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How to write a book while you’re in college

Writing a book is no easy feat, but it’s more accessible than you think

For many people, writing a book is a neglected bucket list item. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

While more and more social media platforms compete for our attention every day, revenue from the book publishing industry exceeds $110 billion per year and is still growing. Despite an unprecedented access to information, there is still a lot of value in writing and reading books.

As a writer, technological advancements in book printing has made self-publishing your book easier than ever before.

CreateSpace Self Publishing

In 2005 Amazon acquired a little company called CreateSpace. Fast forward 12 years and CreateSpace is the best place to self-publish your book and distribute it to a wide audience at a low cost.

The way CreateSpace works is straightforward: Through their website, you select the trim size of your book, download a word template and start writing. Once you take care of the many intermediate steps like editing, proofreading and designing your book, you upload the document to their platform. Once your files are approved for print, they make your book available for purchase on

Printing On Demand

CreateSpace makes your book available for free on Amazon Prime for anyone to order. When someone buys your book online, CreateSpace prints a copy, Amazon ships it and it arrives at the purchaser’s address just like any other item.

There’s my book, printed with CreateSpace, appearing in the Amazon listing just like normal

Printing on demand is a huge benefit to the author because you don’t have to worry about purchasing inventory and organizing distribution. We can all imagine an ambitious author who ordered 1,000 copies of their own title thinking it would be best-seller. Twelve months later, all that inventory would be boxed up and stored in the basement never to see the light of day. Ordering 1,000 books is not cheap. It could cost anywhere from $2-$5 to print each book, so that inventory would cost $2,000-$5,000.

Most people can’t afford to purchase so many units ahead of time without any promise of selling them. This is why printing on demand is so helpful. You don’t have to pre-order any inventory. If only a few people buy your book, you won’t have to find a home for all the extras. CreateSpace only prints a book when they receive an order.

There’s no need to get a traditional publisher

Publishers used to be the gate-keeper of the book business, but like many industries, the internet has changed that. Barriers to entry are lower than ever before. The quality of self-published books is indistinguishable from traditionally-printed books. Increasingly, high-profile authors are taking notice and going the independent route.

Michael Bungay Stanier wrote a phenomenal, in-depth article about the success of self-publishing his book The Coaching Habit. Here is his breakdown of self-publishing vs. a traditional publisher:

Traditional publishing vs. Self Publishing from GrowthLab

There are a few important caveats here:

  1. It’s really hard to land a traditional publishing deal and get a $15,000 advance. If that were easy, everyone would do it. Michael had an existing audience and a great portfolio of work that most people lack.
  2. The up-front cost of $12,000 for self-publishing is not a requirement. Michael went all in on hiring top-notch professionals and assembling a small team to help with launching the book. You could realistically self-publish a book for one tenth of that cost.

What I want to emphasize is the amount earned per sale. Michael earned 4–6x more per book by self-publishing than he did in his contract with a traditional publisher. Michael’s book sold over 100,000 copies and has been a best-seller in his category for months.

You don’t need to land a publishing contract in order to write a successful book. The power is yours to self-publish something great.

How to get Started

The writing is hard. Most people are overwhelmed at the thought of writing a 3,000 word paper. Many books exceed 100,000 words. So when you think about writing a book, you tell yourself that you could never write so many words; therefore, you definitely can never write a book. The part you’re forgetting is that many books are under 20,000 words! Some are even under 10,000 words.

Books come in all shapes and sizes, so the first thing to think about when starting is to eliminate all preconceptions of what a book needs to be. Don’t worry about that stuff. Write the book you need to write.

Two Ways to Write Your Book

The first is an idealistic route:

  1. Pick a path and follow it.

This method involves making all the hard decisions at the beginning of the process. You have to pick a promise, an audience and a title at the very start of your project. If you’re able to do this, you will suffer from less thrashing later in the process. This path will be faster, but more difficult to begin. Having to make several huge decisions before putting pen to paper is a commitment most people aren’t willing to make. But if you can do it, you’re off to a great start.

Once you have your audience, a promise and a title, you can make your outline. The outline should answer the question: how will I deliver on my promise? A common outline many authors use is: Introduction, Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Conclusion. You introduce the topic, each part has three chapters that move your book forward, then you wrap it up with a conclusion.

2. Write what feels natural

This is the second way to write a book and it is the method I used to write my first book. It’s not as clean, it takes longer, but it’s easier to get started. When choosing this method, you are not making all of the hard decisions at the very beginning. You are picking a general topic and writing every day for a few months to see what you have to say.

Once you have a large body of work, you can step back and answer the important questions: What is the promise? Who is your audience? What is the title?

The downside of this method is that you might have to reorganize all your writing and change the tone of your pieces in order to fit them into a smooth narrative. I had to do this a lot with my book.

Doing the writing

No one has time to write. If you’re not a student, you’re probably working, or taking care of kids or doing any number of other activities that pull on your time. Writers often dream of renting a cabin in the woods and writing distraction-free for days. Unfortunately, for most of us that will never happen. The writing process is going to be imperfect, but we can’t let imperfection stop us from trying.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach for how to do the work of putting words on a page. Remember that your book doesn’t need to be long. You need to commit to a process that will get you enough quality content to make into a book. For some people that means writing 1,000 words every morning. For other people that means doing two weeks of research, then writing for a week. Then doing more research and more writing.

Everyone’s process will look different. There is no “good” or “bad” when it comes to creative habits. Don’t compare your process to your idol’s. Just do what feels best and don’t be judgmental about it. Even if your writing doesn’t feel good enough at first, put it down in your document. Your editor and proofreaders are all there to transform unrefined ideas into eloquent arguments.

Everyone’s process will look different. There is no “good” or “bad” when it comes to creative habits.

I never considered myself a writer, but I knew that I needed to write more in order to improve. As a college student, I wrote every night for 15–30 minutes, then I wrote more and edited my work every morning for 30–60 minutes before I had to go to class. The only way to accomplish a big project is to make the time to focus on it. For me that meant every morning, the first thing I worked on. I knew my classwork would get done eventually, but this project would fall by the wayside unless I made a conscious commitment to do it.

Writing is scary. It doesn’t come naturally, but the more you do it, the better you get. Find your own process and enjoy the journey.

Start now

It’s the beginning of summer and it’s a perfect time commit to writing. If you’re a college student, the semester just ended and now is a great time to gain new skills. Spend a month working on this project every day. You’ll be amazed at how much you learn and how much you can accomplish with the right focus.

Remember, writing a book doesn’t mean writing a novel. You don’t need to make up a new world and develop complex characters. You could write a brief non-fiction book that helps students make the most of their college experience. Write about something you know and make it your own. Most books are too long. Don’t pressure yourself to write 80,000 words if you can get your message across in just 12,0000.

Reach out!

There are many other steps in this process, but none of them matter until you do the writing. We could talk about cover design and interior layout and launch strategy, but that’s a distraction right now. Take this process one step at a time. It will probably take a year to complete this process if you work an hour each day. It’s no small commitment, but it’s well worth the time.

If there’s something missing in this article, or you have a follow up question, send me an email: zcj at udel dot edu!

I just released my first book, The World Changer’s Handbook! If you want to find a calling, drive social change or just have a bigger impact on those around you I promise this will help. Now for sale on Amazon!