How to Get Started Writing a Book: Considerations and Strategies for First-Timers
November is National Novel Writing Month, also known as #NaNoWriMo. We’re now halfway through, and writers all over the country are racing towards finishing a 50,000-word manuscript by the end of the month. Perhaps you’re taking part, or perhaps you have writer friends who are involved in the mad dash.
I’m not taking part myself — I write mostly non-fiction. The closest I get to fiction is in my songwriting, and maybe someday I’ll write my own musical (Lin Manuel Miranda is to blame for that, of course).
Throughout my career in publishing and beyond, I’ve helped writers become authors. It’s a great pleasure to help someone conceive an idea, develop it, and see it through to completion. I’ve worked with a wide range of writers, from independent, self-published authors to a Pulitzer finalist.
Writing a book is a huge undertaking. It requires a ton of time, effort, and dedication. It can be maddening, frustrating, and soul-sapping. But it can also be the best thing you’ll ever do — a boon for your life and career.
How to Get Started Writing a Book
So what about you? Have you ever thought about writing a book? It can do a lot of great things for you. So let’s look at the potential upsides, downsides, and strategies to make it all happen should you wish to take the plunge and get started.
First, you really want to have a clear purpose behind it before you start out, or you’ll find it very hard to complete the project. I want to walk you through all the considerations so that you have a very clear idea of what you’re getting into.
OK, let’s begin with a question.
Should Writing a Book Be a Part of Your Content Strategy?
First of all, I should say that you don’t need to have a book as a part of your content strategy. There are many different types of content you can use instead. Many of my clients are in this situation — they produce tons of content, none of which is a book. But writing a book is still worth considering. It’s a great way to convey information in a cohesive, well-organized fashion. It’s a way to package up your expertise and sequence it properly for a reader to learn from you.
It can also do good things for you and your business:
- Authority. Your ideas will speak for you. You have the opportunity to be seen as a thought leader.
- Efficiency. You will have the best, clearest articulation of your ideas. No need to re-create it ad hoc.
- Propagation. The format lends itself to circulation, which means that your ideas will be spreadable.
- Accomplishment. Completing a project of this type sets you apart, and people will see you in a different light.
Only you can decide whether the investment of energy is worth it to you. Here’s a deeper look at the considerations around whether or not writing a book is a good strategy for you.
Things to Consider Before Starting Your Book Project
Completing a book-length project is a massive challenge. No sugar-coating here — the process is grueling.
But if you have decided to go for it, let’s talk about what will be expected of you. Like anything in business, you need to have a plan before you start. Writing a book is no different.
You’re busy. You’re running your business. You don’t have the luxury to set aside months to work exclusively on a book project. It can’t take you away from you core business. So, how can you complete a project of this type?
Back in my days as a book editor, I always advised my authors to take it one step at a time. Break it up into small milestones. You have to. Otherwise, projects of this size and scope would never get finished. They’re too big and too daunting to consider all at once.
This is why I recommend that you use a blog as your first draft. Why?
- It gets you writing and producing. That’s always a good thing. Treating your content as a promise puts a little pressure on you. Good!
- It gets you interacting with your customers. Not only will you be growing an audience, but “live” practice will improve your writing.
Blogs are perfect for this — they allow you to practice in front of a live audience. You’ll get to test out ideas, in real time, in front of real people. What better way to understand what works and what doesn’t? This is good for your writing — but it’s good for your business too. You’ll know your customers so much better this way.
Here’s an overview of the things you should consider before committing to a book project.
Getting Started on Your Book Project
OK, so we’re going to start with a blog. Great. Maybe you already have some material, or maybe you don’t. Either way, writing with a clear goal in mind will help keep you on track. Now let’s talk about how you get started on a project of this scope.
There are a few practical things that you can do to get on the right track and keep the project focused:
- Content Audit. A full review of the content you already have. This will help you figure out where you are and where you stand. How much blog material do you have? Newsletters? Sales pieces? E-mails to customers? You may not be able to use everything, but it helps to know what you have.
- Content Function. Going from blog-post-as-first-draft to an actual book will take some work. Expectations are going to be higher. Your book needs to provide a coherent path. What is its function? What will make it worth it for the reader?
- Book Structure. Non-fiction is generally meant to be instructive. That means that you are a teacher. How do you lay out this topic to someone who doesn’t know as much as you do? Organization matters. Sequence matters. Start with at least a first draft of a table of contents, even if you veer from it as you go.
- Book Format. Setting daily or weekly word count milestones can help you stay on track. This is why NaNoWriMo is so effective (well, that and the supportive peer community around the event). But don’t let the tail wag the dog. With ebooks, word count isn’t as important anymore. Especially if you intend to self-publish. Make the book whatever length it needs to be. There’s no reason to keep writing if the book has achieved its goals.
Every writer works a little differently, so you have to find the right formula for yourself. But in my experience working with hundreds of authors as a book editor, having a set of goals and a clear structure really does help. Your expectations will change and evolve as you go. The finished project won’t be exactly what you envisioned. But forward motion is a lot more powerful when it’s focused rather than aimless.
If you’re ready to begin, let’s take the steps to get started on your book project.
How to Get Past Writer’s Block
The bane of any writer’s existence: Writer’s block. Ugh. It hits us all at some point. So how do you wrestle free from its clutches?
Here’s the way I look at it. In a way, writer’s block is just an excuse. I’m kind of mixed about it, though. While I want to be like those writers who forge ahead no matter what, there are definitely times where I get stuck. When the creativity doesn’t flow.
The best advice I can give is to keep making forward progress somehow. Call it writer’s block or low creativity — either way, if you’re running a business, you need to keep things moving. In this episode, I talk about a couple strategies that I employ, and I hope they will work for you too.
1. Writing Tasks
What are you working on right now? Producing content of any type involves many different tasks. I tend to divide the tasks into two categories: Creative vs. Operational.
- Creative tasks are: Ideating, outlining, writing.
- Operational tasks are: Organizing, editing, refining.
Not feeling creative? Switch to an operational task instead. Do whatever you can to keep making forward progress.
2. Writing Tools
Are your writing tools actually helping you? As a media producer (that’s what you are!), your toolset matters. It’s either helping you be more efficient or it’s not. If your tools are hard to use, get in your way, or slow you down — time to move on to something better. The two tools that I rely on the most for writing are Evernote and Scrivener:
- Evernote is great for capturing and organizing scraps and ideas. A tagging system allows you to access different notes by theme or state (meaning draft or final).
- Scrivener is simply the best tool for writers. It lets you focus on the writing, but it’s also a powerful organizing tool, allowing you to shuffle sections and chapters easily.
To help you, here is the complete list of all the tools that I use regularly as a part of my own content strategy (plus a bunch of other planning tools, worksheets, and templates). None of these are paid endorsements — just my own opinion. Hope that you find them to be helpful.
Here are my strategies for how to stay focused and avoid writer’s block.
Repurposing Content: The Key to Efficiency
A book is always a part of your overall content strategy. One of my goals — for myself and my clients — is to never make only one use of any piece of content. While we can’t be absolute about it, making multiple uses of your content makes you much more efficient. That’s why I’ve devoted an entire series to the topic on my podcast, Marketing Without the Marketing.
I have two key methods: Upstream and Downstream.
The Upstream Method
Writing a book can be a daunting process. Not to mention that as small business owners, we can’t just take time out to write a book when we’ve got an active business to run. With my upstream method, you can achieve two goals at the same time:
- Working from a clearly-defined plan, you make weekly progress on your blog, building your audience while you do it.
- Before you know it, you have enough of a first draft to hand it over to an editor — or start shopping it around to an agent or publisher.
Authors are often concerned that they will get a hard time from publishers or agents if they publish draft book content on their blog. This attitude is beginning to change, however — and I use this blog-to-book method all the time with my clients.
A great example of this is Dr. Devorah Heitner’s book, Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World (affiliate link), which was picked up by Routledge and published in September 2016.
You just need a plan to get started. With the structure of a book as a roadmap, you can write it little by little while you publish each section in blog form. It’s the best way to get a book project done while you build an audience.
Here’s a more comprehensive look at my blog-to-book process, so that you can use it too.
The Downstream Method
In running your content strategy, it’s equally important repurpose content in a “downstream” manner, too. As I teach it to my clients, there are two cases:
- Repurposing long-form content into medium-form content, such as going from book to blog.
- Repurposing medium-form content into social content, such as going from blog to social.
I focus more on the second case, since it’s the more common. It’s also all but required in running a sound content strategy. If you’re not repurposing blog content for your social posts, you are missing a huge opportunity to save time and effort.
So let’s teach you how to do that. The simplest action you can take is to reuse the meta description, the post excerpt, and the post content itself — and to prepare all this content up front so that you can plan for it all to work together in a nice, coordinated way.
Then when it’s time to promote the post, you don’t really have to think about it too much, because you’ve already planned it out and put it on an editorial calendar. Not only will make you much more productive, but you’ll find that your social posts are a lot stronger as well, because you’re treating them as a part of the writing process. This is really good content strategy, and a great way to up your game — both in quality and time saved.
Learn more about the downstream method here — and don’t forget to download the templates that accompany this lesson!
Get Out There and Write That Book!
I hope that this has helped lend some clarity to the process — and the considerations around it. While it’s not for everyone, I do believe that anyone can do it. I’ve seen it happen hundreds of times under my own guidance. You can do it, too. To assist you, here’s a ton of free help in my podcast and blog, some inexpensive help in my online course on marketing for writers, or exclusive access with one-on-one training if you’re ready for that.
Also, as I mentioned above, I have a ton of free templates and tools for you to download, including the Twitter length-checker that I created (I still try to stick to 140 characters), and an editorial calendar that I use for social media posts. Join my site as a member and you’ll get free access to all the practitioner content that I create.