“Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” So goes the advice for which author and writing prof Anne Lamott named her classic instructional memoir.
Wise words if, like Lamott’s brother, you’re churning out a school report on ornithology. But the rest of us can learn a thing or two from her approach, too.
Writing a nonfiction manuscript is a big task. A year is a long stretch. At least one of those things is definitely going to be over by December 31 — maybe both, if you play your cards right.
So, as you hitch up your britches and prepare to wade into 2016, follow this hypothetical map. It may not always line up perfectly with your own terrain, but it will teach you how to get out of the weeds and navigate your way to completion.
Of course, every author is different, and every book-writing journey must follow its own path. But as a writing coach who has guided both first-timers and seasoned authors through the process of writing a book, I can tell you that we ain’t snowflakes — there is a set of processes that most non-fiction writers must follow, and a set of challenges that almost all will face.
Month by month, buddy. Just take it month by month.
You’re probably on a cleanse, so you’re super excited about life and filled with vigour. You’ve decided that this is the year you’re going to finally get your book written, and you can’t wait to get started.
Hold your horses. Before you can run, you must learn to walk, and before you can write you must learn to outline. But even before you can begin outlining (that’s what February is for) you need to get clear on two things:
a) Who your book is for, and
b) What problem it solves for them.
Don’t go thinking you can skip this stage if you already know what your book is “about.” That’s too vague. Maybe you’re planning to write about the “secrets of successful entrepreneurs”. That’s fine as a topic, but you need a focus too, as well as a clear understanding of who you’re speaking to.
What kind of entrepreneur do you want to help, and what problems are they facing that you have answers for? The $100 Startup is for bootstrapping bliss-followers. Its readers would get nothing out of the world-domination manual Zero to One. Both books are bestsellers thanks to their narrow focus, not in spite of it.
If your expertise is broad, so are your options. Spend January narrowing them down by analyzing your category for gaps in the market, and asking yourself some tough strategic questions about what kind of readership makes the most sense for you to cultivate. Ask yourself why you want to write a book in the first place. What impact do you hope to have on the world?
Knowing your niche market and your conceptual hook will sharpen your writing as well as your marketing activities. Skip this step, and you risk writing a generic book that speaks to no one.
Ah, February: nobody’s favourite month. It’s cold out, there are no good public holidays, and your December credit card bill is overdue. Yuck.
The good news is, you’re ready to begin an exciting new chapter in your book’s development. No, no, not an actual chapter, of course… I’m talking about writing your outline.
Don’t groan! It may seem about as appealing as a month’s worth of high school homework, but don’t underestimate the magical effect that a good outline can have on your book – and your stress levels. Every nonfiction book should start life here, even if you think you’re not the outlining type. In fact, the harder it is to write your outline, the more you need one. If you can’t wrap your head around your outline, it means you really don’t have any clue what your ideas are or how they should be arranged. A square one problem that needs to be addressed before you attempt to write.
There are (at least) two ways to outline. The first is to summarize each chapter’s focus in a few paragraphs, e.g. In chapter two, we examine the causes of Type-two diabetes, which are this, that and the other… etc, etc.
The second approach is to set down the statements you intend to make in brief bullet points, and in order. Sub-bullet points help to flesh out the argument without weighing down the outline with too many words. For example:
- Most of us would like to spend less time working and more time pursuing our personal passions.
- Family time (also note working-parent guilt)
- Creative projects (can be large or small scale, pro or amateur)
I love this approach because it’s really easy to move things around, which you will almost certainly need to do a lot of. Group like ideas with like, and keep the argument moving swiftly forward.
A common structure for information-based books is to lay the foundation first, then articulate the problem, offer your solutions, examine special considerations, and finally write a conclusion. If you do your outline right, that is to say thoroughly and logically, you’ll find that the manuscript practically writes itself — all you need to do is expand on each point.
Spring is in the air, and you’re ready to blossom as an author! It’s finally time to git down to bizniss and start writing.
Exciting as it is, don’t get ahead of yourself; you’ll be here a while. For argument’s sake (and easy math) let’s say your book is of average length – about 60,000 words – and organized into ten chapters. Moving at a brisk but realistic pace of one 5,000-word chapter every two weeks, it will take you about six months to complete your first draft.
Start anywhere you want. You’ve got your outline to keep you on track. It usually makes sense to start with the chapter that comes easiest to you, whether or not that’s Chapter One (but please don’t attempt to write the introduction yet). Build your confidence and momentum by picking the low-hanging fruit first.
With your two easiest chapters out of the way, you’re now realizing that you’ve got a doggone long way to go, with all the toughest work ahead of you. But don’t let that discourage you. Month One was fuelled by adrenaline and naivete; now it’s time to put an actual writing practice in place.
A reliable writing routine is your secret weapon, and you get to create yours on your own terms. What did you learn about your preferences in Month One? Are you a morning person or a night owl? Do you write better in your lucky underwear? Does it help to talk each chapter through out loud before sitting down at the keyboard? Or are you a longhand-writing, yellow-legal-pad type?
There are no rules, except this one:
Beyond that, feel free to design a practice that works for you, whatever it looks like. Developing your own set of magic tricks is fun, and honours your emerging identity as a writer.
You may find, in the merry month of May, that the book you are writing is not exactly the one you set out to write. Yes, I know, you’ve got an outline to follow. But even within a stable overall framework, it’s very common to find that one chapter mushrooms into two, or that three want to collapse themselves into one, or that you need to cut the last chapter because you don’t really have anything new to say in it.
Don’t panic. And don’t throw your plans out the window and go freestyle, either. Calmly return to your outline, and swiftly rework it.
When one element of a manuscript shifts, it’s sometimes – but not always – necessary to adjust some other elements too. Does your new chapter structure leave your book lopsided? If you find you need to bring some background information forward, do you need to recap or refresh it later, or eliminate a redundancy?
Take a day or two to redraw your map, then get back on your horse.
I hate to break it to you, but most authors will experience an unscheduled crapstorm during the writing of their manuscript. This may or may not come in Month Four for you, but be prepared for it to show up at some point.
It could be a bad case of the flu, a surprise extended visit from your brother-in-law, a financial setback or a flooded basement. Whatever the appearance of the unwelcome gift, its purpose is the same: to test your resolve. Rise to the challenge, remain undeterred, and soldier on.
You might even find that your writing practice becomes a kind of sanctuary; a lifeline that you can hold onto in the midst of all the chaos. This is something that you pursue just for yourself — an investment in your own future and a sign of your confidence that better days are ahead (when your brother-in-law gets a job).
Keep writing while everyone else is at the beach. Feel sorry for yourself, while also strangely superior.
Congratulations! As the dog days of summer wind to a close, you write your last chapter, and finally move on to your introduction. If you’ve already written a draft of your introduction earlier, you will definitely want to revise it now that you’ve finished the book. The main purpose of the introduction is to set the reader up for the journey your book will take them on, so naturally it’s best to write this only once you’ve completed that journey yourself.
This brings your rough draft to completion. Put your feet up over Labour Day weekend and enjoy the breather, because you’re not nearly done yet.
S is for September, and also for substantive edit.
What’s that, you ask?
Most people think of “editing” as the correction of spelling errors and bad punctuation, but that’s actually only one type of editing — it’s called copy-editing, and it comes much later. Long before you can start polishing your prose, you need a substantive edit; a big-picture analysis of the manuscript, and remedial work to fix its deficiencies.
Here’s how it goes: You hand your entire raw manuscript over to your editor and try not to worry yourself sick about what she thinks of it. A couple of weeks later, she’ll send it back to you with comments, queries and rewriting assignments. She may suggest that you do some additional research, ask you to explain your ideas in more accessible language, or recommend that you restructure parts of the book. She will point out gaps in your argument, redundancies, and lapses in tone. This can be very hard to take at first, but don’t get defensive! Your editor is not there to judge you but to make you look better on the page.
Please, do not skip this important step. It may be the single best thing you will do to improve the quality of your book. Unless you are an experienced structural editor yourself, you cannot get by without one. (Arguably, even editors shouldn’t try to fly solo when they’re writing. I’ve been doing that work for more than 15 years, and even I have brought on a professional editor to help me with my own book.) Substantive editing is a creative skill as well as a technical one, so don’t settle for any old friend with an English degree. Find yourself an experienced book editor who has done developmental work on books like yours. And make sure you like and understand each other.
You’ll pass the manuscript back and forth between you, commenting and rewriting, until it’s the very best that it can be. Plan to spend at least two months at it.
With your substantive edit underway, it’s time to tie up loose ends! This is a great time to double-check your citations, and write all the other extra bits and pieces like your acknowledgments, dedication, author bio, appendices or bibliography, if you’re going to have one.
Once your substantive edit is complete, you should have a near-perfect manuscript on your hands. It’s time for copy-editing — a mechanical edit focused on the finer points of grammar and style. It’s always best to use a new editor for this phase, since only a “fresh pair of eyes” can be counted on to catch every typo or misplaced word.
As an author, there’s not much for you to do in this phase, except sit back and wait while your copy-editor painstakingly cleans up every line. Ah, the beauty of reliable hired help… This process usually takes between two weeks to a month, or longer if you’ve also asked the editor to check your facts.
Once he is finished, you’ll get the Word document back marked up using tracked changes – and don’t be alarmed if it is riddled with them. Just thank your editor for his eagle eye, and enjoy the knowledge that you’ll get pretty much all the credit for his careful attention to detail.
If your book is being published by a traditional publisher or hybrid publisher, you’re done! But the work on your book isn’t quite over yet – and if you’re self-publishing, you’re the one who’ll need to see it through.
After copy-editing, your book will go into design. A sample set of interior pages is produced, which you will approve (or not). Once you’re happy with the creative approach, the whole book will be typeset.
Those pages will be pored over by a professional proofreader to catch any straggling errors. (And indeed, they will always find some!) Finally, if your book is information-rich, it will probably need an index — the very last element to be created for your book. Indexing is a specialist skill, so please hire a pro.
Congratulations; you’ve written a book! All that remains for you to do is crack open the bubbly on New Year’s Eve and toast your accomplishment. In the year ahead, you can look forward to becoming a published author — and start thinking about book two.
Happy New Year!
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