The DIY guide to writing a book in 10 steps
Writing a book is something many people dream of doing. Some aspire to write a gripping thriller, while others want to create a personal memoir or a how-to in their field of expertise. For just about everyone, the question of how to write a book in the first place is a common stumbling block.
When asked in an interview how he wrote his books, Stephen King famously replied, ’One word at a time’. And as simple as this sounds, it’s true. Writing a book is a lot like running a marathon, it requires stamina, perseverance and commitment – and putting one foot (or word) in front of the other until you reach the finish line.
But there are a few tips and tricks when it comes to planning, organising and writing a book that will help you get started on the right foot. Here we’ve created a step-by-step guide to help you bring your book into the world.
1. Find your big idea
The first step in how to write a book is to define your big idea.
You need an idea compelling enough to hold the reader’s attention over the course of an entire book.
Why are you writing this book? Who are your readers? Is your idea really book-worthy? If it’s a non-fiction book, what questions will it answer or problems will it solve?
Remember though that your big idea also needs to be simple enough to be explained in a couple of sentences or a short synopsis. This will also help you with your ‘elevator pitch,’ when you find yourself in the lift with your dream publisher and need to tell them what your book is about on the spot.
2. Make a time and place to write
Developing a daily writing habit and a schedule you can stick to is essential to writing (and finishing) your book. So it’s important to set aside a time and a place to write each day.
A few things to consider:
- When are you most productive — are you an early bird or a night owl?
- Where will you write each day?
By establishing a dedicated time and place to write, you’ll find it much easier to get into a writing routine. Once you’re in the habit of writing every day, you’ll be well on your way.
3. Choose your writing tools
A book can quickly become an unwieldy beast once you’ve clocked up a few thousand words. Unless you’re planning to write your book by hand, using software designed for the purpose of long-form writing can save you a lot of trouble further down the track.
Scrivener is a popular choice for authors thanks to features that help you:
- Organise your work into chapters
- Create a detailed outline
- Export the finished manuscript for submission or self-publishing
Or you can keep it simple with Microsoft Word or write from anywhere with Google Docs, which is great for sharing your work with first readers and editors.
4. Eliminate distractions
The next step in how to write a book involves atmosphere. Writing requires focus and that means avoiding the distractions of TV or Netflix, scrolling social media or disappearing down internet rabbit holes under the guise of ‘research.’ There are plenty of productivity apps that can help keep you on track if your willpower is having a wobble.
The Tomato Timer, also known as the Pomodoro Method, is particularly useful for doing short sprints if you’re having trouble getting in the zone. You can also try disconnecting from the internet altogether while you’re working to help remove temptation.
5. Set word count targets
While different genres of books tend to require different lengths, your average book, be it fiction or nonfiction, runs to about 85,000 words. By setting a daily word count target, you can break down the daunting task of writing that many words into bite-size chunks.
This is a realistic and achievable goal for most people – and if you can stick to this rhythm, your book will begin to take shape in no time.
Annual global events like NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), where participants strive to write 50,000 words in 30 days (a minimum of 1,667 words a day) can also help provide the impetus you need.
You can track your progress, set milestones and connect with other writers all working towards the same goal — finishing their books.
6. Outline your book
If you’re tackling writing a book for the first time, writing an outline is recommended. Think of it as a roadmap or blueprint for your book.
An outline gives you an overview of your book as well as a detailed breakdown of the story or content in each chapter, giving you actionable steps to follow so you can stay on course.
While some might argue that an outline can be a bit of a creativity killer, the truth is that knowing exactly what’s coming up next means you have a clear vision of where you’re going and you’re less likely to suffer from writer’s block.
If you’re writing fiction, you’ll need to also give some thought to the story structure you’re going to use.
7. Writing the first draft
Now for the most important part of how to write a book: the writing itself.
The first draft is simply about writing your book from beginning to end as quickly as possible.
While it might be tempting, don’t edit as you go. Editing at this early stage will only slow you down until you’re lost in the details, and you’ll never get past the first chapter. Building momentum here is key in order to reach the finish line so focus on getting the story or concept of your book down first.
If you hit a wall or get stuck, simply jump ahead to a different section and come back to that part later. It’s important to keep in mind that your final, finished manuscript may end up bearing little resemblance, if any, to this rough first draft. A lot can (and usually does) happen in the second and third drafts. But you can’t edit and refine something that hasn’t yet been written, so get cracking.
Says author Shannon Hale, “I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shovelling sand into a box so that I can build castles.”
8. The marathon of the middle
Every writer starts out writing their book full of enthusiasm and optimism, only to hit the joyless middle stretch. The middle of the book is typically where both the writer and the reader lose interest and the dreaded ‘writer’s block’ often strikes. It’s also the point where the majority of wanna-be writers give up.
The best tactic for getting through the seemingly endless expanse of the middle? A plan.
This is where your detailed outline will be worth its weight in gold, because you’ll have already mapped out how to persevere through this part before you start writing it. Your outline will be the map that safely guides you through to the other side. So if you haven’t taken the time yet to create one, go back to step six and start outlining.
9. Kill your darlings
Once you have finished your first draft (and performed a happy dance for an unspecified length of time) give yourself a congratulatory pat on the back and then put the draft aside.
Allow your mind to be preoccupied with other projects and ideas.
Taking a break will enable you to come back and edit your first draft with fresh eyes and a new perspective. With a little distance, you’ll be able to see the wood for the trees and, more importantly, be ruthless.
The hardest part about editing and rewriting your own work is having to kill your darlings, all those brilliant lines that just don’t quite fit. Second, third and fourth drafts are all about honing, trimming and tightening — adding layers of complexity in some parts and removing waffle and fluff in others. If the words don’t add to the story, take them out.
10. Get some feedback
Constructive feedback is the next step in how to write a book. A fresh pair of eyes on your work will spot things you can’t see, and critical feedback can help you improve your writing.
However, getting feedback too early in the writing process can really derail your productivity and send you off on the wrong course, so resist the temptation to show anyone your first draft. As our old friend Stephen King once said, “Write the first draft with the door closed. Write the second draft with the door open.”
Taking a writing course is a great way to workshop your first draft to a second or third draft.
Many also provide in-depth structured feedback from published authors as well as the other writers on the course. Writing groups can also be excellent sources of feedback and points of connection with other writers.
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How to write a book in 10 steps
Learning how to write a book, and putting in the hard yards to finish it, is a huge achievement. If becoming a published author is on your bucket list, remember preparation is key. To recap:
- Define your idea
- Make a plan
- Set yourself daily word count goals
While the finishing takes persistence, once you know you can write a book, there’s no limit to the creative masterpieces you can produce. Happy writing!