There’s no one right way to write a book. Some people participate in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and end up with a bestseller. Others start with a meticulous outline and structured plan. Some (usually not novelists) can get a publication deal on a pitch alone. This article is meant to talk through the various steps involved and help you decide the best way for you to write your book.
Table of Contents
Pre-writing: What are you writing and why?
To quote the iconic 2014 film, Hamlet 2, “Oh my god, writing is so hard!”
And books are long. Most novels clock in around 100,000 words, which is approximately 400 double-spaced pages on your word processor.
If you’re going to write a book, it’s going to be a lengthy process; if you want to finish, it’s important to have an end goal to motivate you. Ask: What are you writing and why?
This could be as loose and simple as you having a story in your head that you just have to get out. Or it could be practical and specific: You’re writing an ebook to drive downloads and revenue for your business. There’s no wrong reason to write a book; you just need to know what yours is.
What kind of book are you writing?
Fiction books tell stories that are all or mostly made up by the author. (We say mostly, because genres like historical fiction tell stories of true events, but the characters’ motives, exact dialogue, etc., is made up by the author.)
- Novels are the most commonly published and read fiction books. They’re long (loosely defined as over approximately 40,000 words, but generally in the 80,000–120,000 range, with some being much longer). They tell a single, unified narrative, and can be of many types and genres (e.g., commercial fiction, literary fiction, upmarket fiction, young adult, science fiction, fantasy, romance, historical, horror, etc.). Examples: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez and Beloved by Toni Morrison
- Novellas are essentially short novels: They can also be of any genre, but generally have word counts of approximately 17,000–40,000. While there are many famous, notable novellas, they’re much less popular with modern readers, so they will be more difficult to publish through traditional methods unless you already have an established name as an author. Self-publishing is changing what people consume, and is currently the most viable publishing option for a first-time novella-ist. Examples: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad and The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
- Short story collections are exactly what they sound like: a collection of a number of short stories, which usually have a combined word length approximately that of a novel. Again, short story collections are less popular with readers, so they’re more difficult to get published, especially as a first-time author. Most short story writers don’t create books until later in their career (and instead publish short stories one at a time in literary magazines or similar publications). Again, self-publishing is changing how and what people consume. Examples: Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri and This is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz
- Poetry collections are books of poetry. Word count is a less-relevant barometer here as there aren’t many standards. Poetry collections are a niche interest, and will be published by small, specialized presses. Examples: The Hill We Climb and Other Poems by Amanda Gorman and Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein
Nonfiction books are those that aim to tell factual narratives. This encompasses a broad, diverse number of genres and types of books. This is an inexhaustive list:
- Popular nonfiction books tell stories that are true, but are written in a way to engage readers. There is a large market for popular nonfiction books, and most major publishing houses publish them. They include:
- Memoirs, autobiographies, and biographies, which tell the true stories of real people. Examples: Lincoln by David Herbert Donald and Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
- Humor and commentary, which may overlap with other genres (but with the aim of being funnier). Example: Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace
- Journalism books are like newspaper stories, but extended to book length, and are usually written by journalists (sometimes as follow-ups to important stories, as more in-depth coverage on a particular story or social trend). Examples: Nomadland by Jessica Bruder and All the President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward
- History books teach us about history; they can take a variety of different forms. Examples: Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing and Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People by Elizabeth A. Fenn
- Travel guides and travelogues tell stories of adventure or give advice on where readers may want to travel. Examples: Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road by Kate Harris and Vagabonding by Rolf Potts
- How-to books aim to teach practical skills. This genre includes cookbooks, self-help books, and gardening guidebooks.
- Academic books are those that are published for the purpose of advancing learning. This can include textbooks to teach subjects to students, dissertations that share new theories and research, and other texts. They’re generally published by academic presses.
Ebooks, technical manuals, etc.
These types of books are mostly nonfiction, but are worth calling out separately as they’re generally published by businesses for a very specific audience. Their end goal is not for the reader to simply read the book, but to do something else once they’re done reading.
- Company ebooks are designed to share knowledge with prospective customers to build trust and ultimately sell a product or service.
- Technical manuals are written to help existing customers learn how to use a product or service.
>>Read More: 20 Women Who Paved the Way in Writing
What’s your end goal?
There are many things you can do with your book once it’s finished.
- Publication through traditional publishing houses is the classic way of getting a book into stores. Generally, you pitch your finished book to an agent, who then pitches it to publishing houses to buy. (In some cases, you may not need an agent.) These publishers write a contract to pay the author (usually a small amount up front, and some sort of revenue split, but there are many forms a deal could take), then they take care of the printing, distribution, and sometimes marketing of the book.
- Self-publication allows individuals to release their books to readers without having to have an agent and publisher. Once looked down upon, it’s grown significantly over the past two decades, and is especially popular with genre writers (science fiction, fantasy, and romance, to name a few). Authors are responsible for marketing their books, hiring a designer for or creating their own book covers, and submitting to distributors (like Amazon Kindle). Authors get a share of the profits for all units sold through a particular platform.
- Online publication allows individuals or businesses to distribute their work anywhere on the web, oftentimes as downloadable content. This format is generally preferred by businesses who are publishing books to attract new customers (with the content free to download in exchange for an email address).
- Self-gratification. It’s also totally OK to write a book simply for yourself.
If you want to write a book for monetary reasons, that’s also totally OK. If that’s your goal, though, you need to do your research to understand what does and does not make money. Writing books is both an art and a craft. If your primary goal is financial, do market research: Understand who your customer (reader) is; know what they want; and know how to reach them.
>>Read More: What Type of Writer Are You?
How to write a book in 13 steps
How you write a book is a matter of personal preference and depends on the type of book you’re writing. For example, if you’re writing nonfiction history, you’re going to need to have a much more extensive research process than someone completing a collection of poetry.
1 Do your research
If you’re writing nonfiction, research can involve doing historical, cultural, scientific, or other academic research. This research can entail reading other work, doing fieldwork, interviewing experts, or can take many other forms.
If you’re writing fiction, you may have to do some traditional research around any real events, people, locations, or other elements that make up your story. You may also want to do internal research to help prepare your story. This can include writing character sketches, making world-building notes, and so on.
No matter what you’re writing, it’s also very helpful to read other works of the same kind and genre. If you’re writing a science fiction novel with a nonlinear structure, read other sci-fi works or books with nonlinear structures.
2 Determine what your book is about
We don’t mean the subject or general plot, but rather the big picture: themes, character arcs, what you’re trying to say about the world.
For fiction, this can take on the form of broad themes—for example, you’re writing a book about familial love or one that shows the impact of climate change.
For nonfiction, you should consider what makes your book unique. For example: this memoir gives a personal account of an important historical event; this book uses a new method of behavioral therapy to help readers get over a breakup.
Now is when you start organizing your thoughts. Some fiction writers like to skip this step (or may return to it after writing a first draft), but others are meticulous planners. If you’re writing for work or nonfiction, this is a crucial step that will make completing your first draft much easier.
Planning can look different depending on one’s personal preference. Here are a few ideas:
- Traditional outlines (like this one!) use bullet points to briefly state and organize thoughts, ideas, chapters, etc.
- Index cards are a helpful tool when you have a lot of pieces and you’re not sure how they all fit together. Write down scenes, pieces of evidence, quotes, and ideas on individual cards, then lay them out on a table or pin them to a board and start grouping and organizing them until you find your structure.
- Treatments are a bit more detailed and fluid than outlines. You basically write a short version of your book, touching on major plot points or ideas.
For example, if you’re writing a novel, you can start with a treatment to get a sense of flow. From there, you can break the treatment up into scenes, which go on index cards (either physical or virtual). The former helps you find the flow of the story and the latter to break the writing up into manageable pieces for production (you can also use the cards when editing—more on that later).
4 Write your first draft
Just. Get. Through. It.
Some people swear by writing every day for an hour before work. Others dive deep into National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Others dabble when they can. There is no right way to do this, only the way that works for you.
The hundreds of pages making up a completed book may seem like a lot, but even if you just write ten pages per week, that’s only forty weekends, or less than a year to draft a complete book.
Common issues that come up with writing your first draft (and how to get past them):
- Problem: I can’t figure out how to finish this scene! Solution: Then skip it! For example, if you’re writing a horror screenplay, you need to build tension. If you can’t figure out what that tension is at the moment, you can insert “a bunch of scary stuff happens” and leave it there. You don’t have to write linearly. It’s OK to leave things to do in the future.
- Problem: Ack! I just realized I know nothing about ___ and my character is holding a ____. I need to do some research so I can be accurate. Solution: Try not to stop your flow to go off on a research tangent. One of the best tips from journalists is the abbreviation TK, which stands for “to come.” It’s also super helpful because the letters T and K rarely appear together in the English language. When you need to come back to something, you can simply write TKTK in the manuscript, and when you’re editing, a quick Ctrl+F can guide you back to all the things you need to fill in at a future date.
- Problem: I realized halfway through this book that it would be better if my character had a younger brother instead of an older sister. Now all the scenes with the sister need to be rewritten. Solution: This is another problem for editing! As you get deeper into your manuscript and things change, start keeping a list of things you want to revisit or double-check in editing. Just jot down “turn sister into brother before boat scene” so you remember to do it.
Maybe it’s just a day, maybe it’s years. But most people need to give their first drafts time to breathe so they can look at them with fresh eyes.
6 Read with an eye for revision
Your first read of your manuscript should be from a high level. Don’t focus too much on sentence-level corrections (if something reads as awkward, circle it, but don’t spend too much time trying to diagnose what’s wrong or you’ll lose the pacing of your book as you read).
You can complete this step with a printed-out copy of the manuscript, but that’s a personal preference.
Here’s what you’re looking for:
- Are there logical inconsistencies?
- What’s the pacing like?
- Is the structure working?
- If you’re writing fiction, do all the main characters have arcs?
Your goal with your first read is to come up with a plan for your second draft. This is where your notecards could come in handy again, to help you decide if scenes would work better in a different order.
For writers who approach a first draft without an outline, this is usually the stage where they come back to their work and uncover structure, and make plans to change or adapt it in the second draft.
7 Write a second draft
This is not editing! At this stage, you are likely adding completely new chapters, getting rid of characters who didn’t add anything, or doing additional research to fill in a hole you didn’t realize existed when you were originally planning.
8 Rinse and repeat steps 5–7
It’s normal to have to go through multiple drafts to iron out all of your issues.
A few things to focus on:
- Grammar, spelling, and punctuation: The obvious ones! Grammarly can help at this stage, when you’ve been staring at the same words for so long. Grammarly helps catch common mistakes in grammar, spelling, punctuation, and more, and offers suggestions for improvement.
- Flow: Hopefully you’ve already worked out larger pacing issues when revising. Now you want to look at language flow. Do all your sentences use the same structure? Or do you mix it up? Are they all the same length, or do you have some that are very short and others that are very long?
- Language: Are you using not only the factually correct words, but also the right language for your readers and/or your characters? For example, if you’re a marketing professional, but you’re writing a book for people who are starting their first small business, are you using industry jargon that they might not understand? Or if you have a character who dropped out of high school, does he speak with an appropriate vocabulary?
- Tone: What tone are you setting with your writing? This may be less applicable to fiction writing, but if you’re writing nonfiction, you may ask: Are you coming across as knowledgeable and confident? Are you empathetic? (In case you didn’t know, Grammarly’s tone detector can also help identify how your writing might sound to others!)
10 Give your manuscript to some beta readers
Some writers may do this earlier in the writing process. That’s fine. No matter when you do it, there are a few things you want to think about when selecting beta readers and setting yourself up for success:
- Choose beta readers who are similar to the intended audience of your book (or are good at putting themselves in the shoes of others). You won’t be able to tell if you’re using jargon in your marketing book if you give it to another experienced marketer to read. Instead, give it to your dad and see what he says.
- Give your readers an idea of the type of feedback you’re looking for. Do you want them to line edit? Or are you looking for overall feelings? Avoid getting too specific (such as, “I want you to tell me if you think the cat dying is unnecessary”) as that may bias them. Rather, give notes like, “I’m looking for input on pacing,” or “I’d love to know which character you’re rooting for.”
- Make it easy for them! If they want a printed copy, figure out how to get them one. If they want to read on their tablet device, export your manuscript as an ebook and send it over. If they’re not professional editors, consider that it’s also nice to offer a little something—pizza or a sweet treat, for instance—in exchange for their services (if they’re not professional editors).
On that note: There are professional editors out there! If you can afford it, and think it would be helpful, by all means, hire one!
11 Take and incorporate feedback
Getting feedback—especially if it’s critical—can be challenging. Your job is to listen. Resist defending yourself. Instead, focus on asking questions to better understand what a reader is telling you. Here’s an example:
Reader: I didn’t like Lorenzo.
Writer: Why didn’t you like him?
Reader: He just seemed kind of slimy. I didn’t like how he talked to his mom.
Writer: Do you think his actions were out of character?
Reader: No. That’s just not how I would have handled the situation.
Especially when there’s feedback around liking or not liking things, make sure you understand. Sometimes you’re not supposed to like a character or a scene. A reader telling you they don’t like a character or scene might be great feedback, particularly if it was supposed to make them uncomfortable in order to advance the story or set the tone.
One rule of thumb: You may disagree with some of the feedback you get. That’s OK. When this happens, try to see if you get the same feedback from another reader. If more than one person gives you the same note, there’s probably something to what they’ve said. If not, it may just be a matter of opinion.
12 Come up with a title
Maybe you already have a great one! But if not, you probably need one now, because we’re just about done . . .
13 Prepare your manuscript for submission/publication/other
What this step looks like is going to depend a lot on what your end goal is. If you’re submitting a manuscript to agents or editors, look up standard formatting guidelines (generally a serif font like Times New Roman, sized 12-point, double-spaced, and with 1-inch margins).
If you’re self-publishing, you’re going to have to get a bit more technical, and format your manuscript as an ebook (there are guides online; requirements may be different depending on what platform you’re using).
If you’re publishing an ebook, you may be working directly with a designer to do page layout.
And for both self-publishing and ebooks, you’ll also have to think about cover design.
Finally, give the manuscript one more proofread (or three) to eliminate those little errors.
Tada! You have now written a book.
And now the hard part (marketing it!) starts.
Recommended book-writing tools:
- Grammarly will make your writing and editing process so much easier. Not only can Grammarly help identify mistakes in grammar, spelling, punctuation, and usage, but it can also help you rewrite sentences to be more concise and offer clarity rewrites. And Grammarly’s tone detector can identify how your writing may sound to readers.
- Scrivener is the best word processing tool on the market for long works. You can easily break down manuscripts into scenes, move the content around, use virtual notecards, and even do research and character development. They also have settings to export manuscripts that are formatted correctly (so you can easily create an ebook, or make sure you meet agent submission requirements).
- 99designs will be your best friend if you’re self-publishing, or publishing an ebook. They have a community of designers who can design a book cover or do your layout for you.
- IngramSpark can help you self-publish your book.
- Distraction blockers. There are several apps out there that will help you work more productively by blocking you from accessing Facebook or other distracting sites for a certain period of time, so you can keep yourself on-track while drafting.