34 Tips for Writing a Book from Authors Who’ve Actually Done It
Writing a book isn’t easy. If you’ve done it or attempted it, you know that. I’ve done it successfully — and I’ve attempted and failed. Both are hard. I reached out to fellow authors who’ve managed the feat so we could commiserate… I mean share our best tips.
I imagine you’re here because you took a break from writing a book to look up advice on how to write a book. You’ve got to get back to writing soon, and there are a ton of solid tips here (from a ton of smart authors you’ll want to look into), so I recommend bookmarking this page to come back to every time you think you can’t get another word on that taunting page.
Successful Authors Share Their Best Tips for Writing a Book
Here, in no particular order, are my favorite tips for writing a book.
1. Learn How to Write Well
No one wants a bad writer to publish a book. Before you start, make sure you know how to write well. Here’s a secret: Nothing in particular makes writing “good.” It just comes down to one simple rule: Good writing makes sense to the people you expect to read it.
2. Make Time for It
The idea was the easy part. The hard part of a book is figuring out how to start writing.
Commit to a routine and a set of goals from the start, so you have a timeline and guidelines to help you focus on writing your book when it gets tough. Set daily writing goals, and create a workable plan to start writing around other obligations.
3. Plan Ahead (and Create an Outline)
As massive as it sounds, writing a book doesn’t have to be one big task. Follow these bite-sized steps to write your book… no excuses.
4. Know What Makes You Unique
Who you are significantly affects what you write, how you write it and how readers interpret it — whether you intend it to or not.
Knowing who you are as an author is your foundation for the other elements that will make for a great book: how you speak to and understand your reader, and how you present your story or ideas.
5. Start With an Original Idea
You’re probably trying to tell a story or share a thought or teach a lesson someone’s written about before. There’s only so much going on in the world, and people aren’t all that different.
Figure out how to make this one uniquely yours, so readers absolutely have to hear it from you. You can do that in a lot of ways: a new angle, your unique voice, the format or organization, sources you incorporate. Your special weapon is you. No other author has that in their toolbox.
6. Write for Your Reader
It seems obvious, but it’s easy to forget who you’re writing for and to slip into writing for yourself, your editor, your peers or someone else’s reader.
"You've got to know who [your book is] for, and know exactly why they will want it,” then–vice president of marketing at Lulu.com Dan Dillon told Forbes. “Don't write a book for everyone."
My simple trick to figure out who your specific reader is (and what they want from you) is to create your reader story.
7. Start With a Clear Purpose
What do you expect your book to achieve? I don’t mean sales or income. I mean the deeper purpose for your writing. How will it serve the reader? What do you hope to add to the world by publishing it?
“Figure out what the main message [or] purpose is behind your book, and then storyboard it out several times to figure out how you want to say what you're trying to convey,” suggests Kristy Gaunt, author of “Kids These Days.” “You'll probably find you're trying to cram too much in, and it's distracting from the main message.”
8. Set up Your Writing Space
If you want to finish this thing, you’re going to need to show up every day. Where will you show up to? Pick a space that’s separate from where you sleep, eat or watch TV, so you can be totally ready to write when you sit down.
If you can’t or don’t want to dedicate a physical space, develop habits to carve out brain space each time you write. Meditate or do yoga before you start. Use a dedicated book-writing tool like Scrivener.
At The Write Life, I recommended eight popular kinds of music to help you focus while you write.
9. Don’t Wait for Permission
You’ll never write a book if you don’t start. Duh. But here’s what a lot of writers don’t realize: You don’t have to wait for someone to tell you it’s OK to start writing a book.
“Be brave enough to put it out into the world, even though it is not perfect and no one has given you permission to be an author,” says Kylie Dunn, author of several books including “Do Share Inspire” about her My Year of TED project.
“It will never be perfect, and so much brilliant writing stays hidden away because people either don’t have the courage to share it — I know it’s scary — or don’t realize they can do it themselves.”
10. Choose a Style Guide
There is no such thing as “the rules” of writing, despite anything your high school English teacher might have told you. Even the basics are contended — serial comma or no serial comma?
For clarity and consistency, choose a style to follow — that is, which style guide you’ll turn to when you have a question about grammar, punctuation or whether to use a singular “they.” Industries and genres tend to have common style guides. You can choose what works best for you, but I recommend sticking with the norm for your genre, because it’s what readers expect. Common style guides include:
“Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association” (APA style), common in scientific writing
“MLA Handbook” (by the Modern Language Association), common for scholarly writing
“The Chicago Manual of Style,” common for commercial writing and book publishing
“The Associated Press Stylebook” (AP style), common for news organizations and blogs
You can also make some choices as you write and create a unique style sheet for your book.
“Your style sheet doesn’t need to be formal or detailed,” explains literary agent Rachelle Gardner, “but a simple one that you create as you write or revise could help you define and keep track of the elements that are important to you.”
11. Learn a Few Self-Editing Tricks
Self-editing isn’t a substitute for a good editor, but it’s a smart place to start. Apply these self-editing tips from The Write Life to clean your copy and let your editor focus on the bigger picture.
12. Find a Second Set of Eyes
Don’t scrimp on editing. (OK, I’m biased. I am an editor. But, seriously.)
Typos annoy readers and eat away at your credibility. Even more important, though, an editor is an outside perspective on your writing. They don’t have your biases and can advocate for the reader to help you write something that makes sense and makes an impact.
13. Write Something Shorter
“Long projects are daunting,” Jeff Goins admits simply at Goins, Writer. “Start small.”
Don’t worry about publishing your magnum opus on your first go ‘round. Worry instead about doing something you can finish. Working on it will let you flex your muscles and give you the tools you need to do even better on the next one.
14. Screw Motivation
Do. Not. Sit. Around. Waiting. For. Motivation.To. Strike.
“Let’s set the record straight right from the get-go… Motivation is a crock,” writes coach Jennie Mustafa-Julock in her book on tackling your inner naysayer, “Hilda.” “While it does feel good, motivation is completely unreliable. It relies on your emotions, and your emotions are constantly changing. You simply do not have the luxury of waiting! You need to get things done!"
15. Start a Blog
Don’t think you can tackle an entire manuscript? Break it into blog posts, little 500– or 1,000-word bits that can stand alone but together suddenly amount to your whole friggin’ book.
This is my favorite approach to nonfiction, but it wasn’t my idea. Author Nina Amir popularized the approach with her book — and, aha!, blog — “How to Blog a Book.”
“It’s very simple,” Amir writes. “Write a blog post per day and a book per year.”
16. Use an Outline… or Don’t; It’s up to You
“Outlining helps a lot of people while others choke on the structure and need to write by the seat of their pants,” says Angela Rose Weber, author of the Quick Productivity Guides series. She recommends, “Try both approaches to see what works.”
17. Keep a Journal
When I’m journaling, I’m a better writer. It’s also a great place to jot down ideas that aren’t quite ready to go in the book yet.
18. Read Good Writing (and Bad)
Enjoy the best writers in your genre, and learn from them — without imitating. You can’t write well if you don’t know what good writing looks like.
I’d argue, also, that you can’t know what good writing looks like unless you’ve read bad writing. Kind of a yin/yang thing. Enjoy your guilty pleasures.
19. Pick a Smart Title
I’m in the business of writing headlines, and nothing annoys me more than a vague title, especially for nonfiction. I might lean toward unimaginative, but I don’t even love vague titles for fiction. You don’t have to give your book away on the cover, but you should help the reader understand what’s in it for them.
“Many authors like the idea of using a personal word or a catchy phrase that has meaning for them but could be misunderstood by readers,” writes author Joanna Penn of choosing a title for your nonfiction book. If you must, she recommends, “One way to mitigate this is to use a clear, targeted subtitle.”
20. Do It Your Way
You’ll find no shortage of tips to write a book that sells, programs to finish your manuscript in an astoundingly brief period or articles on how to overcome writer’s block. But you have to write your book your way.
“Don't worry how long it should take you,” says Weber. “Write when you have the time, carve out your own method and structure. Some people find dictating to be much faster. Others prefer to type. If you're writing a novel you may find Scrivener to be the best writing tool in the world. Or you might hate it and prefer to type in Word or write everything out on pen and paper. You have to find what works best for you. No two writers are exactly alike, and that's OK.”
I’ve found trying to follow someone else’s prescribed methods sets me up for failure. It feels overwhelming, and I just never start.
21. Place “Gold Coins” throughout Your Story
Author and writing teacher Roy Peter Clark offers this advice to avoid what he considers a bait and switch. Reward the reader with “gold coins,” or strong bits, throughout a story, especially in the middle when they might otherwise get bored, Clark recommends in “Writing Tools.”
Avoid the temptation to put all your strongest quotes, tips or anecdotes at the top of your story or in chapter one. That leaves the reader teased by a strong beginning but left at the end with, Clark says, “the toxic waste that drifts to the bottom.”
22. Find a Partner
“If you're struggling to finish, bring on a co-author,” recommends Susan Shain, who wrote “The Ultimate Guide to Seasonal Jobs” in partnership with CoolWorks. “...Having a fresh set of eyes — and batch of energy — helped me finally push my ebook over the publishing line. Plus, it also greatly expanded the reach of the finished product.”
23. Describe It in a Tweet
The elevator pitch is so 20th century. Talk to me on an elevator, and I’ll pretend I can’t hear you over the music in my headphones. Instead, to find the focus of your story, describe it in a tweet.
“As you write every chapter, try to craft a tweet-sized, one-sentence summary that distills the main point of that section,” recommends Steve Woodruff, author of “Clarity Wins.” “This will help maintain focus and clarity.”
24. Eliminate Distractions
Avoid giving yourself a reason not to write. Set aside your phone, and disconnect from the internet. Use a writing tool made to help you focus, like OmmWriter or Write or Die, for an extra push.
25. Get to Know Your Characters
“It's really important to work on your character development, as well as be able to perform a character analysis on them!” Gaunt advises fiction writers.
As if you were studying your own literature — as readers might do — evaluate your characters’ traits. Note, as A Research Guide for Students recommends, their motivation, actions, dialogue, physical description and even the name you choose for them. What do these all mean to the reader, and how can you apply them consistently throughout the story to create the character you want?
26. Know When to Take the Reins
Don’t wait around forever for a publisher or agent. Sometimes you have to take control and DIY. Just make sure you do it well and temper your expectations, as author Catherine Ryan Howard cautions in her book “Self-Printed.”
“Yes, my book had been rejected, but I wasn’t taking it personally,” Howard says of her decision to self-publish her first memoir “Mousetrapped” after a litany of rejections from publishers. “I was also brutally realistic and knew that by self-publishing … I was not going to get rich, famous, or rich and famous.”
27. Talk to Yourself
Not being a writer doesn’t have to preclude you from writing a book. If you have a big idea and a bit of gumption, go for it. Mustafa-Julock didn’t consider herself a strong writer when she committed to “Hilda.” But that didn’t stop her — instead, she played to her strengths.
“When I write, I tend to sound more formal than I want,” she says. “If you’re like me, here’s a massive time saver: Record your thoughts aloud, send them off for transcription and then start with that as your shitty first draft.”
Dictating can save you time and help get your unique voice on the page. (Just find a good editor to help you polish those shitty first drafts.)
28. Stop in the Middle of a Sentence
Worried about writer’s block? Gurus have a million and one tips to overcome it, but here’s one I like: Author Cory Doctorow suggests stopping in the middle of a sentence.
It leaves “a rough edge for you to start from the next day,” Doctorow told NeuroTribes. “That way, you can write three or five words without being ‘creative,’ and before you know it, you’re writing.”
29. Get an Accountability Buddy
Few things are more motivating than the potential judgment of someone you respect. You want them to celebrate your success, and you want to avoid their critique of your failure.
Tell someone you’re writing a book. Find someone who will check in on you — not to keep tabs, but because they genuinely care what you’re working on. It’ll motivate you to have something new to report every time they ask how the book is going.
30. Don’t Edit as You Go
Self-editing will help you down the line. But while you write? Stop it.
Don’t read what you’ve just written. Don’t try to rearrange words or sentences or paragraphs. You’ve got a lot to write, and it’s not ready to edit until it’s done. Editing takes time, and right now, your time should be filled with writing.
31. Don’t Break the Chain
Do something enough times, and it becomes a habit. I’m certain there’s research to support that, but we all know it deep down, don’t we? I hated coffee until I worked in a coffee shop and slowly drank the stuff every few weeks, then a few times a week, then every day, then every waking hour. I drank it habitually for years until I decided to stop, and I went one day without coffee, then two, then three, until not drinking coffee was the habit again.
Do something enough times, and you’ll trick yourself into doing it without thinking.
“Starting is hard, and starting again is harder,” writes Gretchen Rubin, author of “Better Than Before.” “So, if there's a habit we don't want to break, we should try never to stop.”
32. Persevere, Even When It’s Boring
I’ve written the first 2,000 words of about a dozen books. It’s very exciting, that shower thought, a morning spent hammering out the first words, the afternoon spent daydreaming about the rest. But then it gets dull.
The books I’ve finished have been a slog, even though I’ve loved them. Sound familiar?
“Every book becomes a challenge a few chapters in,” says bestselling author Jerry Jenkins. “The shine wears off, keeping the pace and tension gets harder, and it’s easy to run out of steam.”
If you want to write a book, you can’t do the easy thing. Do the hard thing: Power through and finish writing.
33. Start at the Beginning
Whether in fiction or nonfiction, we tend to want to dump a lot of information on the reader at the beginning. It’s what mystery and romance author Julie Anne Lindsey calls a back-story dump. You want to introduce characters, set the scene or make sure the reader is crystal clear about your position. So you give everything away: You spend a chapter on back story. That’s very boring to read.
Instead, find an enticing way to start the book, so your reader wants to keep going.
“Invite the reader to get to know you,” writes Lindsey. “Give them a chance to want to, for heaven’s sakes!”
34. Remember: This Isn’t Easy for Anyone
Do you ever scroll through Instagram or Twitter and watch your peers pump out volumes seemingly without effort? First of all, put down your phone. You should be writing.
“Writing is damn hard work,” mystery author and FundsforWriters editor C. Hope Clark writes. “Nobody is a natural. When you see an author who makes it look easy, understand that that author worked their butt off learning grammar, plot, characterization and flow, then how to weave it all together to work.”
Nothing worth doing is effortless. If you see someone raising a family while running a successful blog and appearing everywhere from the New York Times to Lifehacker, and suddenly they’re promoting a book into bestsellerdom, too… they’ve worked for this moment.