Have you ever dreamed of writing a book?
My second book- Work Stronger– was recently published and became an Amazon bestseller, and people often ask me how to approach the writing process. Writing a book is a very exciting goal, but it can also be pretty overwhelming. Where do you even begin, right?
Well, in this article, I’ll share the first three steps of the process that has helped me complete two 4-5 star books before my publishers’ deadlines. Then, in a future article, I’ll share the final steps in the process.
Note: This series is strictly about how to write a great nonfiction book. I’ve never written a fiction book, so I can’t offer advice on how to do that. In addition, this series is not about how to market a book after you have written it. That’s a totally different topic for another day.
Why write a book?
Before we discuss how to write a great nonfiction book, it’s worth discussing why you might want to write one in the first place. On a side-note, it’s always a good idea to start any book (or article) with a discussion of why it’s important. Always discuss the “why” before you discuss the “how” or the “what.”
Here are two of the main reasons why you might want to write a book:
- Great books improve other people’s lives. There are many ways to make the world a better place, and writing a great book is one tangible example. Books can inspire us and change our beliefs for what is possible. Books can also educate us and shorten our learning curves. Think of how rewarding it would be to know that your book helped improve the lives of hundreds or thousands of other people. Knowing this brings me a lot of joy, and it can do the same for you!
- Writing a great book improves your life. Writing a book positions you as an expert on a topic, and it strengthens your communication skills and your ability to focus- both of which are becoming rare superpowers in today’s technology-driven, easily distracted world. Writing also builds resilience and discipline, and it’s the ultimate intellectual challenge. Who you become by writing a book is more valuable than any monetary rewards or public recognition that you may or may not receive. In reality, very few people get famous or rich by writing a book. If you are after fame or riches, writing is probably not the best way to get there.
How long does it take to write a great book?
Let’s be clear. Writing a great book takes a lot of time and effort.
Some “writing coaches” promise that you can write a book in a few days or a weekend if you follow their magic formula. In reality, writing a great book is no different than getting and staying in incredible shape. It takes a lot of hard work and discipline, and it doesn’t happen in one weekend.
If you just want to write an article or a 2,000 word eBook that is based strictly on your opinion, you could absolutely do that in a day or in a few days. However, if you want to write a traditional book (generally 50,000 words or so) that is based on extensive research and not just your personal opinion, that will probably take months, if not years.
I mention this not to scare you off, but so that your expectations on timing are realistic. As with any big goal, one of the key challenges that you will face is staying positive and not getting overwhelmed by the magnitude of what you are trying to accomplish.
Where do you even begin?
The late Edgar Lawrence “E.L.” Doctorow, one of the most successful American novelists of the twentieth century, once said that “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
This is a great metaphor to keep in mind for writing a book, or for any big challenge in life. If you ever feel paralyzed by the magnitude of what you are trying to accomplish, tighten your attention, and look only as far as “your headlights.” Break down your big goal of writing a book into a series of smaller, less intimidating steps and habits. As discussed here, I refer to this approach as The Headlights Method. Let’s look at how this works…
THE STEP-BY-STEP PROCESS
Here is an overview of my process for writing a nonfiction book. This is certainly not the only possible approach, but this has worked for me, and you can take some lessons from this, even if you don’t follow this process exactly:
Step 1: Identify your topic and your primary audience.
If you already have a title and/or an outline for a book, that’s great. However, you don’t need a title or outline to get started. You just need a topic and a primary audience. Even that can change along the way.
Some people get hung up on figuring out the perfect title or creating the perfect outline, and they let that stall their progress. Do you know anyone who has been talking for years about writing a book, yet who has not even begun or made much progress? Don’t become that person (or don’t be that person anymore). Just get started!
Writing a book is a very messy process. Recognize that your final product will probably be pretty different than what you initially have in mind. That has been the case for me. Each of my books began with a general direction, and each evolved along the way. I just looked as far as “my headlights” though, instead of trying to envision the final destination and every single step along the way from the beginning.
As for my two books… The topic of my first book (titled I Got My Dream Job and So Can You) is how to create your ideal career after college, and the primary audience is students and recent graduates. The topic of my second book (titled Work Stronger) is how to have more energy, less stress, and higher performance at work. The primary audience is leaders and other ambitious professionals.
Step 2: Identify at least 10-20 sub-topics or FAQ.
After you identify your book’s topic and primary audience, the next step is to generate a list of at least 10-20 ideas for “articles” related to your book. In Step 3, you will write “articles” for each of these sub-topics. For now, just make a list, and don’t worry about the order.
For example, sub-topics and FAQ for my first book (I Got My Dream Job and So Can You) included the following, among others:
- Should you go to graduate school?
- What is the definition of a dream job?
- How to stand out in a stack of resumes
- How to write a cover letter
- How to optimize your LinkedIn profile
- How to prepare for a job interview
- The best questions to ask in a job interview
Sub-topics and FAQ for my second book (Work Stronger) included the following, among others:
- How to plan your day for peak productivity
- Why multi-tasking makes you less productive at work
- Why breaks make you more productive at work
- How to find time for exercise
- How to make exercise fun
- How to create your perfect morning routine
- How to be healthy and productive during business travel
Note: If you can’t think of at least 10-20 sub-topics for your book, you might not really have enough material for a book. Your topic might really just be one article or a series of articles or a short eBook. That’s fine. You could still write, even if you don’t write a full-length traditional book- just like you could still run, even if you don’t run a full-length marathon.
Step 3: Follow a writing schedule.
Consistency is the key to long-term success in any endeavor, and writing is no different. In order to make steady progress on your book, I highly recommend that you follow some sort of schedule. If you only write when you are “in the mood,” progress will occur much more slowly.
There are many different schedules that you could follow, and your schedule could change based on what else is going on in your life. For example, I started working on Work Stronger on Saturday afternoons while working about 50 hours a week as an executive recruiter for Heidrick & Struggles.
Then, at one point, I switched up my schedule and wrote for 30 minutes a day for 30 straight days, as discussed here.
Then, after getting a book deal for Work Stronger, I got approval to take a sabbatical from my job to finish my manuscript. Over a very intense three-month period, I then wrote every weekday- generally for at least 4-6 hours a day.
If you have not started writing yet, or if you early in the process, you could start by blocking out one 2-4 hour block of time each week or one 30-minute window of time each weekday. Of course, you could pick something else instead.
Look at it one week or one month at a time. Pick something that feels attainable. That might just be one hour a week at first. Increase your writing frequency or duration whenever you feel ready.
Whatever you decide, be sure to focus on one of your sub-topics during each writing session. Take it one “article” or sub-topic at a time. Don’t try to address multiple topics in one day, and don’t worry about the final destination at the beginning. Just look as far as “your headlights.”
In addition, you don’t need to publish your articles right away for others to see. At first, you might just want to store your writing on your computer, as you start working through some of your ideas privately. It’s up to you how public you want to be about this at first.
On a related note, I also recommend that you identify a writing location. That could be a home office, a local library, or somewhere else where you can focus. I prefer complete silence when I write, so I never try to write or do any work in coffee shops, as they are way too distracting and noisy for me. However, that’s just me. You have to decide what works for you.
Writing a book is an incredible achievement that can improve your life and the lives of thousands of other people. Many people get overwhelmed by the magnitude of such a lofty ambition. Don’t let that happen to you. Remember The Headlights Method. Take it one step at a time. Here are the first three steps in the process:
- Step 1: Identify your topic and your primary audience.
- Step 2: Identify at least 10-20 sub-topics or FAQ.
- Step 3: Follow a writing schedule.
If you were to follow these three steps and write 10 “articles” of 500-1,000 words each, you would have a great foundation for your book and be much further along than most people who talk about writing a book. This process has worked very well for me, and it can work for you, too. In my next article in this series, I’ll share the final steps to help you write a book of your own. Stay tuned!
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About the author: Pete Leibman is the creator of StrongerHabits.com and he’s the bestselling author of Work Stronger; Habits for More Energy, Less Stress, and Higher Performance at Work. Earlier in his career, Pete worked as an executive recruiter for Heidrick & Struggles, a leadership advisory firm who serves the majority of the Fortune 500. In his free time, he teaches one of the largest group exercise classes in the Washington, D.C. area, and he has competed in the Obstacle Course Racing (OCR) World Championships.