How to Write a Book

There’s an old riddle: How do you eat an elephant? Answer: One bite at a time. This old riddle provides some pretty good advice for a lot of things in life. Anything that seems overwhelming at first blush can usually be broken down into manageable parts. Writing a book is no different.

Naturally it starts with an idea. Maybe you’ve got the perfect idea for the next great American novel. Or maybe you’ve got some knowledge about something that would prove valuable to others if it was put into a book, something the eager public would rush to the bookstore to buy. The idea is actually the easy part. I would imagine that most people, if pressed, could come up with some idea of theirs that they have floating around in the back of their heads. Probably your idea is why you’re bothering to read this article.

Now, translating the idea into something readable, well, that’s a different story. It seems easy enough. It’s just words, after all. We all know words. We speak, don’t we? And read? How tough could it be, then, to take our idea and put it onto the printed page? The answer to that depends upon the person. Some people are very adept at it, some people struggle. So far I’ve written about 200 words here. For some, that would take them about an hour. For others, two minutes. For still others, an entire afternoon. (It took me four minutes, just in case you’re wondering.)

If you’re one of the ones who would struggle, then you would probably benefit by taking your idea and breaking it into manageable parts, just like the elephant analogy. Some parts are no-brainers. Start with an introduction, end with a conclusion. These are the easy parts. An introduction sets the tone, lets us know what we can expect, maybe even gives us a preview of what’s to come. A conclusion wraps it up, summarizes, lets us know what we just read. The middle, on the other hand, is where a lot of people get stuck.

That’s why you should probably not attempt the book without a decent outline. Brainstorm the idea – think of all the things you want to write about pertaining to the idea. Jot them all down on sticky notes, arrange the sticky notes into a logical order, and you’ve got the framework for an outline. Now you just fill it in. Write a paragraph about each piece of the outline. Make a note about each piece as to how it fits in with the rest of the book, and what the goal of the piece is. Ask yourself what the reader should come away with after reading the piece. Your outline will end up basically reflecting the book’s chapters, and your preliminary work on thinking each piece through will really give you great direction. Essentially, you’ll now have a roadmap to follow.

Now all you do is just write. Consult your outline, start with the first chapter, and dive in. Don’t worry about the quality of the writing at first. Just get the thoughts in your head onto the page. You can worry about the quality later. And worry you should. There’s an adage that we professional writers know very well: most writing is rewriting. For every minute you spend writing, you should spend five minutes reviewing, revising, rethinking, and rewriting. Maybe even more. Unless your name is Clancy or Grisham, your writing needs work. It’s not going to come out right initially. It never does. Even for us professionals. Guess what? I just rewrote this entire paragraph.

Eventually, you’ll get your project to a point where it looks pretty good. Unfortunately, that means you still have a long ways to go. At that point, get somebody you trust to read it, somebody you know who will give you an honest opinion. And then send it out for professional editing. Have somebody go through it who writes for a living. Do this no matter what your level of competency. Even as a professional writer, I will often get another professional writer to give my work a good going-over.

After all that, it’s back to the keyboard. Make your revisions and polish it all up. Surely now it’s ready, yes? Well, actually, no. By now, you’re way too close to it. Sit it aside. For a month. Maybe six months. Then pick it up and read it. There’s a ninety-nine percent chance at that point that you will find something wrong with it, something incomplete, something missing. Back to the keyboard.

Ultimately, you’ll have your masterpiece. No doubt it will be worth all the work. And a lot of work it is. Just about everybody underestimates how big an undertaking writing a book really is. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. If you’ve got a good idea, then go for it.

One other option: consider hiring somebody to do all that work for you. Ghostwriters exist strictly for that purpose. They have the skill and the expertise to make your book a reality. Think of it this way – just because you have an idea as to what color you want to paint your house, that doesn’t mean you have to paint it yourself. Hire a painter! That’s what they’re for.

Either way, get that idea into print. Express yourself. There’s one thing above all else of which I’m certain: The world can always use one more book!