Writing a Book: Preparing to Write Your First Draft

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Carl thinks he’s ready to start writing his book. For years, he thought that he should write a book. A few months ago, Carl researched what goes into self-publishing, and he thinks he can do that. Today, he’s getting ready to plan his first draft.

The odds are that Carl will begin by trying to outline his book. That’s a mistake. Don’t start by outlining. There are plenty of things you should do first.

Writing a book is different than thinking about writing a book. Writing a book is different than writing articles or blog posts. An outline is your content plan. Don’t create it until you know for sure what you want to say.

Get Everything Out of Your Head and Into A File or A Pile

Get everything out of your head and either into a file or into a pile someplace. You can’t do a good job of writing your book when a lot of stuff is still in your head. You can’t count on it to pop out at the right time. You can’t count on being able to remember it when you need to.

There are two ways to get everything out. One way is unstructured. Do a brain dump (actually, several brain dumps) and get everything you think about writing a book out of your head and into a file. Go through files you already have and find the ideas you want to use in the book.

The way I recommend to clients is more structured. It’s called a zero draft.

When you write a zero draft, you write your book from the beginning to the end. When you come to something you don’t know, you make note of it so you can get back to it later. When you hit a rough spot, make some notes about what’s troubling you, but don’t solve the problem right then. Keep writing the draft.

A zero draft is a great first step to writing a great book. Most of my clients who write a zero draft do something like a brain dump and file search. Then, they write the book straight through, making notes of any problems or any gaps.

When you do that, you get the facts and you get the flow. You find out where things don’t work. You surprise yourself with things you couldn’t have planned.

Let It Go, Let It Go

Once you have everything out of your head, it’s time to let it go. Don’t work on the book for a while. Let your ideas simmer in your head. New ideas and insights will pop to the surface.

When you get an idea, capture it. I don’t care how. Use note cards, a small notebook, or a digital voice recording. Capture the ideas so you can add them to the ideas you already have. After a couple of weeks of this, you’re probably ready to outline.

Sweep Your Ideas into Piles

At this point, you’ve got a lot of ideas. If you’ve done a zero draft, you’ve got some idea of form and structure. Now, it’s time to go through everything you’ve got and look for the things that go together. Those will become important points in your book.

There are all kinds of ways to do it. You can create a mind map. You can put your ideas on cards and put the cards in piles. You can create a PowerPoint deck with a slide for each big idea. You can lay things out on the floor or on the bed and see how they visually relate to each other. Whatever you do, the process is the same. You’re pulling out similar ideas and supporting material from all the ideas you have.

Put the Big Rocks in First

You’ve got piles of ideas, but if you’re going to write a book, you must put them in order. Identify the few important points. Then, put them in order first. Next, take less-important ideas and fill in around them.

Now, you’re starting to outline. Make sure you have the big ideas in order. Add other ideas that you know you’ll need. Put it all into an outline.

Write the Transitions

There are a couple of problems with the standard outline. Outlines are idea-heavy. A good book needs stories and supporting material. So, go through your outline and note the places where you need more than the point.

Outlines don’t address transitions between points. My experience is that that’s where most outlines break down in practice. You may think you have things in the right order, but until you’ve considered the transitions from one point to another, you can’t be sure.

So, write the transitions between every set of points. I mean write out the transitions. Don’t just think about them. Things sometimes seem perfect in your head but break down when you try to put them into prose.

Content Check

Before you start writing, go through your content to make sure you’ve got everything you need. You will, almost certainly, have your key points. For each point, there should be a story and some supporting research. The research can be scientific or anecdotal, but it should be there. Readers expect it.

Bottom Line

Your first draft is the draft where you want to get everything in the proper order. Prepare for it by capturing your ideas and getting everything either into a file or into a pile. Let go for a while and let your brain come up with some new ideas. Then, sweep your ideas into piles. Start putting the piles in order, with the big rocks (the most important points or stories) first. Fill in with lesser points and stories. Write the transitions, do a content check. Now, you’re ready to write that draft.

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