Learning how to write a book seems like TMI for one article — if it were that simple, we’d all be authors! But what this guide can do is get you started with basic steps and tips from published authors, so you can actually begin writing a book. Although we can’t promise to launch you into Jane Austen or Stephen King status, we’ll take some credit in your dedication if you do reach that level of fame (thank you very much).
For many writers, getting started is the hardest part of writing a book. Whether you’re a pantser (just-go-with-it type) or a plotter (needs-a-full-plan type), starting on a blank page is like diving into dark waters. But like anything else in life that’s intimidating, breaking it down into smaller, easier, friendlier parts is key.
So you want to write a book. Why? That isn't a rhetorical question.
Knowing why you want to pursue this super difficult and time-consuming project can help keep your eyes on the prize. Do you want to make the bestseller list or just know you could write a book, or both? (Diana Gabaldon, anyone?)
Author Karen Frazier suggests:
Try writing a letter to readers explaining why you and why this book before you begin.
Use your “why” to help guide your own expectations of the process. This is not the time to try and do what authors are “supposed” to do or what others have done.
This is the time to be real about what you actually have to put on the market. As Karen Frazier shares:
Make sure you’re writing about something where you truly have something to offer.
Once you know your “why,” ask yourself these questions to guide your expectations of the process.
- How much time do you have that you’re willing to devote to the project?
- Are your expectations reasonable, given your real life?
- Will setting a writing schedule work for you?
You don’t need your own private office to write a book. In fact, if the bath is where you get your best ideas, invest in some waterproof notebooks and start bathing! You know you best, so find a space you have legal access to and make it your new office.
Designating a writing space not only keeps you organized, but it also provides a feeling of purpose that can help motivate you when you don’t feel motivated.
Fill your writing space with the things you need to write your book. You can certainly start with pencils and legal pads, an old typewriter, or your trusty laptop, whichever works best for you.
From there, decide if you want to try writing software, like Scrivener, or basic word processing programs.
Author Michael Kwan shares why he finds a simple tool like Google Docs helpful:
It made it easy to write and edit, no matter where I was, and on practically any device if I wanted. The built-in tools, like the spell checker and word counter, came in really handy too. It gave me a quick sense of how long each chapter or section was relative to the rest of the book.
Michael elaborates on how a great thesaurus can give you more than just synonyms:
Referencing the thesaurus on YourDictionary was helpful too when I was at a loss for words or found myself repeating a certain word or turn of phrase. Even if I didn’t use one of the suggested synonyms, it helped to jog the creative juices, so to speak, to perhaps think about the word, phrase, or sentence in a slightly different way.
If you’ve decided to start writing a book, you must have a general idea what you want the book to be about. Jot down the genre you plan to write in along with any ideas you’ve had about the book.
Karen Frazier shares that her initial step in writing any book is a “brain dump”:
I just started writing. Didn’t plan, didn’t edit myself, didn’t second guess. Instead, I wrote as much as was in my head without stopping. (I stopped when the words stopped.)
These notes don’t need to be well organized by any means, they just need to be there as a reminder in times of need.
The individual steps for writing a book will look a little different to each author. You're unique, and so is your process. However, there are some basic steps every author can include in their process, no matter the order in which they’re completed.
Whether you’re writing fiction, nonfiction, or some kind of hybrid, your book will include some of the core elements of story writing. Know them, make note of the ones you’ll be using, then get on with your book.
Examples of basic story elements include:
- Setting - Where the story takes place
- Plot - The events that take place in the story
- Point of view - Who is telling the story
- Characters - Each of the personalities shared in the book
- Conflict - A struggle that propels the story forward
- Theme - The central meaning or message of the book
Planning what you're going to do gives you a good framework within which to be creative. Plus, we’re not talking about a strict five-paragraph essay outline here.
Michael Kwan shares his simple approach to making an outline:
Think of it like a tentative table of contents. That would change and evolve over the course of the writing process, of course, but I wanted to start with a fundamental framework of what I wanted to discuss in the book(s) and how I wanted to format them.
Your outline could take all your ideas from your initial “brain dump” and organize them a bit, filling in gaps as you go. Then, view your outline as a guide that’s subject to change, as Karen Frazier also does.
I do have the rough outline and I work from it once I’ve created it, but I never let myself be constricted by it. My outline guides me and sets out a path, but I am not afraid to go down a few side paths as I write, because I can always remove that stuff later if it doesn’t work out.
Whether you’re planning to self publish or try to land an agent, holding yourself accountable is necessary for any author. Michael Kwan sets “soft goals” for himself at the beginning of any new book project.
I wanted to finish writing X number of chapters, for example, within a certain timeframe, but these goals continued to shift over the course of writing.
He then sets a soft deadline as well because,
If I didn’t set a deadline — even if it was arbitrary and completely flexible — it would continue to be a back burner project that would never be done. Goals are necessary, as imperfect as they might be.
Decide what’s doable given your real life, and don’t get down on yourself when you don’t meet every goal or deadline.
Break down the basic parts of a book, then tackle them one by one in any order that works for you. From the prologue or preface to each chapter and the epilogue, working on one part at a time feels a lot less overwhelming than “writing a book.”
In the initial writing phases for each part, don’t try to edit yourself or even evaluate what you’re writing. Just write. Karen Frazier’s advice:
Being too critical too early in the process can stifle creativity and create blocks.
Now it’s time to put the first draft of each part of your book together. This could be considered your first round of editing. Once you have all the parts together in order, plan to take a few passes at it to see if it makes sense.
- Read your book to yourself all the way through. Make notes on what is missing or what feels boring.
- Take some time away from the draft.
- Read your book aloud to yourself to help catch mistakes in word choice. This is also a great time to notice how your transitions work from chapter to chapter.
- Take some time away from the draft.
- Read your book to yourself, only paying attention to the flow.
- Take some time away from the draft.
- Do a strong copyedit of the entire book.
How do you know when your draft is “finished”? Karen Frazier advises:
If you’ve gone over your manuscript 3-4 times, and all you’re making are minor nitpicky changes, then chances are it’s time to hand it off to the next person in the chain (or to someone with a critical eye who can help you determine what it needs).
Michael Kwan echoes this sentiment:
It’s far too easy to fall into the pit of endless revisions, because there’s always something that you can change, edit, and improve. But, there’s also something to be said about overworking the dough. Going back to the idea of self-imposed deadlines, you just have to decide at some point that good enough is good enough. Easier said than done, for sure.
If you’re serious about writing a book that will get published and sell, you’ll need to look outside your friends and family for feedback here. Whether it’s your NaNoWriMo cohort, a critique group, or even a paid edit from a professional, now is the time to get some feedback.
Be prepared that a good critique can sting or be a little deflating. But as Karen Frazier suggests,
Realize that the editing process is collaborative…not adversarial. Your editor is there to make your work better and more readable, so be open to their thoughts and ideas.
Now that you’ve gotten some professional feedback, you can revise your book with other perspectives in mind. Then you’re ready to pursue your chosen publishing path. Whether you choose self-publishing or traditional publishing, having a solid manuscript is important.
No matter how your book gets published, you’ll be expected to participate in marketing. Michael Kwan shares the realities of the marketing process:
If you build it, they will come? No, they won’t.
You’ll want to write the best book you can possibly write, of course, but you should also have a plan in place when it comes to marketing and publicity. Whether you tackle media outreach on your own or you work with someone on it, it’s important to think (almost) as much about how you’re going to tell people about your book as you do about the content and presentation of the book.
Thinking about your audience and how they’ll find out (and get excited) about your book can also help you remember why you pursued this project in the first place.
If you need a quick refresh or reset when you get into the thick of writing, print out this quick 12-step infographic to remind and motivate you to keep going.
Part of the book writing process includes market research and reading, things you can do when you’re taking time away from your drafts or are stuck in writer’s block. In those moments, these tips can also help keep you motivated.
You need your book to stand out from the crowd, and it will if it’s only something you could write. This is often easier said than done, so Karen Frazier has some tips for you:
- Write like you talk.
- Don’t try to sound like someone you’re not.
- Write what you know.
- Be bold and brave when you write. Readers can tell when you are not being truthful or when you’re inauthentic.
Your book will not exist in a vacuum, so it’s important to see how it fits next to similar works. Take a look at some of the best-selling books in your genre. What books are getting readers' attention — and their money? Now, ask yourself how you can write something similar yet different.
Other questions to explore in your research:
- What is it that you bring to the book and the genre?
- Do you approach it from a fresh angle? Do you have new ideas?
- What voice and point of view is most present?
- Who is the audience? (look at reviews)
The struggle of writer’s block is real, as Michael Kwan so eloquently summarizes:
There’s a common misconception that most writers are always creative, practically bursting at the seams with a deluge of words and ideas eager to hit the page. By extension, the thought is that writer’s block is the exception, the rare instance when the words just don’t come. The reality is that while us writers do love our words, struggling to find the right words on demand happens all the time.
His advice: Step away from your writing and do something that isn’t taxing.
This should help to activate the default mode network (DMN). The ideas you have for your book will continue to percolate, just below the surface of your consciousness.
Alternatively, you could try the “just start writing” method. It doesn’t matter what comes out on the page, says Michael.
Don’t worry if it’s trash; you can always edit it afterwards. Just start writing. What you’ll find, ideally, is that you can get into a flow state. The more you keep going, the easier it will be to keep going.
Karen Frazier offers similar advice to that second option. Remember that “brain dump” you did at the very beginning of this whole process? If you get trapped in writer’s block, go back to that “dump.” Read through it a few times to get your creative juices flowing. You’ll probably find some trains of thought you lost or never thought of in the first place.
Whether you tackle it first, last, or somewhere in the middle of your process, writing that first chapter is one of the most important and most difficult tasks.
Ultimately, your first chapter is what will help sell your book to a literary agent, publisher, or reader. You have mere moments to grab their attention. The first pages of the first chapter should be the best you can do.