Writing a Book is Like Building a House

Feb 20, 2018 | Writing A Book

When my friends built “the house we’ve always wanted,” they thought a lot about their life and what was important to them.

They found a site in a community where they had many friends that was in a beautiful place and a lot that was big enough to do what they wanted. When the time came to design the house itself, they paid attention to the situation, which way it would face on the land to give them the best views and make best use of natural light. They loved to entertain and spend time with their friends and large family. They made the kitchen open, so they could talk to guests while they prepared the meal. They included a screened-in porch, so smokers could go outside to smoke, even when it was raining.

Building a house is a huge undertaking. It’s possible to do it quickly, but most people who build a house for themselves don’t do it that way. They pay attention to the details. It’s a lot like writing a book.

You must know what the book will do

Some people think you start a book from an outline, but the best books don’t start that way. They start with a purpose. When I work with authors, we spend time defining who will read the book and what will be different for them when they’re done. If you start with that, the details are easier to manage.

My friends knew they wanted to entertain, so they designed their house to make entertaining just the way they like it. The authors who write the best books with me are clear about who they’re writing for and why they’re writing.

You must have a team

When you’re building a house, there will probably be a builder who is the general contractor, and lots of specialized subcontractors. When my friends built their house, they chose a builder to work with who had a reputation for doing quality work. They talked to other people he’d worked with and satisfied themselves that he worked with top-flight subcontractors.

Writing a book is not something that you do alone. You may have a writing collaborator, or a hired trail guide, like me. But even if you don’t, you’ll find that you need lots of other people.

It’s a good idea to have beta readers to give you a sense of how what you’re writing is working. You’ll certainly need professional editing. If you’re submitting your book to a legacy publisher, you’ll need an agent, and you’ll work with your publisher’s staff. If you’re publishing the book yourself, you’ll probably need help with book design, cover design, and the details of publishing.

You must pay attention to details

My friends paid attention to lots of the details in their house. They were careful to select finishes and appliances that they liked and that were perfect for their needs. They spent a lot of time checking to see if what they thought would be the result turned out in practice. Sometimes that meant work had to be redone.

There are a blizzard of details that go into writing a book. The big stuff is easy to spot; the tiny details take some work. Many authors change some of their chapter titles during the writing. It’s normal. But it means that someone needs to go through and make sure that all the references to chapters name them the same way.

You must take the time to do good work

A wise friend of mine once said that no construction project of any size is ever finished according to the original deadline. Great books work the same way. Don’t fight that; embrace it. Take the time you need to write a book you’re proud of.

Yes, it’s true, that there are people who claim that you can write a book in a month, and you probably can. The question is can you write a book in a month that you will be proud of?

Bottom Line

There are a lot of ways that writing a book and building a house are similar. In both cases, you need to decide how the finished product will work. You’ll need help, a team of people with the same commitment to quality that you have. You’ll have to pay attention to details and you’ll need to give your project the time it needs. Excellence is never easy.


I don’t know if any books that capture the anticipation, excitement, trials, drudgery, persistence, and pride that are parts of writing a book. But those things are similar to what happens when you build a house and there is an excellent book about that. The book is House by Tracy Kidder. Some things have changed have changed since he wrote the book more than twenty years ago, but all the significant things remain the same. A great read.