How to Write a Book [Step-By-Step Guide] by a 4X New York Times Bestselling Author
This is the best, most comprehensive online guide to writing a non-fiction book in existence.
That’s not just my opinion; I can back this statement up.
I’ve personally written 4 New York Times bestselling books, 3 of which hit #1. Those books combined to sell 4 million+ copies. I’ve helped other major Authors with their books (Tim Ferriss, Seth Godin, Dave Asprey, Peter Thiel, etc), and I also co-founded Scribe, which has already helped 1,200 authors write and publish great books, including a dozen major bestsellers, including books by David Goggins (Can’t Hurt Me) and Tiffany Haddish (The Last Black Unicorn).
I wrote this piece to give you a detailed, step-by-step instructional that you can follow to actually finish your book.
I know of nothing better, or more well tested to work, on the internet.
But remember — this guide is ONLY for non-fiction authors. If you are looking for how to write fiction, I’d go here.
Step 1: Set Proper Expectations for Yourself
Most online guides to writing a new book begin with writing.
But that doesn’t work.
If you wanted to cook dinner, you wouldn’t start with the cooking, would you? No, of course not. You’d start by preparing your space and collecting the right ingredients. It seems obvious when it’s pointed out, but so many people miss this when writing a book.
At Scribe, we’ve helped over 1,200 authors write their books (as of summer 2019), and probably the #1 thing that separates those who finish their books from those who do not is having the proper expectations going in.
Because writing a book is hard, and if you’re not prepared for that fact, you’re far more likely to stall, and even quit. But if you know the difficulty of what’s coming, you can mentally prepare to get past those obstacles when they come (and they will).
These are the major expectations you should have as you write your book:
Expect it to be hard.
Anyone who tells you the process of writing a book is easy is either trying to sell you something, has never written a book, or writes really bad books.
Books are hard to write.
And writing a good book is even harder.
If you want to write a good book, then expect that it will require hard work from you.
Expect to get tired.
Writing is tiring (especially if you do it correctly).
Expect to get tired when you write, and expect that it will drain you. Make sure to take the steps you need to be both rested and energized when you write.
Expect to be confused.
Writing a book is confusing. But what you’ll find as you work this method is that while some of the things we recommend might seem unusual, they actually WORK really well — which is ultimately what matters the most.
Expect to feel overwhelmed at times.
There is a lot coming. It will be like drinking from a firehose. You WILL feel overwhelmed at times.
But understand this: overwhelm is NOT KNOWING WHAT TO DO NEXT — which is exactly why you are reading this guide. We solve this for you.
If you follow along and do what we say, you will ALWAYS know what to do next. We’ve made this process so that there are no surprises.
Expect to be emotionally uncomfortable (and maybe afraid).
This is a big one. Writing a book will unquestionably push you emotionally and expose fears and anxieties.
That is never easy, and never fun, but if you want to write a book, it’s almost certainly going to be a necessity (don’t worry, I will tell you what fears are coming and how to deal with them).
Don’t worry too much about your fears right now, but if they come up later, you can always read The 6 Book Writing Fears, and How to Beat Them. It’s the best guide on the internet on how to deal with writing and book fears.
Step 2: Schedule a Time and Place to Write Each Day
Shouldn’t you just get inspired to write? If you wait until inspiration strikes, and then use that as fuel to write, you’ll be good, right?
If you rely on inspiration to write your own book, you will fail. There is one single thing that creates success with writing, and every single writer will tell you this:
It took me three years as a professional writer before I understood that I needed a writing plan for every book I wrote. Writing without a plan is like going cross country without a map. Yeah, you might get there, but it’ll take you at least twice as long.
You must sit your ass in the chair and write, just about every day, until the book is done.
It doesn’t need to be full-time, but you do need a writing plan. Because it defines exactly what you will do to finish your book.
Inspiration might be how you decide to start the book — and that’s fine — but discipline is how you’ll finish.
You are an author now, and what does an author do? They write. EVERY DAY.
A writing plan is nothing more than a specific writing schedule that lays out a writing time, where you’re going to write each day, how much you will write, when everything is due, and what your accountability is.
“When should I write?”
You must start by picking the exact time and writing space you will write each day. For example, you could write every day during free time from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. in your home office. Or from 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. at Compass Coffee.
This is not negotiable. If you tell yourself that you’ll “write when you have time” then the book won’t ever get done. If you don’t think about the environment where you will do your writing, you may very well not make effective use of that time you’ve set aside.
With both of these elements, you want to be as specific as possible. The more you plan now, the less you have to think later.
If the book matters, then you figure out precisely when and where you will write it.
We recommend writing for at least one hour per day. If you only have 30 minutes per day to write, then do that. The optimal amount of time is two hours, but very few people can set aside that much time.
Also, be realistic. Most authors cannot write (effectively) for more than three hours a day.
“How consistently should I write?”
If you can, write every day. If seven days a week is too much, then take one day off and write for six. God rested on the seventh day and so can you.
The key thing to remember with a book is that you don’t stay where you are with a book; you either move forward or you move backward.
Momentum is a key element in seeing a book through from beginning to end. You will make that decision each and every day for the duration of the book-writing process. Your plan will help you stay accountable so you continue moving in the right direction.
“How do I pick my writing location?”
It’s very simple to pick where you should write: wherever you get writing done.
These are the general factors people consider when writing: ambient noise, temperature, view, comfort, and isolation. A universal “correct” place to write doesn’t exist. If you write well in coffee shops, do that. If you write well at a desk in your basement, do that. Wherever you are most creative, most functional, and most confident, write there.
Find the place and setting that works for you and then recreate that each day. If your initial location stops working for you after a while, acknowledge that, figure out what you need to change, and identify a new location.
“What software do I use to write?”
It doesn’t matter, just don’t get fancy. Use what you know and what is easiest.
Step 3: Set a Specific Writing Goal (250 Words Per Day)
In addition to scheduling the time and place of each writing session, give yourself a specific writing goal for each session.
We recommend a goal of 250 words per hour of writing.
Why 250 words? It’s approximately the number of words per page in a printed book. So if you’re writing about 250 words, that’s about a page a day.
Yes, this is a very low goal. But a low goal is good. A low goal is not intimidating, so it will help you get started. It will also make you feel good when you surpass it, and that will entice you to keep writing.
This is a classic sales technique — lowering the quota to inspire action — that works wonderfully with writing. The best part is that it adds up quickly:
By writing just 250 words a day, you can get a 120-page (30,000-word) first draft done in about four months.
This also builds a writing habit. Humans are habitual creatures, and it’ll get easier as you go.
Step 4: Create Your Deadlines
Deadlines force action and demand accountability. Below is a rough outline of how to pace yourself, and you can adjust it to your schedule.
If you want to move fast, give yourself a deadline of about a chapter a week.
If you want to move at a reasonable speed, give yourself two weeks per chapter.
If you want to move slower, allow three weeks.
If you have a hectic life, do a chapter per month. And then question whether you have the time to even do this.
Step 5: Announce Your Book
To take accountability one step further: announce that you are starting your book.
Use whatever social media platform you prefer, but the point is to publicly claim your intention to people you care about. You’ll get a lot of positive feedback, which will help you start, and the fact that you have announced your intention will help you push through when you are wavering.
You can talk about what your book is about, who it will serve, what the working title is, what areas you plan to cover — it doesn’t really matter. All that matters is that you tell the world this is coming.
Step 6: Give Yourself a New Identity: Author
As soon as you finish your writing plan, and announced your book, it’s time to consider yourself an “Author.”
Yes, this is getting a little ahead of the game. You haven’t published your book yet. Nor have you even officially started writing.
But that’s OK. You’ve made the commitment, and believe it or not, wearing the identity will help you get started and get through all the problems that will inevitably come up.
All you need to do is something as simple as writing your name and “Author” beneath it to make it real.
Step 7: Figure Out Your Book Objectives: Why Are You Writing Your Book, and What Do You Want to Get?
The first step in writing your book is what is called “positioning” in the book industry. Positioning is the most crucial part of both writing (and marketing) your book. What is book positioning? Simply stated:
Book positioning is the place your book occupies in the mind of your reader, and how that reader perceives your book as fulfilling their needs.
That is the technical, industry definition of positioning. But really, positioning is about answering the question readers ask about every book:
“Why should I read this book?”
It’s important to understand that you can’t write or market yourself out of a positioning problem. If you get it right, positioning makes both the writing and marketing of the book easy, and ensures you get what you want from your book.
If you do not take this seriously — if you get your positioning wrong — then almost nothing you can do will save your book or make it successful.
The best place to start book positioning is your objectives. This is because once you know what you want to accomplish with your book, it allows you to figure out the correct book to write.
This basic question helps authors discern the proper objectives:
“Imagine it’s a few years after your book has been published. What has the book helped you accomplish that made the effort worthwhile?”
There are an almost infinite array of benefits a book can get for an author, but most of them fall into one of these six popular objectives:
1. Raise Visibility/Profile: Books can increase visibility in any number of ways, like making it easier to gain media exposure or raise your profile in your niche.
2. Increase Authority/Credibility: Books help an author establish authority and gain credibility within their field.
3. Get New Clients/Opportunities: Books can easily help generate new business and other opportunities, across a variety of platforms and venues, in multiple ways.
4. Speaking Engagements: A book is almost a necessity for becoming a paid speaker, or often getting booked for any public speaking at all.
5. Leave a Legacy: A book can help establish a legacy and pass your story onto others.
6. Impact Others: There are a lot of ways to impact people, and for some authors, this is often the main benefit to them. They either do not care about what they’ll get from their book, or they care about that only as a secondary benefit.
Obviously, the details of each of these depend on your specific field and profession, but any of those objectives can be very realistic.
Examples of Book Objectives
From a book about learning faster and more effectively:
1. We have built our B2C business to over $10M a year, in large part by leveraging the free book funnel and the exposure of the book, despite the fact that I’m less involved in the business than ever
2. We’re doing over $1M a year in corporate and enterprise subscriptions, because of the exposure and credibility of the book and the event
3. We have sparked research, conversation, and debate about education reform, and are working on a few not-for-profit pilot initiatives to improve education
From a book that teaches women how to sell like men, but ethically and with heart:
1. I have a large following of female entrepreneurs and my brand is recognized and well-respected
2. I’m a sought-out speaker on the topic of sales and female empowerment. I have done a TEDx talk and been asked to speak at large, recognizable conferences like SXSW and Traffic & Conversion Summit.
3. I frequently get messages from people (women and men) who thank me for writing this book because it genuinely helped them
What Are Unrealistic Book Objectives?
Of course everyone secretly hopes their book will sell millions of copies and be a breakout success — but if you make that your objective, you are setting yourself up for failure. Those are not realistic goals. If you set realistic goals, you give your book a chance to actually succeed.
In fact, the most important thing you can do with this question is kill your fantasies and set objectives that are achievable. These are unrealistic objectives for most authors:
- Sell a million copies the first year
- Be asked to do a mainstage TED talk
- Become a famous author
- Be a New York Times bestselling author
- Get on Oprah/Ellen
- Fill an ill-defined emotional void
Here’s the thing about these objectives: they are not literally impossible. People have accomplished them all. We’ve had a few of our authors do them.
But they are exceedingly rare, and most books have no shot at these objectives. The more you focus on realistic objectives, the better your book will be at hitting the audience you need to hit in order to succeed.
Step 8: Figure Out Your Book Audience: Who Is Your Book for, and Why Will They Care?
You can absolutely write a book without caring who your audience is. But don’t expect it to do well.
In fact, there’s a name for a book that is written without an audience in mind — it’s called a diary.
If you want your book to be successful and reach the objectives you set out for it, you need an audience, and you need to think about and define that audience beforehand.
Let’s start with a definition of what an audience is (for the purposes of a book):
An audience is a single group of people who share the specific problem your book solves.
Some authors start by thinking their book can potentially reach everyone. They dream about the millions of people that “could possibly” find their book appealing.
Don’t do that. There is literally no book ever written with an audience of everyone.
Not the Bible. Not the Koran. Not Stephen King’s The Shining. Not 50 Shades or Harry Potter, or any other book.
If you think your book is for everyone, you are flat wrong. The fact is, the large majority of books are completely unappealing to most people.
And that’s perfectly okay.
Here’s exactly how to figure out who the audience for your book is:
Audience Question #1: Who is your Primary Audience?
We recommend starting with the smallest possible audience you must reach to make your book successful. For most authors, the smaller the better. Your total audience is a series of concentric circles; the primary audience is the bullseye.
By starting small, you can ensure that your book will definitely reach SOMEONE. This niche focus ensures that your audience will get excited about your ideas, they will implement your ideas, and they will share your ideas with their peers. This process is no more complicated than asking yourself a very basic question:
“Who MUST know about my book in order for it to get the results I want?”
This includes results for the reader and for you.
For example, if your objective is to help oil and gas executives make better decisions about where to drill, and you want to speak at a major oil and gas conferences and become the expert in this space, then your audience is the people who book the speakers for that specific conference (and the executives who attend).
If your objective is to help CTOs recruit engineers better and raise your authority in the CTO space to get clients for your CTO recruiting business that caters to small-to-midsize companies, then chief technology officers from SMBs are your primary audience.
If you want to help people deal with their back pain and get visibility in your community to drive clients to your chiropractic practice, then your audience includes the people in your community with the health problems that you can address.
- “Chiropractors who own their own practices, looking for better ways to market their business.”
- “Accredited investors looking for how to get into wine as an investment.”
- “Women executives, aged 30–45, who want to have kids but don’t want to compromise their career.”
- “Women 20–70, suffering, who want to feel better.”
- “Any executive who wants to be a better leader.”
- “Young men and women looking for something more in life.”
Audience Question #2: Describe a typical person in your Primary Audience (an avatar). What are they like?
This person is literally who you’re writing the book for. They are your perfect reader.
This should be a description of a specific person in your primary audience. It can be a real person who is representative of your audience, or it can be a made-up composite of several different people.
It’s essential that you describe a specific person, as it makes positioning your book more real. Don’t describe a group or a type or a set of characteristics: create an individual with a name and a story.
The point of doing it this way is to set you up for the next two questions, which are about digging into your audience’s pain and the benefits they will get from reading your book. Clearly understanding both serves as a yardstick against which you can measure the value of your content when you begin writing.
If possible, pick someone who energizes you — either a real person or a composite of real people. Someone you really want to help, maybe someone who reminds you of yourself before you knew everything you know now (the “younger you” can be a great ideal reader). The more you envision a real person who you can help, the more excited you will be about writing this book for them.
Audience Question #3: What pain is this person experiencing because they have not read your book?
This step is about expressing your reader’s pain. How are they suffering, what are they missing out on, what do they not have that they want? They are depressed and suffering — how, specifically, and why?
Your answer should only be about the problems they currently have, not the solutions. Your book is the cure, but we first have to know what ails them.
Sometimes Questions 3 and 4 overlap a little, and that is fine. In fact, you might have written the pain in the description of the person. If so, just cut and paste and move it here.
Audience Question #4: What transformation will occur because they read and implement your book?
Once this person reads your book and implements your ideas, what happens? Do they only stop experiencing the pain described above? Do they get more benefits, or both? What good things will happen as a result of reading your book and implementing your ideas?
Most importantly, what changes or transformation occur in their life? What is their new life like?
Example of an Audience Avatar
Who Is Your Primary Audience?
An advanced practice nurse who is interested in starting a healthcare practice
Describe a typical person in your Primary Audience (an avatar). What are they like?
Jennifer is an advanced practice nurse who currently works for a physician, hospital, or large practice. She doesn’t make as much money as she feels that she should, and she works long hours that take her away from her family.
In order to meet volume quotas and stay on schedule, Jennifer isn’t able to spend much time with her patients. This makes her feel rushed and stressed. She worries that she may be missing things or not providing the quality of care that would be possible if she had more time. Further, she’s not able to practice the type of preventative, relationship-based care that fuels her soul.
She is afraid of leaving the security of her current position, but isn’t sure she wants to keep practicing nursing if she doesn’t make a change. She wants to start her own practice, but doesn’t know where to start or what to do. She is looking for guidance and permission, but hasn’t found a book, resource, or mentor to help her.
What pain are they experiencing because they’ve not read your book?
Jennifer feels stressed and rushed at her current job. She is unhappy, unfulfilled, and has considered leaving nursing completely.
She is afraid of starting her own practice because she doesn’t know where to start or what to do. She’s afraid she’ll fail. She’s afraid she won’t make any money. She’s a nurse, not an entrepreneur! She isn’t sure if she’s doing things right, which is scary because she likes to follow the rules. All of this uncertainty means it’s taking Jennifer a lot longer than it should to start her practice, leaving her in her current job where she is unhappy.
What benefit will they get because they read and implement your book?
Jennifer will get a step-by-step guide to start her own practice. The process is no longer mysterious. It now seems achievable. She now knows the applicable laws and regulations, so she has peace of mind knowing she won’t be breaking any rules.
With a roadmap and examples of other APNs who have succeeded, Jennifer now has the confidence and permission to start her own practice.
Jennifer is less afraid of failure by she has strategies to mitigate the risk of starting a business.
Jennifer is now fast-tracked to get what she really wants — a better lifestyle (more time to take care of herself, flexibility to be available for family and/or friends); the freedom and autonomy to practice the type of medicine she loves, the ability to benefit from the fruits of her hard labor, and recognition as a leader in her community.
Step 9: Lock In Your Book Idea
Now it’s time for the fun part: nailing down your book idea.
Book ideas often shift once the objectives and audience become clear, so we leave this task for the end of the positioning process. It’s much easier now to get your idea right, because you know exactly what you want to accomplish and what audience you must attract with your book to reach your objectives.
Before you write down your book idea, be sure to avoid the biggest mistake that authors make:
Don’t write the book you think your audience “should” read. Instead, write the book your audience wants to read.
This is a subtle yet very important distinction. If you can answer the next two questions well, then it should be positioned properly.
In 200 words or less, describe your book.
Write a one-paragraph description of exactly what the book is about.
DO NOT worry about writing the perfect description (that comes later in the publishing process). Just get something down in less than 200 words that answers these three questions:
1. What is the book about?
2. Who is the ideal reader for the book?
3. What will the ideal reader get?
You don’t have to get it perfect at first; you just need to get something down that gets you pointed in the right direction. You will have plenty of time to get it perfect later on.
For now, distill the book idea into 200 words or, better yet, less. If you can’t do it in 200 words, you don’t actually know what your book is about, who it’s for, or why they will care.
If you are struggling with this, then think about your favorite book. Tell me in a few sentences what your favorite book is about. Now, what would that be for your book?
Don’t fall victim to the classic trap of trying to combine two or three books into one. A book should be one idea only, not all your ideas.
Also remember that putting your story in your book is fine, but only the parts that are interesting or relevant to the reader.
Examples of Solid Book Ideas
#1: This book will be an informative, easy-to-digest guide to hand safety in construction and manufacturing workplaces. The author will share what companies can do to educate their teams on hand safety and how to reduce hand injuries amongst their employees outside of just purchasing gloves. He will explain the methodology and safety tips needed to prevent hand injuries before they happen, and what to do if they do happen to prevent them from coming up again. He will include case studies, helpful tips, and practical applications that safety managers can use to prevent the majority of hand injuries in these companies, which is a huge risk each day.
#2: This book explores a series of critical flaws that represent the most common root causes of poor performance in organizations and are the primary reasons why organizations fail to achieve peak performance. What’s challenging about these flaws is that they lie underneath the surface of poor performance, so many organizations are not aware of them. Even when people may be somewhat aware, they may not realize how deep they go. And if/when they realize, they may not want or be able to treat them — especially alone. This book is for C-Suite executives who lead organizations that aren’t performing as well as they need to or could. It will help them diagnose and cure these flaws in their organizations, thus positioning their organizations for optimal business results; scalable, sustainable growth; efficient and effective operations; happy and engaged employees; and satisfied customers. On a personal level, this book will help these executives become more effective, less stressed, and happier in their professional and personal lives.
After you read the examples above, you could explain to someone else what the book is about, who it is for, and what they will get out of it.
Example of a Poorly Written Book Idea
#1: Jim Smith is known as the “Deal Maker of Business.” He got his start at the age of eighteen and hasn’t stopped since. Now, with seven bestsellers and a reputation for his success as a digital nomad, Jim is looking to become a big deal with entrepreneurs.
In his book, Jim will reveal his country roots and his struggle with education as a high school student to set the stage for his readers to understand that the only thing holding them back is their mindset. Though he is known as a real estate success and has written extensively about cornering that market, this book will pull back the curtain to reveal that Jim’s success isn’t about real estate alone — it’s about the self-awareness required to do well in all areas of life, not just business.
Jim will challenge his readers to give up their throne as the King of Dipshits, to surround themselves with people who challenge them, to identify and own the things they are not great at, and to stop working like $10/hour employees when they are running a million-dollar business. Most of all, Jim will use his experiences and his humor to bring fresh insight to entrepreneurs who want a life like his, but aren’t sure how to get it.
What’s this book about? Who is it for? What will they get? I couldn’t say with confidence, and I doubt you can, either.
Step 10: Outline Your Chapters
Your outline is the structure of your book, and thus incredibly important. If you start writing without a structure, the process will take forever and the product will be haphazard and incomplete.
Worse, having no outline often leads to not finishing your book at all.
The outline is also your best defense against fear, anxiety, procrastination, and writer’s block. With good positioning and a good outline, the actual writing of the book becomes fairly easy.
At Scribe, we have a complete outlining process that is very different than what most people teach. What makes our outline different is we only intend it to trigger the proper ideas and concepts for each chapter, so when you sit down to write, you know what to focus on.
And you can read about how to utilize the template here.
Step 11: How to Start Your Book: Outlining the Introduction
You know why most readers — probably including you — skip book introductions?
Because most authors think the purpose of the introduction is to explain everything they will talk about in the book.
That is boring and wrong.
The purpose of a good introduction is to engage the reader and get them to read the book.
Just because someone is reading an introduction does not mean they are going to finish the book. The thing that scares people off of books is NOT the price — it’s the commitment of time.
People don’t care about $10. They care about spending their time on something that is interesting and engaging to them.
That is the job of the introduction: prove to the reader this book is worth reading. A well-done introduction grabs the reader and compels them to keep reading. It pulls them through, and makes them excited to start the content, because the introduction has answered the most important question the reader has:
“Why should I read this book?”
An Introduction Should:
- Get the reader immediately interested in the book
- Clearly lay out the pain the reader is facing
- Paint a picture of a better future, or a benefit the reader can get
- Outline briefly what the reader will learn in the book
- Explain why the author is the expert and authority on this subject
- Get the reader committed to reading the book
An Introduction Should Not:
- Be a summary of the book
- Try to tell the whole story of something that is already in the book
- Tell the author’s whole life story
- Tediously explain exactly what is coming in the book
- Have a meandering story that the reader doesn’t care about
- Have too much background
- Be too long
- Start at the beginning of the author’s life
- Have too much autobiography
- Be entirely about the author and what they want to talk about
Step 12: How to Finish Your Book: Outlining the Conclusion
Here’s the thing with book conclusions: if the reader got all the way to the conclusion, then it means they read the whole book, they liked it, and now they want to wrap this up.
So don’t ramble on and on. Give them what they want.
The goal of the conclusion is to tie everything together, neatly summarize your book, and then provide a specific call or calls to action for your reader.
Don’t overcomplicate the conclusion — just let it do its job, and it’ll work great.
What a Conclusion Should Do:
- A conclusion should clearly summarize the book. That’s the best thing you can do, not only to deliver value to the reader, but also to make the book memorable (and recommendable).
- A conclusion should address any lingering issues, and close any open loops. The reader should feel like everything is wrapped up in a bow.
- A conclusion should have a call to action of some sort. In essence, tell the reader what to do.
- A conclusion should point them to any additional resources you have for them that could help them.
What a Conclusion Should Not Do:
- A conclusion should NOT introduce any new content. This should only be summarization of what is in the book. You can have new stories or anecdotes, of course.
- A conclusion should not be too long. The rule of thumb is that it should be the shortest chapter in your book.
- A conclusion should not break faith with the reader. Don’t tell them “operators are standing by” or try to sell them in a preposterous way that turns them off.
Step 13: Get a Working Title
You do NOT need to know your title at this stage, but I like to start thinking about my title at the latest when I am finishing my outline.
All you need to do now is come up with a “working” book title. That basically just means a temporary title. That’s it.
Even if you hate it, a working title is necessary.
A bad title will help you get to a good title, but having no title keeps you stuck.
So just put down whatever you have, and then move to the next step.
Step 14: Write the Vomit Draft of Your Book
What we’ve found working with thousands of authors is that almost all of them know how to write out their ideas. What they need most is what we’ve already gone over: defined book positioning and a clear book plan. From there, the writing itself is easy.
Where problems arise is in the mindset around writing. What happens in this stage is that authors get stuck.
But I can tell you how to avoid this very simply:
Give yourself permission to write a mediocre first draft.
Most beginning authors have this notion that professional writers put out amazing first drafts, or that their first draft has to be really good.
That is nonsense.
I can tell you, as a professional writer who has written four New York Times bestsellers, my first drafts are utter garbage. Worse than mediocre. They are terrible.
But that doesn’t bother me because I know I can edit them until they are not terrible. The Barbara Kingsolver quote tells it all:
“1. To begin, give yourself permission to write a bad book.
2. Revise until it’s not a bad book.”
Many people struggle with giving themselves permission to write a mediocre first draft, so we developed a concept called the “vomit draft.”
We literally call the first draft the “vomit draft.”
This is because when you’re vomiting, you don’t care about looking beautiful. When you’re vomiting, you just want to get it all out, because that’s the only way to get it over with.
What’s cool about the vomit draft is, unlike vomiting in front of people, your vomit draft is ONLY for you. You are the only person who will ever see it, and you will edit this before even your editor sees it.
By focusing on just getting it out, it stops you from reading and editing as you go, which inevitably slows you down and stalls you.
When you write something you think is garbage, just say, “That’s a problem for Future Me!” and keep moving.
This might be the most important advice in this book, so pay attention:
Write your vomit draft as quickly as possible. Don’t stop. Don’t edit. Move forward without looking back until your vomit draft is done.
Let me repeat that and break it down to be very clear and to be sure you got it:
Write your vomit draft as quickly as possible.
DO NOT STOP TO READ IT.
DO NOT EDIT.
MOVE FORWARD UNTIL YOUR VOMIT DRAFT IS DONE.
I cannot be more serious or literal about this.
The quickest way to derail a vomit draft is to start editing before you finish. I don’t care who you are — if you start editing your vomit draft, you WILL get stuck.
If you edit during the vomit draft stage, the best case scenario is you double the amount of time it takes to write the book.
Using the Vomit Draft Method does two things:
1. It suspends your self-judgment.
2. It creates momentum through daily victories (getting 250 words per day and celebrating that adds up and reframes how you see yourself)
If you edit as you write, it totally derails your book. The bully in your brain, the part of you that is ridiculously hard on yourself, will start to second-guess you and shame you and will, at best, slow you down — if not kill your motivation altogether.
How long should your book be?
We tell our authors that their book should be as short as possible, without leaving anything out.
You should not write thinking about length, but you should remember to keep your book as short and focused as possible. Shorter books are much better. They sell better, and they are more read, more engaged, and more impactful.
The data we have on this is very clear: books under 100 pages don’t sell as well (lower perception of value), books between 100 and 199 pages sell the best, books between 200 and 299 pages sell almost as well as the ones in the hundreds, and books over 300 pages sell the least (that length is a big investment of time).
As a rule of thumb, you can assume about 200 words per printed page, so 100–199 pages is 20k-40k words. And 5–20 chapters is usually what works best.
Step 15: Find Your Voice
For some reason, when it comes time to writing, lots of authors become obsessed with “finding their voice.”
I’ll often tease authors and ask them things like, “Hey, did you look behind your sofa? Your voice might be there.”
The joke is silly but the point is right — you don’t “find” your voice outside of yourself. Your voice is already a part of who you are. Your job as an author is to get out of the way and let it out.
The second thing authors do wrong, is try to mimic a voice. You can’t be Malcolm Gladwell. You can only be you, so don’t try to be anything else.
So how to do make sure it’s your voice in your book? There are two frames we recommend authors take:
Voice Frame #1: Conversation with a friend.
This is the most common mental frame that our authors use. When they sit down to write, they envision themselves talking to a friend.
This is literally the frame that I used to write this section — I pretended to explain this to a friend of mine.
Getting in that state of mind does several things:
- It relieves any anxiety, because this is just a conversation with friends.
- It helps keep my focus on the listener, because they’re a friend and I want to be attentive to them.
- It helps me stay centered on providing value to the listener, because in a teaching-style conversation, I am only thinking about what the other person is learning and taking in.
- It helps me keep momentum and motivation, because I want to make sure I am always helpful to my friend.
John Steinbeck says it best:
“Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death, and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person — a real person you know, or an imagined person, and write to that one.”
Voice Frame #2: Help a stranger heal the same pain you had.
This is very similar to the “conversation with a friend” frame, but it is also different in a few ways. If you envision yourself helping a stranger solve a painful problem, you do these things:
- You make it much easier to be brave in your writing and get past any fear or anxiety, because you are focused on their pain.
- You focus on specific and actionable information, which will make your book better and more meaningful to your readers.
- It helps you keep momentum and motivation, because you are focused on alleviating their pain.
Uber Cool Trick: Combine the two. If you envision yourself talking to a friend AND helping them through something difficult you’ve already done, that might be the best of both worlds.
Both of these methods allow you to get out of your own way and let your voice come through naturally.
Because you aren’t actually thinking about voice. You are focused on the reader. Focusing on the reader, rather than on yourself, is a superpower technique you can use at every stage to create an effective, successful book.
Don’t worry about being a writer. Just help people, and your voice will take care of itself.
Step 16: Use Good Writing Principles
Remember writing essays in school with a minimum word count?
If you were like me, you were guilty of turning “they said” into “they then proceeded to vocally exclaim…”
I can’t think of a worse way to learn to write.
I didn’t have five pages of thoughts about Paul Revere’s ride, but being forced to write that much forced me to write convoluted sentences packed with unnecessary words to pad my essay and hit the space requirement.
What I didn’t learn in school is how to write something people want to read. That is the key to non-fiction, and it’s never covered in school.
Great non-fiction is short, simple, direct, and about the reader. Follow these principles and you’ll be writing very solid prose.
Also, check out our post on writing tips for authors.
1. Make it short.
This is the most important principle. If you get this one right, the rest (usually) take care of themselves.
Keep your writing short on all levels. Short chapters (usually no more than 4k words). Short paragraphs (2–3 sentences). Short sentences (5–20 words). Even shorter words (less than 12 characters).
Brevity forces economy and effectiveness. When you put a space constraint on your writing, it compels you to focus on the essential and cut the rest.
One key point: make it as short as possible without leaving anything out. Short does not mean missing essential content.
2. Make it simple.
Simple is very similar to short, but not the same thing. You can write something that’s short but complex. That doesn’t work well.
Simple words and sentences force you to write in plain English. Even difficult and complex ideas can be broken down into small words and short sentences. As Richard Feynman said, if you cannot explain your idea simply, it probably means you don’t fully understand it (which is bad, if you’re writing a book).
3. Make it direct.
Most non-fiction writing is indirect in some way — passive voice, jargon, multiple clauses, heavy use of adjectives and adverbs.
Don’t do these things. If you’re doing them, stop. If you aren’t sure what they are, then do this:
Make each sentence a single, clear statement. Connect it to the sentence before and the sentence after. Do not put multiple thoughts in one sentence.
Make your writing as direct as it can be.
I have to explain passive and active voice, because most people don’t know what it is. Active voice means the subject of the sentence is performing the verb. Passive voice means the subject of the sentence receives the action. Even though they mean the same thing, the effect is very different. Example:
Active: Tucker wrote the book.
Passive: The book was written by Tucker.
Active voice is much easier for people to read because they can picture the sentence. You can see Tucker writing a book.
But in the passive voice, there is another cognitive step. You have to first imagine a book, then think about Tucker writing that book.
This small cognitive step makes a huge difference in how people respond to your writing.
4. Make it about the reader.
Ask yourself this question about everything you write:
“Why does the reader care?”
This is the hardest principle to apply, because when you do this, you realize that most of your writing is for yourself — not the reader. You see your writing for what it probably is: selfish, indulgent, and grandiose.
If that happens, don’t get down on yourself. That is common. Only every author ever has had that problem. All you have to do is stop writing about things the reader doesn’t care about and focus on what they do.
Step 17: Beat Procrastination & Writer’s Block
Like almost everything that stops you from sitting down and writing, procrastination is a symptom of fear in another form.
If you find yourself procrastinating, then ask yourself if you believe in your plan and your outline. Sometimes procrastination is your subconscious telling you that something is wrong with your plan.
Look at your outline for your book again. Examine it, and ask yourself if you believe in each section. If you don’t, then fix wherever you see a problem and you should be good.
Also, another great way to beat procrastination is to use public accountability. When you are lagging on your book, post about it, and that will help you get support and make sure you find the will to keep going.
Every writer I’ve ever talked to or worked with (including myself) has dealt with writer’s block. In fact, some of the greatest writers of all time — Ralph Ellison, Harper Lee — battled with it for decades, and had it crush their careers (neither wrote a book other than their first).
After decades of writing books professionally, and working with thousands of authors to help them through these issues, I have developed an approach to writer’s block that is different than most, and — if applied correctly — almost always works.
When I am stuck, I ask myself the question:
What am I afraid of?
Hint: it’s pretty much always some fear you don’t want to face (this is a list of common author fears).
Here’s the thing though — this won’t work if you aren’t honest with yourself. And of course, you have to be self-aware enough to know when you’re not being honest.
This works for me (most of the time), because I’ve spent many years in different forms of therapy, and I have gotten pretty decent at seeing my own head garbage (again, most of the time, not always).
If you’re not like that — and most people are not — this strategy won’t work. You’ll just spin up elaborate rationalizations to convince yourself that there is a REAL reason, and it’s not some fear you aren’t facing.
But if you do this, if you can actually understand the fear that driving your block, then you can solve it. I walk you through exactly how to beat your book writing fears in this piece.
There are absolutely times when writer’s block is not fear. Sometimes you’re just having a hard time, for other reasons, and for those times, these are the strategies I’ve found that work (both with me, and the thousands of authors we’ve helped write their books).
1. Talk it out: Writer’s block exists. There is no such thing as speaker’s block. You can always talk. If you really feel stuck, get someone to interview you on the thing you’re stuck about. Once you have to talk about it, the ideas and words flow.
2. Do something else: You know the saying about how “the phone only rings when you’re in the shower”? Well…go get in the shower. Metaphorically. Going for a walk works really well for me. As does playing with my kids. Basically taking your mind off of it allows your subconscious to work on the issue, and you can come back to it fresh later on.
3. Context switching: This has helped me before — I will change where I am writing. I’ll go to a coffee shop or a restaurant or anywhere else. It doesn’t matter where I go, as long as I change the context I am in.
4. Keep writing: I hate this, but sometimes it works. Many times I’ve been stuck, and I would keep writing, even if it was useless, and that got me going. Lack of momentum almost always has fear underneath it, but sometimes just getting moving is enough to get to something good.
These are the strategies I’ve seen work for myself and others.
But again, do what works for you. That’s the only rule for writing.
Step 18: Celebrate Finishing Your Vomit Draft
No seriously — once you finish your vomit draft, you need to stop and celebrate. This is a big deal.
It feels amazing to get through the first draft. Reward yourself with some time to rest and relax. The hardest part is over. You now have a real book in your hands, even if it is rough.
When I say take some time to rest and relax, I’m very serious. Set the entire thing aside for at least a week, ideally two. This will give you a valuable fresh perspective when you come back and begin editing.
It’s possible to begin editing immediately, but the result won’t be as good. This is part of why we tell you to schedule two months for your editing — to give you a buffer to rest your mind and come back at your manuscript fresh.
Step 19: Before You Edit, Remember Who the Book Is For
Yes of course the book is yours. Yes, it probably has a lot of your stories in it, in fact it should. Yes, the book is going to create benefits for you.
But as we discussed, if you want the book to help you, then the book has to provide value to the reader. In essence, to get what you want, you must give them what they want.
That is much easier said than done. Here are some facts about readers. They are:
3. Ignorant (about your subject)
I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s just how all readers are (including you and me).
The reality is that, in a book, you are buying the attention of the reader ONE PARAGRAPH AT A TIME.
You can write the book without worrying about that fact, but once you start editing, it becomes very important.
The point is that as you write, you can think of yourself, but as you edit, you need to be thinking about your reader.
Step 20: Do the “Make It Right” Edit
We have three editing phases we recommend, and this should be the easiest and most simple editing pass. There are three goals to the “make it right” edit. You want to ensure that:
1. All content is in the book
2. In the right order
3. The structure and positioning all make sense
This is basically just making sure the book has everything in it so you can actually begin the deep editing. All the writing and stories that need to be in, are in, and they are in the right order, and it all makes sense.
That’s pretty much it. Don’t make this more complicated than it needs to be.
Step 21: Do the “Line-by-Line” Edit
This is the framework we use for our line-by-line editing. It’s simple to understand, but powerful if you do it right. It gives you the exact questions to ask yourself at each level of editing:
1. As you read every chapter, ask yourself these six questions:
- What point am I making?
- Is it necessary?
- Is it as short as possible?
- Is it as simple as possible?
- Is it as direct as possible?
We mean this literally — ask yourself these questions, each time.
Yes, this is tedious. But if you do this exercise consistently, it becomes second nature. Once that happens, you’ll find that you can not only cut the fluff out of your book, you can also make your book sharper and more refined, and you’ll be able to hone in on what you are trying to say, and nail it.
Do it for each paragraph, then do it for each sentence. If you do this, you’ll have an excellent book.
Step 22: Do the “Read Aloud” Edit
This is an editing process that’s not commonly taught, but is a secret trick of numerous bestselling authors. Brené Brown, Neil Strauss, myself — we all do this.
When I wrote my first book, I had teams of proofreaders working through the book. I did not think that a single mistake would sneak by, and happily locked in the manuscript.
A few months later, I recorded my audiobook, and as I read through the manuscript out loud, I was horrified.
There were 100 tiny little mistakes and changes I only heard once I said them out loud. Not just spelling — there were very few of those. They were more word choice or phrasing mistakes.
It drove me NUTS.
Don’t make the mistake I made. Read your manuscript out loud and mark changes as you go.
If the words roll off your tongue, they’ll also flow smoothly in readers’ heads. Because I waited until so late in the process to read it out loud, it was too late to make edits to the book.
Learn from my mistake and read your manuscript out loud and make your changes before you start the publishing process.
If you find taking the time to sit and read out loud difficult (and a lot of authors do), we recommend having a friend help you out. If someone is sitting in the room with you, listening as you read through the manuscript, it’ll create the social pressure you need to actually do it.
If it’s something you would say out loud, then it reads clearly on the page. If it’s something you would never say to another person, it won’t read as clearly.
The reason reading your manuscript out loud works so well is because you will catch dozens of things you would have otherwise missed. Like Paul says, hearing yourself speak forces you to notice bad or strange phrasings — even if you don’t know why it’s off, you know it’s off.
If possible, read each chapter to a person. I know, that sounds awful and tedious, but reading to actual people forces you to really hear what is and is not working. It’s an incredible forcing function.
If you can’t do that, then set-up a microphone and record yourself as you read aloud.
You can delete the recording afterward. All that matters is that you are reading it OUT LOUD.
This is KEY to making this process work.
You have to read it to a real person, though. It doesn’t really work any other way.
Then you listen to what your words are saying — you’ll hear the errors.
Step 23: Stop Editing
Most first time authors fall into the “editing death spiral.” This is when they keep editing the same thing over and over, and cannot stop.
We see this all the time. They will do the first three rounds of edits fine, then they spend six months tinkering with it.
Not because they are making substantive changes. Instead they get lost in details, fretting over small word choices, making tiny edits and obsessing over obscure details. We almost have to pry the book out of their hands so we can finish it, even though they don’t really have anything left to change.
If you need a frame to help you decide when and if you are done editing, you can use what we call the Edit Stop Quiz. It’s two questions, and you can use it over and over again until you are done.
Edit Stop Quiz, Question #1: Is this the best book you can write, RIGHT NOW?
If the answer is yes, then send to publish.
If the answer is no, then go to question #2.
Edit Stop Quiz, Question #2: What can you do RIGHT NOW to make it better?
If there is an answer, something you can do now, do it.
If there is nothing you can do now — if the answer is something like, “Become a better writer” — then send to publish.
The point of this is to get you out of your spiral of “Well, if I did a little more research…” and then two years later your book is still stuck. That is bullshit, and just procrastination to stop you from finishing your book.
This can be driven by many different forces, such as perfectionism, fear of publishing, fear of success, or fear of failure. There will always be more to work on, more to change, more to improve. That will kill your book. There are two aphorisms we use to help get authors past this point:
“Perfect is the enemy of good, shipped is better than perfect.”
— Seth Godin
“[Books] are never truly finished, only abandoned.”
— Leonardo Da Vinci
This should be more than enough to help you not only get started, but actually finish your book.
Here’s the thing though: writing the book is only the first step (even though it’s a major one).
Please don’t be the person who writes 80% of the book and quits. Remember that at least one person, and probably many more, want to learn what your book will teach them. You have an obligation to yourself and to your audience to stop editing and put the book out.
Write up and publish your knowledge, even if it’s not perfect. They want and need it.
Have you stalled writing your book?
You have plenty of ideas you want to put into your book, but can’t find the time. Or maybe you’re frustrated with the writing process. When you seek advice, people tell you, “It’s all about discipline.”
But that doesn’t help you actually write your book. So you never finish your book, and the community you seek to impact never gets the benefits of your wisdom, and you don’t get the benefits of being a published author.
There’s an easier way — my new book, The Scribe Method: The Best Way to Write and Publish Your Non-Fiction Book. Get your digital copy of the book for free, and start writing.