Most of the clients that I work with don’t have a clue about what goes into writing a book when we first work together. That just makes sense. Most people have never written a book or investigated what it takes to get a book done. That’s what this post is about.
Most of my clients write some kind of nonfiction. Mostly they write business books. Of course, every book is different and every client is different, but most of the books that I’ve been connected with follow the same general sequence. It begins with preparing to write.
Prepare to Write
Long before any writing starts, most authors spend a great deal of time preparing to write. At this point, they usually don’t have a specific idea about what they want to write, but they do have some ideas and a few hunches about what might work.
This is the stage where you do some research. You probably already have some good sources and you’ve probably spoken about the ideas you want to write about several times. Try to get some more information. Dig down. Don’t worry about being comprehensive. It’s almost certain that you’ll need more research once you start writing.
Make a few lists. I suggest that people thinking about writing a book keep three kinds of running lists.
One is a list of sources. What websites, blogs, journals, and newspapers offer up the kind of information you’d like to use in your book?
Keep a list of experts. Identify the people who know a lot about your topic. You’ll probably want to interview them. You’ll certainly want to find out more about what they have to say.
Make a list of the stories you may want to tell in your book. Those can be personal stories. They can be stories that you find in magazines and newspapers. Having a list of stories ready to go when you start writing will help you write interesting copy more easily.
Beyond those lists, you’ll have some ideas about what you want to say, or who you want to interview, or where you want to find more information. Capture those ideas as you have them and just collect them in a file. When you start writing your book, pull them out. You’ll find lots of them will apply to the work you want to do.
Plan to Write
When you’re starting to get serious, it’s time to plan to write. You’re probably thinking that planning to write means making an outline.
Outlines really work for some people, but they don’t work for others. The big problem with the standard that you learned in school is that it’s heavy on the points you want to make and light on things like transitions, illustrations, and stories.
Some people find it better to do what I call a “major scene draft.” A major scene draft organizes your book around your stories. Take that list of stories. Identify the ones that make important points. Then put the stories in order
You may discover that there are important things you want to say that you don’t have a story for. That will tell you what important stories you still have to find.
Some people like the major scene draft method because it organizes the book in big chunks. Some put the key stories on index cards or PowerPoint slides and then move them around to find the best order.
Finally, there’s the zero draft, or what some people call a brain dump. For some people, writing the book straight through without worrying about details is the best way to start. Peter Drucker and Clayton Christensen both used this technique.
Write The First Draft
Writing reveals the gaps in your thinking. If you’ve written a zero draft, you’ve already done some of this. Even so, the first draft (the one after the zero draft) will show up lots of things that you need to improve.
Remember, you can’t start rewriting until you have a draft. And rewriting is the way that great writing happens.
So, create the first draft from whatever planning you’ve done. Prepare for it to be awful. Say to yourself, over and over, “the first draft is the worst draft.”
Revise as Needed
Great writing is rewriting. If you want to write a great book, you’ll do a lot of rewriting.
Start with the first big rewrite. You’ll go through your first draft and finds lots of things you want to fix, as well as lots of notes about things you want to do to make the manuscript better.
Check all your facts. This is especially important if you have written them down off the top of your head and not from another source. Make sure that your sources are true sources and not just repeating what someone else said.
Enrich your draft. See if you can find more research (surveys and studies) to make what you’ve written better.
Insert appropriate stories and anecdotes into your manuscript. Find more stories if you need to. When you think you’ve got your draft pretty good, it’s time for feedback.
Feedback is the breakfast of champions, and also the breakfast of people who write great books. You’ll be giving yourself feedback as you revise your manuscript, but here’s something that will really help you write better.
Read your writing aloud. Your mouth will find things that your eyes miss. Reading aloud helps you get the kind of smooth writing that marks a great book.
Sign up some beta readers. Find people who are like the audience for your book who are willing to read it in draft form and give you feedback. Some of the feedback will make you very uncomfortable. That’s okay. It’s better to be uncomfortable now than after your book comes out.
Keep revising and getting feedback until your manuscript makes your points effectively and reads smoothly when you read it aloud.
Get a Professional Edit
The last step in getting your manuscript ready to go on to publication is to have a competent professional editor review it. A good editor will make suggestions about how to make your manuscript better. A good editor will help harmonize the manuscript so that it uses the same style and conventions throughout. A good editor will save you from yourself by catching errors and verbal tics that you will miss.