Here’s How You Actually Write a Book

As writers, we pay a lot of attention to getting our work published. And rightly so. We must know our options so we can make the best choice for our completed work. But publishing isn’t the hardest part of writing a book. Not even close. It’s the writing.

Here's How You Actually Write a Book

If you’re not a full-time writer, living in a cabin in the woods, how will you actually write your book?

How will you do the work of writing when the demands of real life threaten to overwhelm your already busy schedule?

I struggled with this for years. As an aspiring writer, I dreamed of one day sharing my words with the world. But the truth is I was kidding myself.

Why? Because I wasn’t writing. I didn’t even know where to start.

Fast forward seven years, and now I’m the best-selling author of four books and living the life I always dreamed of. I haven’t gotten everything right along the way, but I have gathered some helpful advice that has kept me going.

It takes a lot more than a dream to make it as a writer. It takes knowing what you’re doing, or at least knowing the next step.

So here are some of the first eight steps that I took. This is what I did when I didn’t know what to do next. This is what it looked like for me to move from aspiring writer with a day job to full-time writer and bestselling author. It really is this easy. And this hard.

1. Choose a topic

You must have something important to share before you start writing. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “You don’t write because you want to say something. You write because you have something to say.” What will you write about?

When I was struggling with this, I went one level deeper and started writing about writing. Turns out, that was the perfect first step for me, because I’m still doing it today.

It takes a lot more than a dream to make it as a writer. It takes knowing what you’re doing.

Jeff Goins

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You need a topic that you care enough about to sustain it for the length of a book, a blog, newsletter. Sometimes all three, and more. You’re not imprisoned by that first idea, of course—you can pivot without losing your audience—but this gives you an idea of how big your topic needs to be. Here are some ideas to get you started.

2. Develop a premise

You need an angle, a hook. There are no new ideas, but you can do something original in the way you present your idea. Consider how Seth Godin writes about marketing, or how Ernest Hemingway wrote about bullfighting. Everything’s been done before, but you haven’t done it before. That’s the difference. That’s your premise.

3. Think about your reader

The golden rule of writing is that you must know your audience. You must know a lot about them and their needs so that when you write, they know you understand where they’re coming from. If you do that, if you meet them where they are, you can lift them up to where you want them to be.

And they’ll be forever loyal to you because of it.

4. Create an outline

An outline often feels like the boring part of writing. Maybe you think it’s limiting your creativity or holding you back from just getting started. But the truth is, taking the time to create an outline will make the rest of your writing go so much faster and more smoothly.

The golden rule of writing is that you must know your audience.

Jeff Goins

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I know from experience. While writing my fifth book this summer, I realized two-thirds of the way through—after writing 40,000 words—that everything was suddenly coming more easily than they had in previous chapters. Why? Because I’d accidentally given myself an outline: Five things, in order, that I wanted to make sure to cover in that chapter. And with that outline in front of me, writing became a simple exercise of filling in the blanks. (Simple, but not easy, of course.)

5. Read, read, read

If you want to be a writer, reading is not a luxury. It is a necessity. You must read widely and frequently both to see how it’s done, and to see how you can do it differently.

There’s no shortcut to this, but I do know of a few ways to get more reading time into your day.

6. Set a due date

When my wife was pregnant earlier this year, we knew the day that our daughter would be arriving. That due date set in motion all kinds of activity for our family and my business. We knew we had to be done by a specific date because ready or not, we would be adding to our family that day. There was no opportunity to procrastinate, no leeway for laziness.

Treat your writing the same way, with the same dedication to a due date. Once you’ve decided what you want to write and who it’s for, it’s time to be a professional and commit to a completion date. If you don’t, life has a way of interrupting and overshadowing our best intentions.

If you want to be a writer, reading is not a luxury. It’s a necessity.

Jeff Goins

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If an arbitrary completion date isn’t sufficient motivation for you, attach a consequence to not accomplishing your goal. A friend of mine, a talented writer, did this recently when he wanted to finish a book he’d been thinking about for years. Fearing he might never reach the last page, he wrote a check to a political candidate he hated, and post-dated it for X months in the future. Then he gave the check to a friend with strict instructions to mail it if he had not completed his book by that date.

The result? He’s done his book.

7. Create a writing schedule

Your season of life will dictate the writing schedule that works for you, so there’s no use in trying to copy what another author is doing. We can find inspiration in how others structure their days, but the point is this: find a regular schedule that works for you, and commit to showing up on that schedule from now until the day your book is complete.

There will be days it’s tempting to skip, and those, of course, are the days it’s probably most important that you keep showing up. That’s what a schedule is, after all. It’s a way to remove your own willpower and whims from the work of being an author. Because yes, even a dream job is still a job.

8. Write, don’t edit

We hear this one all the time, but it bears repeating because it’s almost always the thing that’s keeping you from finishing your book. If you’re obsessing over every sentence as you write it, you’re not just being a perfectionist. You’re actually withholding momentum from yourself; you’re preventing yourself from entering into that all-important state of “flow” where the words come easily and the goal feels achievable.

If you’re trying to write entirely perfect sentences and a perfect book, you’re pursuing the wrong goal. Instead, find a strategy that will allow you to write first, and edit later. I use what I call the three-bucket system, and maybe that will help you, too.

What makes a writer is the writing. So you’d better get started.

What step did you find most helpful in writing your book? Is there a particular step that’s tripping you up? Share in the comments.

33 thoughts on “Here’s How You Actually Write a Book

  1. Good stuff, Jeff.
    It took me a while to get #8 down. At first, every time I sat down to write I told myself I was writing a book. That was really intimidating. When I switched my frame of mind to tell myself I was writing a draft of part of a book it became a lot easier.

  2. Point #5 is the most important one to me, and it somewhat explains why I love writing: after reading tons of books, a lot of different stories, perspectives, ideas, I have begun feeling some of these experiences have to produce something.

  3. Hello again Jeff, you’re awesome and this post is so helpful.

    It’s packed with little seeds of insight that lead to the many larger concepts you’ve already written about at length. Many of the sections you outlined were reminders I needed to hear today (especially #6, 7 & 8), and the addition of new stories and analogies I hadn’t heard from you before were just icing on the cake.

    Thanks, as always, for everything you do. I can’t wait to join you once I commit to action.

    -Chris

  4. Is it pathetic to be stuck at #1? I have a couple of fiction works started, an outline for a devotional, and an idea for a smaller e-book, but I can’t seem to focus my thoughts enough to really home in on one topic to focus all of my attention on. I am cause and passion driven, which is evident in the way I write on my blog. I’d like to have some clarity as to my central purpose in writing, though.

    1. I don’t think so. I think the problem you seem to be facing that I definitely faced myself is trying to plan too much before starting. I’m not much of an outline guy – I just do a bare bones sketch at first and fill it in as I go. Most of the time, the original direction for the story takes a bunch of right turns and a few left turns before the end, anyways, and your story looks different than what you started with (at least for fiction).

      I think the most important part is the writing itself. Simply putting one word in front of the other until you’re done. It also depends on your personality type: do you like to have multiple projects at once, or focus on one and then the next? I used to only eat one portion of my dinner first, but now I switch on the fly because I’ve found that’s what keeps me going (I blog, work on my novel, and invest in courses to fuel my writing all at once) because that’s what really works for me.

      The question is, what works for you?

    2. Hi Aimee,
      I was going to reply to your post right away but I decided to read your other posts to check what about to say to you. Here is what I got. Some of us are not destined to stay in the same place and just write about our experiences or our ideas, but God is shaping us for a greater destiny or purpose. So as a result we are not satisfied with where we are. It takes time to acquire the talents and character for this new place that we are going and so we can get frustrated along the way. Relax and trust God and if you are not doing this, start taking walks to see what is around you. This works for me to notice new things. I believe in the guidance of the Holy Spirit, but that takes time also, and just like going to school, you cant go to high school until you have completed junior high. Challenges exist along every path we take and those challenges prepare us for our destiny and shape us so we can continue to the ultimate destination. Most importantly delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart. God bless.

    3. No – not pathetic. Perhaps you could look at writing short stories or being a columnist? There is obviously something there that needs to be said – that might be too important and needs to be read by different people than those who might sit to read an entire book?

  5. These are all great tips. I especially value the last one. Oftentimes, I find myself editing while writing and I know it’s perfectionism reading it’s ugly head. I have to remind myself to get it down first, then go back and improve. Thanks for sharing, Jeff!

  6. Hey Jeff,

    Simple, but thorough things to remember! Thanks, working on my first book now:) BTW, what’s your next book about?

  7. Can’t agree with you. Turning out the first draft is the EASY part! Even with traditional publishing, unless you’re a household name, you’re going to be doing the lion’s share of the marketing of your book, and if you’re self-publishing, you have to deal with layout and formatting. I started a book nearly 15 years ago that I only finally self-published two years ago because I had to completely re-format from my original software, and it’s successor is still less than half-finished–again, because I’m wrestling with formatting issues. And I’ve got a couple of books in another series that didn’t take that long to put together, but are crickets because I haven’t got any marketing to speak of.

  8. The part about knowing your reader really resonates. I labored over writing Mom Boss so it would be relevant for moms who are ready to make the leap to starting a business.

  9. I set myself a due date of 30th September 2016 to have completed a book. However, am about half way and the dates are moving fast and faster. I even have the outline of the book. I have found out that I need to have control over some stuffs that are not so useful for me to complete my books when I agree.

    Thanks Jeff, I ensure to read your posts each and every time and they have helped me a lot.

  10. The deadline part is so crucial. I spent months (almost close to a year, actually) before working on the second draft of my novel, and I’m giving myself a deadline of November 1st to run through this edit before running onto the third, more cohesive edit for Nanowrimo that month.

    Oddly enough, I found that once I set that deadline, it pull all the other gears into motion. It helped me make a consistent writing habit which not only helps me move forward on my draft but also keep the work in mind so I don’t lose track of the details. I didn’t think a deadline would help, but it’s done wonders for me and really helped me affirm why I want to do this in the first place and put aside all my excuses for procrastinating that I so desperately held onto before.

    Thanks for the post Jeff. Enjoyed reading it and will make to share it with my followers as well 🙂

  11. I found #2 (develop a premise) and #3 (think about your reader) to be very helpful when I started writing “Unashamed” (published June of this year). To get it done, though, focusing on sticking to my writing schedule was crucial. As a mom of preschoolers, I had two 2.5 hour blocks of time a week in which to write, and I had to force myself to focus. But the results were so worth it!

  12. Knowing the subject you write about is pertinent to any foundation.
    I have started twice from different angles.
    Hit the same point, subject matter. Thought I knew what I was writhing about, but the knowledge seems to have flown South for the coming winter.

    Now I have another angle with a quasi autobiagriphical sryle. The question is do I write a pamphlet, collection of shorts, or a medium novel.

  13. Jeff,

    Thanks for sharing these tips, they are not new but always worth repeating for sure. The step that trips me the most when it comes to writing is speed. I don’t necessarily edit, but I would usually struggle to put words on the paper. I am starting a daily long-hand writing practice to improve that. Let’s see how it goes.

    Thanks for sharing, and I wish you and your family all the best!

    Cheers,
    Anh

  14. In your email you asked us to come over and tell you what is holding us back. It’s real life. 🙁 As a special-needs work-at-home homeschool mom, there’s just too much going on right now.

    1. That’s a full to-do list! And when you are ready to write, you’ll have ample material… I use Evernote to write tiny bits between Mum jobs, or when gulping down coffee in car between customer visits or chores. (Like now!) Even a hundred words is something and helps me stay in touch with myself as a writer. Maybe that could help you too? -Sef

  15. I’ve struggled to find a topic big enough for a book, particularly in the world of fiction. I’m more of a short story writer and a poet. However, as I write more and more, the overarching theme that I’m exposing is focusing on the beautiful in the midst of the ugly – and bringing more beauty into this often-ugly world. I’m turning that around in my mind trying to decide how best to channel it into a book form…

    That said, I did manage to write and publish my first book (a sewing instructional book) this past summer. The points you’ve outlined above were certainly necessary in that process!

  16. I just read elsewhere that writers need to stop being detailed and allow the reader to draw their own imaginary details.

    Early work by beginning writers is often prone to explaining everything that can be possibly be explained to readers. We have a point, a theme, or a purpose in writing that we want to be sure our readers understand. This has to be abandoned in order to create compelling work. Once we cease our micromanagement of the reader experience, there’s more room for reader interpretation, which means a larger audience can identify with the story. Leave your readers with plenty of gray area, write on the cusp of what you don’t know, so that they can plug in their own experiences and perspectives, and eventually, you’ll be creating work that leaves readers both satisfied and unsettled.

    Nybookeditors..com

  17. I’m in the process of mastering #7 Create a Writing Schedule and #8 Write Don’t Edit. I’m using the 750 Words website as my tool. Since joining a couple of months ago, I’ve developed a daily writing habit and since the writing is private I use it as an opportunity to write about whatever is in my head without worrying about what someone else might think. Sometimes it’s off my main topic and sometimes it’s just clearing my head, but making that time to write daily starts that process of flow that makes the habit of writing anything much easier. I know that I need a minimum of 20 minutes to reach 750 Words, and often the momentum of chasing 750 words within that fixed time frame will carry me far beyond.
    So now that I’m mastering those two steps of writing regularly and writing freely (for me, the core of actually being a writer), I plan to focus next on #4 Create an Outline so I can organize my ideas into a coherent whole and #6 Set a Due Date so I will actually hold myself to the act of sharing those ideas in the world. I’m not writing a book – I’m focusing on starting up a blog and an eCourse – but the steps you’ve outlined above still apply.

    1. I loved using that website when it was free, but I believe they now charge for it? Can you share anything about your experience? -Sef

      1. I found trying to maintain my daily writing streak has been a great challenge. Some days I write good stuff, and other days it’s just writing therapy. Ultimately, it’s about practicing daily in order to reach that state of writing flow, and many days the momentum that takes me to 750 words takes me far beyond. For me, the motivation this website has given me to start and then to continue that daily writing habit has been well worth the price of a cup of coffee ($5/month). I’m sure there are other options out there, but this is one that works great for me.

  18. The deadline is what I struggle with. I used to blitz deadlines. But lately I find I can’t handle the pressure. I’m not sure what’s changed. I suspect it’s fear of success at some deep level. Fear of finishing, so that then I have to eat my own dogfood and publish. I want to, really I do. But my deadline, even my current one for my “easy no pressure just for fun” story, is paralysing me. I’m left feeling rather trapped, between a never ending project or a deadline that wrecks my health as well as my creativity.

    Does anyone else find this?

    At present my only solution is to write a tiny bit whenever I can, and be pleased that at present nobody* knows about my deadline, or my book. -Sef

    *Nobody except everyone at The Write Practice and anyone who reads my blog… Yikes. 🙂

  19. A quarter million books published every year in North America and here’s your easy, eight step “How to…” guide for producing yet more badly written, derivative tomes.

    Every day for over thirty years I’ve had to get up and summon the courage to cross the hallway to my home office and try to create new, original, innovative fiction. There isn’t a morning that goes by that I don’t approach my task with fear, bordering on terror.

    An eight-step process (or any process) has never been any use to me. Writing is a daily chore, always fraught, always daunting. True authors have a calling and no amount of discouragement or rejection will draw them from their path. Nabokov talks about writing “in defiance of all the world’s muteness”. How many of your wannabe writers out there would have the courage to do that?

    No, they’re looking to be the next BIG THING, another Dan Brown or E. L. James (God help us). Talent, originality, aesthetics, these words mean nothing to most of the people who call themselves writers these days.

    Rather than encouraging writers, you should be encouraging quality work, critical thinking. That old saying that everyone has a book in them is a feeble, pathetic lie. It might sell some “how-to” books, draw people into useless creative writing programs, but when the rubber hits the road the vast majority of wannabes get angry and give up when their magnum opus, a teenage vampire-hapeshifter erotic romance, doesn’t make them an instant superstar.

    For them, I have nothing but contempt.

  20. Definitely the most important step to this is the mind mapping/outlining part of the process. I like the outlining strategy because it creates momentum [and motivation] to get cracking on the chapter. Knowing the 4-6 ideas you’ll discuss in each chapter is key.

  21. While I love creating a schedule, I think it’s also important to note that you can change the schedule while you write. Say on week two you feel the inspiration and motivation to write what the schedule says for week three but not week two. It’s OK to deviate based on where your head is at in the writing process and your outline. Sometimes you need to change topics even the smallest bit to get your head in the game for what you need to write.

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