by Stephen L. Nelson, CPA
Because I’ve written more than a 100 books and even been a book publisher, people regularly ask me how one writes a book. I always shrug and say it’s not that hard. But this little article attempts to provide a better answer to the question by describing the easy five-step approach that I use and that I recommend you use.
Step 1: Research Your Topic
Your first step in writing any book is to research your topic. Obviously. To begin any constructive development work on a book—that early thinking about what might make for an interesting book and that planning about what should go into a book—you need to know your topic very well.
This situation leads to a pretty interesting conclusion if you gnaw on this idea a bit. How do you know what you should research if you haven’t yet actually come up with the idea for your book.
Here’s the reality: You can’t know. You can’t practically know what you should research until you possess a pretty good idea about what you should into the book. And yet you can’t have a good idea about your book–a professional quality idea– until you have your research done. It’s another Catch-22.
Which means that economically, practically, emotionally, the next book you write needs to be one for which you’ve already completed the basic research. You’re only going to be able to come up with a good idea for a book on something when you know the topic well. And you’re only going to be to organize the book’s material into some structure that really works when you know the topic well.
The good news is that for many types of writing—and I argue for anything you should write about—you have largely completed your research. If you’re going to write fiction and use a collage of the people and places and ideas that you’ve collected over your life, your research may be essentially complete. If you’re writing an autobiography, you have completed your research. If you’re going to write about something that’s been part of your work for years, again, you probably have completed your research. The same thing is true if you’re writing about something you teach in college.
Step 2: Come up with the Idea
The second step in the process of writing a book is coming up with an idea for some really useful or interesting book. Based on your research and creativity, you need to come up with a good idea. Here are some tips for how to do this:
Don’t pick something big and obvious…
The first thorough book on any important topic—the last war, the current big business success, the next medical breakthrough—can be a good book that succeeds even to the point of becoming a bestseller. But I respectfully suggest that you leave the big topics to the big writers. The problem with big, well-known topics is that they are well-known. And that means, very probably, that big publishers are already talking to big authors about writing books.
Find your own space…
A related point to this idea of staying away from the really big topics is that you need to find your space. You will find it very hard to succeed—especially as a new writer—if you’re doing what’s already been done. Publishers, booksellers and readers will too easily respond to your book or book idea with the feeling, “Well, yes, but hasn’t [insert name of well-known, bestselling writer here] already done that?” By innovating, however, you may be able to find your own empty space—a niche that isn’t already occupied by some successful book or series or author.
Test the market appeal of your idea…
Here’s another technique for filtering and refining your ideas: You ought to write a press release for your idea to verify that the ultimate book sells well as a concept. A press release is a one-page news story that touts your book and proves to people who will help sell and promote your book—distributors, wholesalers, booksellers and magazine editors—that your book is special and unique and worth looking at. Your press release gives your book a chance to break out from the pack of other books and get noticed. Any idea that can’t be distilled into a great press release is risky. (You can see what book press releases are by visiting publisher web sites.)
Build a list of periodicals that will blurb your book…
If you’re considering a nonfiction book, you ought to be able to come with a list of a handful of special interest periodicals (magazines, newsletters, newspapers, and so forth) that prove people are interested in the topic of your book. If you want to write a book about raising Guinea pigs, conspiracy theories concerning the last president, or monetary policy in emerging economies, for example, one of the best ways you can confidently predict people will buy and read your book is to verify that people are already buying and reading periodicals about the topic.
Try to fit your idea into an existing series…
Here’s another technique. If you can fit your idea into a publisher’s existing series, you ought to try that approach. While of course, we writers find it most satisfying to go our own way creatively, you’ll find it much easier to sell another idea that fits in an existing successful series.
I’ve always written about how to use technology for business and for personal finance. That’s my space. And I’ve got lots of good interesting ideas for books. But my bestselling book has been Quicken for Dummies (Hungry Minds 1993-2005). Would I like to write a different sort of personal financial management book? Yes. But to date Quicken for Dummies has sold one million copies in its numerous editions. The royalties on those salve away any creative disappointment.
Focus on a small niche…
That last number I mentioned, the one million copies of Quicken for Dummies, raises an interesting point. As you consider book writing opportunities, know that you can make good money on a book that sells ten thousand copies. Maybe as much as $15,000. A book that sells twenty thousand copies or more is a big hit for both you and your publisher. And that means your best bet is often to go after niche.
Don’t just write another whodunit mystery, write a whodunit for children. Or better yet, write a whodunit mystery for Christian children or Muslim children or Jewish children. And then promote your book not just like all the other mystery publishers do but also using religious education periodicals that go out to churches or mosques or synagogues.
Verify your idea is big enough for a book…
One final idea and this is especially important for new writers. You need to make sure that your idea is big enough for a book—the content you’ll create is big enough to fill 250 pages or 500 pages or whatever. Experienced authors can do this intuitively. I know which ideas of mine support two hundred pages or four pages of writing. But new writers often can’t gauge this very well. Ever read a book where by the third chapter the author just rehashes material already covered in chapters 1 and 2? That’s a book where the idea wasn’t big enough.
Especially for nonfiction books, you ought to try writing a couple of example chapters—maybe chapters 1 and 4—to make sure you’ve got a big topic. Your chapters don’t need to be pristine or perfect. But make sure that you can write a couple of good, rich chapters that aren’t redundant. When you’re done with those chapters, look at what other topics you want to cover and make sure that there’s still stuff left for at least two or three more interesting chapters. A bit of rehashing is okay, I think. But you don’t want people reaching for the television’s remote control in the second chapter.
Step 3: Create a Rough Draft Outline
After you have your idea, I’m going to argue that your third step is to create a rough draft outline. This rough draft outline isn’t the detailed outline that your high school English teacher talked about. A rough draft outline doesn’t go into exquisite detail about your book.
A rough draft outline, instead, just lists chapters and provides some idea of what goes into each chapter. Perhaps the outline includes just a few sentences about what you plan to stick into a particular chapter.
Because this seems very strange to writers who have only written short works, let me explain why the rough draft outline works. At the point when you’re ready to organize the content at a very granular level—when you truly know exactly what you want to say in a chapter—you might was well spend a few more minutes and get down the words. The composing doesn’t take much time at all. You don’t need to worry about redundancy across chapters as long as you’ve got a good idea of the boundaries that separate chapters.
Step 4: Create Your Rough Manuscript Draft
After you complete your rough draft outline, you should begin writing the chapters of your book. Sometimes, you’ll flesh out the rough draft outline a little in order to begin writing. Sometimes admittedly, you’ll need to collect just a bit more data or do a small amount of research to fill in some hole. But don’t delay. You want to get into a situation where you can produce large chunks of writing as quickly and easily (and, yes, as sloppily and slipshod) as possible.
The big challenge of writing a book is the book’s size. What you need to do first, therefore, is get your book in rough draft form. Worrying about grammar and spelling and word choice at the very least slows you down. At the very worst, this worry prevents you from finishing your book. Therefore, write your rough draft as fast as you can. Hurry along without concern about whether you’re being sloppy. Don’t worry about spelling. Don’t worry about quality. Don’t worry if you’re redundant or obtuse or meandering. You can and will fix all of this later.
What you have to do is get the rough draft manuscript done. That’s the Holy Grail. And, paradoxically, worrying about things like grammar actually impedes your progress.
Step 5: Self-edit Your Rough Draft Manuscript
After you complete your rough draft, you need to ruthlessly self-edit your rough draft. If you can cut some word or sentence without changing the meaning, cut. If you can tighten some description, tighten. If you can remove a section or a chapter without taking away from the book’s purpose, remove.
New writers commonly limit their self-editing. They’ve spent perhaps months finishing up the book. Writing one hundred thousand words has seemed like building the Great Wall of China. The prospect of ruthlessly hacking away at all those words is sickening. The effort of all those early mornings or late evenings?
And yet you have to do this. The biggest mistake you can make in your writing is thinking that everything you put down on paper is worth some reader’s time. It isn’t. Some large percentage of what you or I roughly draft is garbage. And if you or I don’t clean the garbage out of our books, it spoils the book.
One final tip about self-editing: Respect your reader. The point of you writing a book isn’t to express your feelings or share your expertise or to (finally) impress your father. You might get these things indirectly. But they aren’t the point of a book.
The point of a book is to supply a reader with useful ideas or information or literary art or good entertainment. It’s all about the reader. And when we writers lose sight of this point, bad things happen to our writing. And our books aren’t very good. In our self editing, mostly what we’re doing is making sure that everything we put on the page is there for the reader.
When you distill it down to just its core ideas, this article doesn’t actually say that much. I suggested that you write about something you already know. I suggested some tips for identifying which of your ideas is good enough to turn into a book. And then I provided some advice about how to grind out a book—advice which largely boils down to outline very roughly, write very quickly, and ruthlessly self-edit.
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About The Author
Stephen L. Nelson, CPA
Redmond WA tax accountant Stephen L. Nelson is the author of both Quicken for Dummies and QuickBooks for Dummies and an adjunct tax professor for Golden Gate University’s graduate tax school.