How to Start Writing a Book

I’m finally getting to work on writing my next book. It’s taken six months to feel ready, but I’m glad I didn’t jump right into it. Today, I want to share with you what compels me to start writing a book.

Because this probably doesn’t work the way you think.

How to Start Writing a Book

I used to think that writing a book was as simple as sitting down and doing the work. Heck, I probably even said it was that simple at one point. Well, I was wrong. It’s a lot more complicated than that.

The most neglected part of the writing process

Let me back up. It’s easy to write a book. I mean, relatively speaking. Lots of people do it every year. Millions of authors create millions of mediocre books. But if you’re reading this, my guess is you want more. I certainly do.

What does it take to write a good book? Not only one that sells well, but that people enjoy?

It takes more than hard work. It takes the right kind of work.

Writing a good book takes more than hard work. It takes the right kind of work.

Jeff Goins

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But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before you even start doing the work (which we’ll cover in a future post), you have to begin with an idea.

This is probably the most neglected part of the writing process. Before you sit down to write, you have to start somewhere else. That’s right. Writing a book doesn’t begin with writing. It begins with thinking.

Right now, I’m ghostwriting a book with a friend, and we have spent the past three months simply kicking ideas back and forth. Next, I am talking to an acquisitions editor at a publisher who will share feedback on our idea that we’ve developed for the past few months. Long story short: our idea isn’t ready.

This is how it works. Coming up with a good idea that may eventually turn into a good book takes a lot of work. And most people simply circumvent this process. Because it isn’t necessary. You can, after all, just start writing. And isn’t that what we tell ourselves? “Do the work”?

But before we do that, we have to ask ourselves an even more important question:

What is the work for?

This was something I learned from the great Seth Godin. Before you attempt any great project, before you hire your first employee for your startup or put one word on paper for your novel, you should ask two very important questions:

  • What is the work for?
  • Who is it for?

These are selfless questions, ones that supersede your passions and desires of what you want for yourself. Certainly, writing can be incredibly fun and fulfilling; we writers shouldn’t feel bad for gratifying ourselves with the work that we love. But there comes a point when you have to ask: what is this for?

Is it just for me? Just for my own amusement and entertainment? Or am I also doing it for someone else?

I can’t speak for you, but in my case, I’m writing for myself and for other people. I want to move people and make them think, maybe even act, differently. I don’t always accomplish this goal, but it’s my mission, nonetheless.

And so, before I sit down to write, I have to ask: What is this book for?

What will it do? How will it move people? What will it change?

The truth that I’ve found after writing five books, two of which were national bestsellers, is that for me to finish a book I have to be completely caught up in this idea. It has to feel so important that not writing it feels like a disservice to others.

As my friend Ryan Holiday says, if you can avoid writing this book, then you should.

When you write a book, it should be something you can’t not write.

If you can avoid writing a book, you should.

Ryan Holiday

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So, how does this work?

How do you come up with an idea worth writing about?

I’m glad you asked. Here’s my process.

1. Find a good idea

I don’t have a great process for this other than the following:

  • Read a bunch of books and articles
  • Take notes on everything that fascinates you
  • Collect stories and anecdotes even if you don’t know why
  • In general, chase your curiosity

I’ve written about this more at length in this post on how to pick a good book title, so I won’t go into all that. Suffice to say, you need an idea that you can get completely obsessed with.

This, I think, goes for both fiction and nonfiction alike. Whether it’s a novel, a memoir, or an advice book, you’ve got to believe that the world needs to hear this thing. Which brings my to my second point.

2. Test your idea

But how do you know an idea is good?

Short answer: you don’t.

Slightly longer answer: you don’t until you get feedback.

Once I get an idea for a book, do you know what I do?

I incessantly bug my friends about it. I text them, take them to coffee, nag them over and over about it.

“Do you think this is a good idea?” I ask. “Does it make sense?”

I always want them to say kind things to me, like “this is the best idea ever!” And that never happens. It turns out that the idea is never as clear as I think it is.

Which has taught me an important lesson: your big idea is not clear until you can clearly talk about it.

Your big idea is not clear until you can clearly talk about it.

Jeff Goins

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For me, I have to talk to think. I have to process verbally to get my ideas out of my head and into the world. And whenever I do this, I always am surprised by how unclear my idea really is.

So when I ask my friends for feedback, I ask the following questions:

  • What do you think of this idea?
  • Would you buy this book? (This is important because someone may say your idea is a good idea for someone else, but they’re just being nice. You need to know if they would actually pay real money for this. Otherwise, they’re just blowing smoke.)
  • What am I missing?

That’s it. Pretty simple right?

Don’t move forward until you get multiple whose opinions you trust to tell you that this is a good idea, they would pay money for it, and have given you constructive feedback on what else you can add.

The idea doesn’t have to be perfect, but it needs to be compelling. You need multiple people telling you, “Wow! You need to write that.”

But don’t stop there. You’re not done yet.

3. Research the market

Once you have your idea, you need to make sure someone else hasn’t already come up with the idea. You need to make sure it really is an original thought.

Spoiler alert: it probably isn’t. This step will help make your idea more original.

I often hear other authors say when they’re working on a book, they don’t read anything from any of their peers or anything like that, because they don’t want their thinking tainted by other people’s ideas.

That’s ridiculous. Either you subconsciously steal from your friends and heroes and get accused of plagiarism, or you do it on purpose and give credit where credit’s due.

I recommend the latter.

So here’s what I do:

  1. Go to Amazon.com.
  2. Search the topic of my new book and see if anything comes up (for my last book, I searched “art and money”).
  3. Either buy those books or check them out at the library and see what the authors are actually saying about the topic.
  4. Ask yourself, “Do I have something to add to this?” If not, don’t write the book. If you do, proceed.

4. Let the idea germinate

What I mean by this is once you know you have a good idea, just let it sit. Let the seeds of genius grow into something more. Let the idea haunt you.

Wait a few weeks. Maybe even a few months, as I recently did. And if the idea still is gnawing at you, then you might really have something.

As a matter of caution, run the idea by a few more friends or colleagues. Get some more feedback. Is it still clear? Does it still resonate? Does this still feel something you can’t not do?

If so, it’s time to write that book.

Resources

If you want to write a book, a good book that people will buy and read, you won’t want to miss my new course, Write a Bestseller. Click here to check it out.

What book are you writing (or want to write)? What is the big idea? Share in the comments.

42 thoughts on “How to Start Writing a Book

  1. I agree you need to know what you want to communicate first but I don’t believe it could or should take that long. It could occur in a dream or in a conversation or an article you read. I wouldn’t put any time frame on it.

  2. Hmm… I don’t plan to write a book. It’s a blog I’m planning to start. Most of these points are relevant to blogging as well. Thank you, Jeff 🙂

  3. Thanks Jeff. Great post as always. I find that if I run my idea by a select group of friends that I have given permission to speak into my life and pick apart my ideas, I can begin to fine tune the details. It is important to have that feedback as it helps clarify the message in my opinion. Thanks again!

  4. I have been wanting to write a book for 14years!

    What: A book centered on my mom’s life and struggles, a story of resilience and love but I have not been able to.
    For who: For lone wolves out there, women and men alike who are doing the hard work of raising and training giants in near-penury.
    Why: To encourage and give hope to failing hearts. If she could do it, anybody can.

    It is hard enough thinking this through but the idea has refused to leave me. It keeps gnawing at my insides so much that I had to share with a sibling.

    I am aware that stories like hers are not uncommon particularly in my part of the world but I feel the urge and need to tell her story in a unique way which I am yet to come up with.

    I am a step closer, wish me luck.

  5. Thank you for this timely message for me. I started my second book in January 2016, before I had a website. Discovering I needed to build an audience I put my book on hold. I planned to finish it last year. I didn’t but did some research and germination as you called it. Making a book plan is one of my goals for this year. I appreciate your detailed help so much as I move forward. I feel encouraged and validated – my book idea haunts me and I’ve done some things right that you mention in your article.

  6. Hi Jeff. I have been pondering this for quite some time. In 1949, at a Military Academy, I bought a shoe brush. I still use it today as I did for 28 years in the Marine Corps. It has been in my hands for so many hours that it understands my memories, my thoughts, and my emotions. I want ‘Brush’ to tell my story to ‘Rag’, the shine rag that is always the new member in the group. I feel I can tell my life story with greater honesty, and perhaps greater protection from those in the story, in second or third person. What do you think of the idea?

  7. Hi Jeff, I have a few different projects going on but my book is about having true intimacy with God called Into the Depths. So excited about these courses and the help they are providing me to focus.

  8. I actually wrote a book. Put it up on Amazon through createspace; but didn’t follow through with marketing. Does that mean I don’t feel sure about its value? Afraid of negative feedback? What do I need to do to overcome my fears/reluctance?

  9. I want to write a book that helps children overcome difficult life challenges and even some traumatic experiences. I fictional allegorical story that helps them better understand things in life and have hope and tools for dealing with things like broken families, feeling alone, identity, temptation to do wrong, discernment and trust, virtues and habits, etc. It’s a lot and a very high standard to set, but I feel it’s really important because I see more and more kids suffering from some form of abuse, neglect, or brokenness, with broken families.

  10. Hi there, as an engineer by profession I’ve had a natural ability to fix things that are broke, so one day while in the depths of depression I asked myself why can’t I fix me. From that point forward I began to study my mind and the patterns of thought that cause me to suffer. After two years I can honestly say it was the greatest and biggest challenge I ever faced but I found the solution. It’s this solution I want to show to the the world, that to end all suffering we must first investigate and discover who we are and how the mind works.

  11. I do appreciate the information you include in your emails, but I do think that writing fiction is a bit different than non-fiction. I have been writing most of my life and have has a few things published. I was writing basically in a vacuum and that I can tell you doesn’t do anything for you or your writing. About 6 months ago, I was looking for a concert on the internet (I googled it) and the concert came up and also another event with the same name that caught my eye (a writer’s conference.) I bought the tickets for the concert and then went back and bought the tickets to the writer’s conference. That lead me to a writer’s critique group. I can’t believe how much I am learning, not only as a writer getting their work critiqued upfront, but as an editor. At first I didn’t see anything wrong with some of the really strong writer’s work, but now seeing from a more critical editor’s position, I am more of use to the other’s in the group. I highly recommend it for all.

    1. Hey Sandy, of course writing nonfiction is different from fiction. I agree with that. All I said in the article was that whether you write a novel or an advice book or a memoir, you have to believe that the world needs to hear this story, this message, this idea.

  12. I’m writing about the tension between self-acceptance and personal accountability.

    We really do need to love ourselves in the midst of our mess.

    However, enabling self-destructive behaviors will only perpetuate those immature actions for which we hate ourselves…making it ultimately impossible for us to truly love ourselves.

  13. As always, you share such good information. I have followed your since you first started years ago and you always inspired me. I became part of your tribe writers, bought and read your books and yet I let life keep me from finishing the 3 books which I started. This year I will finish the first one because as you have shown us… it is possible!

  14. Jeff,you ‘re really a coach and very generous.
    Your information is inspiring, priceless are awesome!!.
    It’s this brain storming, knowing exactely what to write about and the prospective audence,
    that’s keeping me from starting my 500 words per day.
    However, I’m on it ,before weekend, definitely I will come with a good idea .
    A million thanks .

  15. Great post Jeff. I came across a youtube clip you were featured in and decided to look up your blog. Not a mistake. In the video you described how you have to tell yourself that you’re a writer first and foremost. Great advice.

  16. My book is “An Artful Life- Inspirational Stories and Essays for the Artist in Everyone.” Available at Amazon. I had to write it, because artwork kept me sane over 26 years in policework. Joining Tribewriters was a big help, too, so thanks Jeff!

  17. Thanks again for sharing great advice, Jeff. This post alone reminds me that writing is definitely more of a marathon than a sprint. Advice like this helps a lot with the process!

  18. Hey Jeff.
    I always enjoy the clarity you provide. I was never going to write another book because my first was so painstakingly draining on the soul. But I strongly feel like memoirs are a beast of a different kind, especially if they are …well, about a difficult life. It’s one area I don’t think you’ve delved into much (maybe for the best). I followed you through the whole process of my first book. I COULD NOT HAVE DONE IT WITHOUT YOU. Now that it’s out, people are coming to me wanting more. Their wants and ideas turn on the oh-yeah-and-this-is-what-I-need-to-do part of my brain. It’s like I’m in a swift current heading towards a massive waterfall. If I survive the fall, it will be followed by more white-water rapids. Help me Obi Wan, you’re my only hope!

  19. thank you a lot for sharing us good and helpful advice …
    i’m still don’t know what idea i should write about it.

  20. Very Useful and elaborated article. Thank you. Your words from your webinar stuck with me while writing my 1st book, when you talked about world perspective. And now here you talk eloquently about idea germination. Excellent. You have got such clarity, plus generosity in sharing your learnings and insights. God bless.

  21. You are a wonderful man, Jeff. You are generous and I thank you for your contribution to writing.

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