How to Write a Book!

Writing a book doesn't seem daunting if you follow these three suggestions.

Posted Jul 17, 2020

  • I could never write a book—that would take me forever!
  • I would never have the patience to write a book!
  • Every time I sit down to work on the book, I feel overwhelmed!
Source: Pexels/Pixabay

As someone who's published several books, I've heard lots of comments about the process of writing a book over the years. Many people see the task of writing a book as simply overwhelming. Some see it as the kind of task that is beyond anything that they might ever be capable of. And some people who have books that are in-contract with publishers come to dread their book projects, missing deadlines and losing their grasp of the project. 

It doesn't have to be this way.  

Recently, I was asked by a bright young scholar whom I've known over the years for some advice/guidance on the process. How do you make the task manageable? What is your secret to making progress on your book while simultaneously carrying on with other aspects of your life?

Let me start by saying this: I'm not perfect. Not by any stretch, in fact! But I am reasonably good at organizing my time and at seeing projects to completion. So from this vantage point, here, I give you some of the keys that I have used to seeing book projects through to completion.

1. Break the entire project into manageable, bite-sized chunks.

So suppose that you are writing a manuscript that you hope to get published as a book. You have a contract with a solid publisher, and your plan is to produce 300 double-spaced manuscript pages (that might translate to about 220 pages in the actual book). 

A while ago, when you received the contract in the mail, you were elated. This is great! you thought. Getting this contract was a cause for champagne and celebration. 

It is now weeks since you received the contract, and you find yourself staring at a blank document once a week. The idea of even starting the book seems daunting. You ask yourself the following:

  • Where do I even begin?
  • How do I know how many chapters there should be?
  • How many references should I include in each chapter?

Every time you sit down to work on the book, something else comes up. The dog needs to be walked. You get a text from an old friend. Your kid calls, asking if you can drive him somewhere. The book suddenly finds itself sitting near the bottom of your to-do list. 

Don't let it!

The first trick to making progress on your book is to break it into bite-sized pieces (just like eating a steak!). 

I suggest that you start by making an outline of the table of contents. You might have 10 chapters. Or eight. Or 12. Whatever it is, create a page where you write out draft chapter titles. And you should see the narrative of the story that you are planning to tell follow from the one chapter title to the next. 

Also, I suggest that you create this outline in a cloud document (such as Google doc) and use a single document for the entire project. If your entire manuscript is found in a single document, your ability to connect the chapters in a coherent manner simply increases. It may seem like a good idea to make different files for each chapter, but I will tell you, from my experience, you're better off putting it all into one document.

Within each chapter, create a draft of the subheadings. So you might go into Chapter 1 and put in between, say, 5-10 subheadings. And these subheadings, which will correspond to different bite-sized chunks of each chapter, should be organized, again, in a way that tells the narrative that you are looking to tell in a coherent way. Someone should be able to just read your subheadings and see the bird's-eye view of where your line of thinking is going.

So now picture this: You have Chapter 1 broken into eight subheadings, each of which follows from the prior. Now get this: Plan to write about 2-4 pages for each subheading. And when you lose your oomph for the day, just stop! The next subheading will be sitting there waiting for you. It will be obvious where to pick up the next time you sit down to write. You might have the time and energy to flesh out the content for one subheading (this might take you 45 minutes), or you may have lots of time and energy and find yourself fleshing out four subheadings (and about 12 pages) in a particular sitting.

Once the project is broken into chunks in this way, the entire thing becomes much more manageable. Breaking the project up this way makes it so that your goal when you write is not to write your book; rather, your goal is to flesh out the next subheading section or two

2. Don't let the details get in the way of your writing.

Whatever kind of book you are working on, there are going to be research-related details. If you are writing an academic book, you will need a certain number of academic references for each chapter so as to substantiate your points. If you are writing a historical fiction set in 17th-century Wales, you will need to do some research on historical and political facts that correspond to this setting, etc.

My advice is this: Make your actual writing of the book a somewhat separate process from the research-related details. When I'm writing an academic piece, I'll write, in all capital letters, the word "CITE" in places where I will need to cite scholarly sources. And my plan is to go back, as part of a separate process, and add in those citations. 

The reason for this is pretty straightforward. I don't want the details of the research to stand in the way of the book project. If I need a strong reference that speaks to, for instance, something related to the evolutionary psychology of social conflict, I could easily find myself digging deeper into the literature, finding five relevant recent articles on this topic, reading them, and finding ways to integrate the ideas from these articles into my manuscript. While this is part of the process and will have to be done at some point, I never let this get in the way of my actual writing.

To the extent that you can, let your writing flow, and put some kind of placeholders in your work for spots that will need this kind of detailed work. You can add that work as part of a later process. Doing so will allow you to write unfettered. And writing in this kind of flowing manner will increase the coherence of whatever it is that you are trying to say. When it comes to writing, I say that you let it flow!

3. Allocate time blocks each week to work on your book. And do not cheat!

Perhaps the biggest key to successful time management, whatever kind of project you are working on, is the critical role of time allocation. Let's face it; if you're working on a book, you can easily name 100 other things on your plate. Kids' doctor appointments, taxes, grading assignments for a class that you are teaching, committee meetings, etc. 

Because the timelines for book projects are usually really just up to the author, then it is up to you to take the time to make it happen. 

My suggestion is to allocate time blocks that are just as critical as other time blocks. If you're a professor, you may have office hours from 1:00-3:00 on Tuesdays, for instance. I suggest that you might allocate a weekly time, such as 11:00-1:00 on Tuesdays, for working on your book project. And I suggest that you go truly under lockdown conditions during these allocated time blocks.

Make these allocated time blocks just as required as time blocks that correspond to picking up your kids at the bus stop, committee meetings, class periods, etc. And don't check emails or texts or social media during these time blocks. This time is allocated for your book. And that matters. Your book is not going to write itself!

In terms of how many time blocks per week to allocate, that fact is truly going to differ dramatically from person to person and from situation to situation. As a professor, in summers, when I have had book contracts, I've been able to allocate about two six-hour blocks per week (say 10:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m. on Monday and then again on Thursday). But your situation will likely differ. I'd say that, at a minimum, you want to allocate two two-hour blocks per week. And at a maximum, try not to allocate more than 40 total hours a week, as you don't want to get burnt out (and as you have other stuff in your life that needs attention, I just know it!). 

Bottom Line

As is true with all kinds of large projects, writing a book can seem overwhelming. The management of the time to complete the project is up to you, and some people don't like that.

I say that you embrace the fact that you set your own schedule for working on your book. In doing so, make sure to create bite-sized chunks by creating subheadings that will each require only 2-4 pages of writing. And see your work as fleshing out these sections (which is quite manageable) rather than the daunting-seeming task of writing a whole book!

Also, make sure to put off details (such as hunting down technical references) as a different part of the process from the process of writing. Don't let details get in the way of your flow! And finally, allocate time blocks for your writing that are manageable given your life circumstances. And give these time blocks the same respect as you would for any critical events or meetings that take place in your life. See these time blocks as real, and do not cheat!

Looking to write a book one day? I say go for it, and you got this! Writing a book need not be overwhelming if you break the project into small steps. And make sure to enjoy the process along the way, as with anything.