style is great (as long as your prose doesn't start to become purple), substance is far more important when writing a book — hence why you should focus primarily on your plot, characters, conflict(s), and themes.
Of course, that's easier said than done, especially once you've already started writing. When you get to a patchily outlined section, it's tempting to keep writing and fill out the page with literary gymnastics. But that's exactly what this content is: filler. And if you have too much of it, readers will become frustrated and start to think you're pretentious.
This is another reason why outlining is so important. You need to KNOW your story in order to stay on track with it! But besides outlining, here are a few more tips for making substance a priority:
- Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action. This advice comes straight from Kurt Vonnegut, and it's 100% true: if a sentence doesn't accomplish one or both of those things, try removing it. If the passage still makes sense, leave it out.
- Be conscious of your pacing. Slow pacing is a symptom of excess description. If the events of your book seem to move like molasses, you're probably using too much style and not enough substance.
- Use a writing tool to reduce flowery language. Speaking of great American novelists, Hemingway is a fantastic tool to help you write like the man himself! Simply paste your writing into the app and Hemingway will suggest ways to make your prose more concise and effective.
6. Write “reader-first”
Want to write a book that people will really enjoy (and buy)? Well, this is pretty much the cardinal rule: you should always be thinking about your audience and trying to write “reader-first.”
For example, sometimes you'll have to write scenes that aren't very exciting, but that serve the overall story arc. Don't rush through these scenes just to get them over with! Even if they don't seem interesting to you, they contribute to the reader's experience by building tension and preserving the pacing — and the reader deserves to relish those things.
When considering your readership, you should also keep a proto-persona in mind for marketing purposes. The more you can cater your book to this reader, the easier it will be to sell!
Maybe you're writing a true crime account for zealous true crime readers. Such readers will have pored over countless criminal cases before, so you need to include unique details to make your case stand out, and craft an extra-compelling narrative to engage them.
7. Set word count goals
Let's move on to practical ways that you can improve your writing habits. Setting word count goals is a huge part of this, especially if you're trying to finish your book in a certain amount of time.
You should create word count goals for both your individual sessions and per week — or per month, if that's how you prefer to think about your writing output. For relatively novice writers, we'd recommend the following word count goals:
- 500-750 words/session
- 1,500-2,500 words/week
- 6,000-10,000 words/month
These goals are based on a pattern of 3-4 sessions per week, which is reasonable for a beginner, but still enough to make commendable progress. Even if you only follow our minimum recommendations — 500 words per session at 3 sessions per week — you can still easily finish your book in less than a year!
That said, if you're looking for how to write a book as fast as possible, your word count goals should look a little more like this:
- 1,500-2,000 words/session
- 9,000-15,000 words/week
- 35,000-50,000 words/month
The figures above adhere roughly to NaNoWriMo, the event in which participants write an average of 1,667 words/day to complete a 50,000-word book in one month. So you know it's definitely possible to write a book that quickly; hundreds of thousands of people do so every year!
But as any author who's done NaNo can attest, it's also a pretty grueling experience. Most authors find it exhausting to write such great quantities for so many days in a row — and they still have to edit copiously once they're done.
That's why if you've never written a book before, we strongly recommend taking your time, setting manageable word counts, and gradually building to bigger goals... which is where our next tip comes in.
8. Establish a healthy routine
Having a healthy writing routine is the only way you'll actually hit those word count goals — not to mention it fosters a better relationship with writing overall! To establish a healthy routine, ask yourself these baseline questions first:
- When do I have the most free time in the day/week?
- What time of the day do I tend to be most productive?
- How can I space out my writing sessions effectively?
- Will I realistically be able to balance my writing goals with other responsibilities?
The best way to set up your routine is to take advantage of your pre-existing schedule and natural patterns. So for example, if you already go to the gym on Tuesdays and Thursdays, perhaps Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays can be your writing days. Or if you find yourself most creative late at night (many of us do!), you can plan late-night sessions over the weekend/before your day off, so you can sleep in the next day.
Ultimately, you just want a well-balanced writing routine that facilitates productivity, yet keeps you from burning out. If you find that writing for several days in a row is too much for you, space out your sessions more. If you can't keep up with your goals, it's okay to reduce them a little.
Yes, writing a lot is important, but it's not more important than your mental health! Remember that writing a book is a marathon, not a sprint, and that a consistent, healthy approach is absolutely vital. Here are some tips for making the most of your writing routine.
Don't skip more than one session in a row
Life happens, and sometimes you won't be able to make a planned writing session. However, unless it's a serious emergency, you should try to get back in the saddle for your next session. Otherwise, you'll lose too much progress and feel discouraged, which typically leads to skipping even more writing sessions, and eventually giving up.
Track your progress
Create a spreadsheet to track your writing, or simply keep a handwritten page of your writing time for each session + how many words you managed to write. As the words add up and you see that your routine really works, you'll feel excited about your book and determined to maintain your routine!
Use a site blocker to stay focused
Distraction is the enemy of routine, and the biggest distraction in our modern world is the Internet. To that end, download a site-and-app blocker to use during your writing sessions so you won't be enticed by the endless possibilities of the web. We'd recommend Freedom, as you can schedule block sessions in advance and even keep track of your productivity within the app.
9. Set up a productive space
Another major component of how to write a book is where you write, hence why it gets a separate section. If you want to complete an entire book, you absolutely must find a calm, focused space for your writing.
This may be in your house, a coffee shop, a library, a co-working space — wherever you can work productively and without interruptions. It should also be a place that you can access easily and go often. Working from home is the most convenient option in this sense, but it may be difficult if you have family around, or if you don't have a designated “room of one's own” (i.e. an actual office, or at least a desk).
Try out different locations to see what works for you. Indeed, you may find that you like to rotate writing spaces because it keeps you energetic and your writing fresh! But wherever you go, do your best to make the space:
- Quiet (noise-canceling headphones can be very helpful)
- Clean (no clutter, especially if you do chores to procrastinate)
- Non-distracting (nothing too fun around to tempt you away from writing; turn off your phone so other people won't bother you)
- Your own (cultivate a nice atmosphere in your home office with posters and plants, or simply take the same seat at your local café every time — truly carve out a “dedicated writing space”)
10. Use writing software
We've already talked about a few different pieces of software to help you with writing a book. But if you haven't found the right app or program yet, never fear — there's plenty more where those came from!
This is another topic we've actually written an entire post about, but it's worth touching on a few of our favorite writing programs here:
Scrivener is the downloadable writing software of choice for many writers, and for good reason: it has an exceptional interface and tons of useful features. You can outline chapters with its drag-and-drop system, create labels for elements you want to track, and use various templates to plan AND format your book. If you want to feel like a true professional, you can't go wrong with Scrivener — and it's even free to try for 30 days.
Or if you're not much for outlines because your thoughts are all over the place, Milanote can help. The super-flexible interface allows you to “mind map” just as you would longhand, and rearrange different sections as you please. When writing, you can see all your notes at once, so you don't have to stress about forgetting things. It's a very refreshing, intuitive way approach that's worth a try for all disorganized authors.
Speaking of intuitive, what's more intuitive than simply writing on a piece of paper, no distractions — just like the old days? Meet FocusWriter, which allows you to do exactly that. The full-screen default interface is a sheet of paper on a wooden desk: no bells, no whistles, no distractions whatsoever. Seriously, this one will get you in the zone.
The Reedsy Book Editor 📖
We couldn't leave out one of the coolest word processing, editing, and formatting tools on the market! All jokes aside, the RBE lets you cleanly format your book as you go, so you can watch it take shape in real-time. You can also add sections for front matter and back matter, invite collaborators to edit your text, and export files of your book the minute it's ready. But don't take our word for it: you can try the RBE for free right here.
11. Keep yourself motivated
Getting into the groove of writing a book can be difficult. When there are a million different things to distract and discourage you, how can you stay motivated to keep up with your writing routine and finish your book?
Based on ours and other writers' experience, here are a few motivational strategies for you to try:
- Make a list of reasons why you want to write a book. Having a tangible reminder of your true purpose is one of the best ways to motivate yourself, so think hard: Do you want to send an important message? Reach a certain group of people? Or do you simply yearn to tell this particular story? Write down all your reasons and keep them as an ace in the hole for when your motivation dwindles.
- Find someone else to write with you. Getting a writing buddy is another great way to stay motivated! For one thing, you get some camaraderie during this process; for another, it means you can't slack off too much. So ask your writer friends if they'd like to meet up regularly, or join an online writing community. With the latter, just make sure you exchange progress updates and proof that you're actually writing!
- Reward yourself at important milestones. Sometimes the best motivation is the prospect of treating yourself. If you respond well to this kind of motivation, set a goal, a deadline, and a reward for meeting it: “If I can write 10,000 more words by the end of the month, I'll go out for an amazing, fancy dinner with all my friends.” This kind of goal is also helpful because you can tell your friends about it, and that very act will hold you accountable.
For even more advice on how to staying motivated through the writing process, check out this Reedsy Live from author and writing coach Kevin Johns!
12. Take setbacks as they come
Remember how we said you'd inevitably get stuck? Well, that's what this step is all about: what to do when you hit a wall. Whether it's a tricky plot hole, an onslaught of insecurity, or a simple lack of desire to write, all writers experience setbacks from time to time.
There are countless ways to overcome writer's block, from freewriting to working on your characters to taking a shower (yes, that's a legitimate tip!). However, here are some of the most effective techniques we've found:
- Revisit your outline. This will jog your memory as to planned story elements you've forgotten — which may help you find the missing piece.
- Try writing exercises. It's possible you just need to get the words flowing, and then you can jump get right back into your book. Luckily for you, we have a whole host of great writing exercises right here!
- Share your experience with friends. This is another great role for your writing buddy to fill, but you can easily talk about writer's block with your non-writing friends, too. If you're struggling, it always helps to vent and bounce ideas off other people.
- Take a short break to do something else. Yes, sometimes you need to step away from the keyboard and clear your head. But don't take more than a day or so, or else you'll lose momentum and motivation.
Most of all, remember to take setbacks in stride and not let them get you down. As platitudinous as that might sound, it's true: the only thing that can stop you from writing a book is if you, well, stop writing. So keep calm and carry on — you'll get through this.
13. Don’t rush the ending
Ending a book is no easy task, and poor third-act plotting is one of the most common authorial pitfalls. (Cough cough, Stephen King.) Hopefully, you came up with a solid ending, or at least a few possibilities, back when you were outlining your book! But that won't prevent you from another ending-related peril: rushing through the ending.
The fact is, even if you've got a great ending for your book, you're going to be exhausted by the time you get there. You'll probably just want to dash it off and be done.
Resist the urge to do so! Just as your readers deserve thoughtful writing and consistent pacing throughout the story, they deserve the same here, even if it's almost over.
On that note, take your time with the ending. Again, ideally, you've been building to it this whole time; if not, consider how you might go back and add some foreshadowing. Try tacking on a few different endings to see which fits best. And if you're still at a loss, see what other people say about how your book should end (which segues perfectly into our next tip).
14. Get tons of feedback
You can write all day, all night, to your heart's content... but if no one else likes what you've written, you might end up heartbroken instead. That's why it's crucial to request feedback on your book, starting early and from as many sources as possible.
Begin by asking your friends and fellow writers to read just a few chapters at a time. However, apply their suggestions not only to those chapters, but wherever relevant. For example, if one of your friends says, “[Character A] is acting weird in this scene,” pay extra attention to that character to ensure you haven't misrepresented them anywhere else.
Once your book is finished, you're ready for some more intensive feedback. Consider getting a beta reader to review your entire book and provide their thoughts. You may want to hire an editor to give you professional feedback as well. (Find out about the different types of editing, and which type your book might need, in this post.)
Finally, it might sound obvious, but we'll say it anyway for all you stubborn writers out there: feedback is useless if you don't actually listen to it. Separate yourself from your ego and don't take anything personally, because no one wants to offend you — they're just trying to help.
15. Publish your book
You’ve persevered to the end at last: brainstormed, outlined, drafted, and edited extensively (based on feedback, of course). Your book has taken its final form, and you couldn’t be prouder. So what comes next?
Well, if you’ve taken our advice about catering to your target readers, you may as well give publishing a shot! We have a full guide to publishing right here — and if you’re thinking about traditional publishing, read this article to decide which is right for you.
Publishing is another rigorous process, of course. But if you’ve come this far to write a book, you can pretty much do anything! Invest in stellar cover design, study up on marketing, or throw yourself into writing an irresistible query letter that will get you an offer.
Whichever route you take, one thing will remain true: you’ve written a book, and that’s an incredible achievement. Welcome to the 0.1% — and may the next book you write be even greater than the first. 📖