Goins, Writer

On Writing, Ideas, and Making a Difference

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.

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.

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.

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.


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 get on the waiting list.

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

About Jeff Goins

I am the best-selling author of five books, including the national bestsellers The Art of Work and Real Artists Don't Starve. Each week, I send out a free newsletter with my best tips on writing, publishing, and helping your creative work succeed.

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