From rough draft to paperback: 3 steps to project manage your first book

So you want to write a book… but where do you start?

What most people do is set the goal of writing a book, set themselves a deadline, and then write ferociously until they run out of steam (this usually takes two to four weeks). Soon the weeks turn into months, and by the time their deadline rolls around they only have 15,000 words to show for it.

Instead, writing your first book should be treated like any other significant project — it should be project managed. Read on for three steps to create an achievable project plan for writing (and producing) your first book.

1. Make your goal SMART

How long have you been saying that you want to write a book? Yes, life can get in the way and yes, you have a lot on your plate. But did you ever think that one of the reasons you might be struggling to make progress is because there’s a problem with your goal?

While ‘I want to write a book’ is a great starting point, it’s vague. It gives you no concrete guidance about when or how you’re going to achieve this goal and doesn’t naturally lead to a clear starting point.

Instead, start by making your writing goal SMART. SMART goals were first documented in 1981 in a paper titled There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management’s goals and objectives. This paper argued that while setting goals was important, often they weren’t set effectively, which resulted in them not being achieved. Instead, the paper recommended a system for designing goals to make them more specific and more likely to be achieved, with each letter in the SMART acronym referring to a different criterion.

While different sources expand the acronym with different words, the most common criteria are:

  • Specific — What subject do you want your book to cover? What type of book do you want to write? Is it a how-to book, a thought leadership book, an interview book, a memoir, or something else? Who is your target audience?
  • Measurable — How will you know you have finished? How many words do you want to write? How many pages do you want your book to be?
  • Achievable — Is this goal achievable? Do you have the ability to write a book-length document about your subject of choice? Can you make the time to finish it by your deadline? Is your print deadline realistic, given the turnaround times and availability of your publishing suppliers?
  • Relevant — Is this goal relevant to you? Will it help you build your business? Is there a market that wants to read it? Do you want to write it?
  • Time-bound — When do you want to finish writing? When do you want to go to print? Do you have any other business or marketing activities your book will impact, and when will they be taking place?

Rather than simply saying you want to write a book, reframe your goal to make it a SMART one. For example, a SMART book writing goal might be, ‘I will publish a 40,000-word financial planning book for small business owners by December 21st.’

See how much more concrete that is than ‘I want to write a book’?

2. Break your goal into milestones

Now that you have your big picture goal, the next step is breaking it into milestones. Some of the common publishing milestones are:

  • The first draft
  • The editing and revision process
  • Cover design
  • Internal design
  • eBook design
  • Bulk print run
  • Print-on-demand and online distribution set up

Once you know the major milestones of your project, you can then break those down further into mini-milestones. In the writing process, ten thousand words might be a mini-milestone, which means you have three to four mini-milestones to hit in order to finish your first draft. In the editing process, you might have three rounds of editing — a structural edit, a copyedit and a proofread — so completing each of those is a mini-milestone. In the design process, your designer might provide initial concepts to review before moving on to the complete design. In the printing process, your printer will provide a proof copy for you to review before doing the full print run.

It’s only once you have a clear outline of your milestones that you can set a publishing schedule.

3. Set a publishing schedule

You know you want to go to print by the end of the year, but what are the time frames for everything else that needs to happen to reach your goal?

This is when you need to start talking to people — editors, designers, printers and self-publishing companies. From each of these providers, you need to confirm two time frames:

  • Their turnaround time (meaning how long it will take them to complete their part of the publishing process).
  • Their lead time (meaning how long you will need to wait before they start working on your book).

For the next exercise I’m going to assume that lead times aren’t a problem because you book all of your suppliers with plenty of notice (at a minimum, your publishing suppliers will need a couple of weeks’ notice. Those who are highly sought after may need a few months). This means we just need to look the turnaround times for each supplier to work out the writing and publishing schedule for a hardcopy book:

  • The editing process — 2–3-week turnaround for each round of edits, so 6–9 weeks for three rounds of edits (not including the time you take to make changes between edits).
  • Cover design — 2–4-week turnaround.
  • Internal design — 2–3-week turnaround.
  • Bulk print run — 2-week turnaround.

Once you have these figures, you can work backwards from your final goal to set a schedule.

  • Bulk print run — Your goal is December 21st, so you need the design files to the printer by December 7th at the latest to meet that goal.
  • Your review of the internal design — 1 week (November 30th — December 7th).
  • Internal design — Your deadline is November 30th, so you need the final, proofread, content to your internal designer by November 9th.
  • Cover design — Your cover can happen at the same time as your editing, so doesn’t need to contribute to the overall time frame.
  • Final proofread — To meet the November 9th deadline to get your final content to your designer, you need to get your revised content to your proofreader by October 26th.
  • Your review of the copyedit — 1 week (October 19th — October 26th).
  • Copyedit — You need to have your revised content to your editor by October 5th to allow two weeks for the edit.
  • Your review of the structural edit — Because big changes can come out of a structural edit and you may need to write a lot of new content, it’s best to allow at least 4 weeks to review your book (September 7th — October 5th).
  • Structural edit — Based on the previous time frames, you would book your structural edit for August 17th.

Based on this, you would need to finish your first draft by August 17th. (Preferably earlier, as this will give you time to review everything before it goes to the editor, but we can work with the 17th.)

This then allows you to set a schedule to achieve your big goal. Instead of shooting to publish a 40,000-word book by December 21st, you know that to make that happen you need to write 714 words a day for 56 consecutive days, or 5,000 words a week for eight weeks.

From 40,000 words to 5,000

And that is how you project manage a book — by setting a clear goal at the beginning, mapping out the milestones you need to reach that goal, and then setting specific deadlines and deliverables for each of those milestones.

The result? You no longer have the vague idea of writing a book hanging over your head — you just need to write 5,000 words eight times over the next eight weeks before you can continue with the next stage of the process.

About the author

Jacqui is the Founder and Head Editor of Grammar Factory, which helps entrepreneurs write awesome books so they can establish themselves as thought leaders. Download the first two chapters of her new book Book Blueprint: How any entrepreneur can write an awesome book for free.