How to Write a Book in 5 Easy Steps

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt’s almost always the first thing people tell me when they find out I’m a writer:

“I’ve always wanted to write a book.”

If not that, then:

“I started a book, but just haven’t had time to finish it.”

If they’ve started a book, invariably, they’ve managed to wring out three chapters before they “get stuck,” or “too busy.”

I hear them. It’s almost universal — that three chapter mark. I’m stuck on the third chapters of several of my own books. It’s a magical number somehow….but that’s another post entirely.

People come to me because they want to know “How to write a book.” It’s like me asking my athletic friends, “How do you train to run a triathlon?”  We want to weigh the cost and decide if this thing we want to do, is doable. It is. The steps are simple. It’s the actual doing them that’s hard. I look at the Couch to 5K list every spring and think, “I can do that. I can run a 5K this year.” The steps are simple. Get up. Start walking, then jogging, then running according to a schedule designed to push your body along and train you day-by-day. The implementation is hard! It’s hard getting up early, running when it’s bitterly cold, or hot, or raining. It’s hard to deal with the pain of muscles being used, of a bad knee or back. It’s implementing the simple plan that trips us up, or discourages us, or ultimately beats us down.

The secret then is NOT in the steps. It’s in breaking down each step into bite-sized pieces you can handle. Once you realize that, you’ll succeed at anything you do. Writing a book isn’t as hard as much as it is time consuming. These five steps are simple enough, but to break each down further is necessary if you want to make it easier.

How to Write a Book in 5 Easy Steps

(1) Decide what you want to write about and why you want to write about it. This sounds obvious, but it’s not. Non-fiction writers usually want to write because:

  • They want to make money
  • They want to put themselves out in the world as an expert in what they do
  • They want to gain credibility for what they do
  • They want something to get them on the speaking tour or to get publicity
  • They want to teach their readers how to do something
  • People are asking them to write
  • They want to explain or educate patients, customers, clients etc.
  • They have a blog and want to consolidate their wisdom/advice/expertise

Fiction writers want to write because:

  • They secretly think they’re brilliant, funny, talented and awesome and want to show their inner self to the world (no one ever admits this, but they all think it — self included)
  • They have a great story to tell (or think they do)
  • Their friend, co-worker, spouse, kid, or someone they know has written one and if THEY can do it, so can they
  • It’s romantic and magical. Would be writers like the IDEA of being a writer.
  • It’s glamorous.
  • They have no idea. They just want to write a book. (They don’t want to admit it’s a ego/fantasy thing)
  • They’re dying and want to leave something of themselves for their family
  • They want revenge on someone or something
  • They want to get rich quick
  • They love the fantasy of the attention and respect they’ll get

There are other reasons, but these are the ones I hear the most. There is no “right” or “wrong” reason to write a book. You just have to know why because that reason is what will motivate you when it gets hard or you get stuck. It’s kind of like losing weight. You can’t just lose weight because you need to. You have to have a reason, like kids or a spouse, or because you’re going to die if you don’t. The REASON you’re writing the book has to be compelling and real. The most common reason for writing a book? “To get RICH QUICK.”

Unfortunately, that happens about as often as winning the lottery. Unless you’re already famous for something, or you have a rare knowledge no one else has that will save  mankind, “getting rich” is not in the cards. The average writer makes from $25 to $300 on their book — depending on the size of their family and social network. Even great writers rarely make more than $3,000, and that’s after you spend at least that much in editing, creating a book cover and self-publishing.

If you want to write a book of any kind, it’s best to have something more motivating and realistic than “to make money.” Otherwise, you’re going to be sorely disappointed.

(2) Create a mind map and do a brain dump. In high school our teachers taught us to “create an outline” before we wrote a paper. That works, but it works better if you know what information you have and what’s relevant before you start writing.

For instance: You’re a pet groomer and you want to write a book on cat grooming. You are the expert on cat grooming. So, you have a lot of options. You can write a book for cat owners about general grooming. You can write a book for cat owners who have “show cats” and want the tips, tricks and inside info on grooming their cats for competition. You’re not sure what you want to do really, so you create a mind map.

In the center of a large piece of paper (or on your computer with a mind map application), you write the words “Cat Grooming” inside a circle. Then you draw a line from that circle to another circle . In that circle you write “Nutrition.” You keep drawing circles and lines from “Cat Grooming” to circles that represent categories. You can add as many circles as you like!

The categories you come up with will generally arrange themselves into chapters, the topics in the chapter and then into comments you want to include in each topic heading. Cat Grooming is the book topic. Bathing might be a chapter and in that chapter you have a paragraph on Selecting a Shampoo, Water Temperature and Blow Drying etc. Don’t restrict yourself to the number of categories or topics. If something comes up, write it down. You’ll go back and forth on these and that’s okay. Use a white board, chalk board, paper, computer or whatever works for you. I like paper and a white board.



(3) Talk it out and transcribe it. Once you have your map, then either use a program like “Dragon, Naturally Speaking” or just talk into a tape recorder and go to and hire someone to transcribe your tapes and put them in a word document for you. This is your “brain dump.” You actually take ONE topic at a time and just say everything you know about that. For instance, “Clipping”….begin by talking about everything you know about clipping a cat’s nails. It might be one page or 20. Don’t think about that. Just talk about everything you know or ever heard (myths etc) about clipping a cat’s claws. (TIP: Say the name of the topic: “Clipping Begin” and “Clipping End”  to help you find your topics later when they’ve been transcribed). Do this for every topic and sub topic on your mind map. If you think of another category you forgot, then go back and add it. If you decide a category is not relevant, then delete it. This is loose, messy and creative. Don’t worry about being neat. You aren’t going to include this in the book. It’s for your eyes only.

(4) Arrange your content into Chapters. Once you have your “brain dump” transcribed and laid out, then arrange it into chapters. This is where your Table of Contents and your outline come into play. Once all your chapters are organized and structured into a word document, walk away and leave it alone for a week.

Come back the next week and read it from beginning to end. Do not stop to change anything. If something doesn’t read or sound right, make a note right on the page. (Print it out or use Track changes in word). Once you’ve read it from beginning to end and made all your notes, then walk away for at least 24 hours, if not 72. This gives your brain time to assimilate what it’s read.

Finally, come back and start rewriting, polishing, and moving the content around until it reads like you want it to.   This may take only days, but it usually takes months. It’s not a race. Keep going through each chapter, then the book as a whole until you are thrilled with what you’ve produced. Celebrate. Then….

(5) Hire an editor to do a hard edit. It doesn’t matter what level your writing is at when it comes to editing. You need someone trained in editing and someone outside of yourself or family to take a long, cold, hard, impersonal look at your book. They’re not just looking for commas and misspellings. Hard edits involve:

  • reorganizing information
  • improving the clarity
  • suggesting (or even just rewriting) certain paragraphs or chapters
  • making sure the transition from paragraph to paragraph and chapter-to-chapter is smooth
  • ensuring the text is readable (subheads, bullet points, flow)
  • fact checking source material
  • ensuring timelines, dates, names and events are consistent and realistic
  • deleting repetitious or extraneous phrases and sentences
  • challenging the writer to take risks, push, go deeper or rewrite entire sections

Expect to pay $2,500 to $5,000 for a good hard edit.  When a good editor returns your manuscript it will look like they’ve bled on it (if they use red ink), or it will look like you didn’t have two good sentences to string together and are a worthless hack. DO NOT FREAK. This is NORMAL, even for great writers. That’s why you pay them so much $$!!

Make the corrections, listen to the suggestions and go through the entire book again. You may do this 1-5 times or more depending on the complexity of the book and how well you follow your editor’s suggestions. When you’ve gone through this several times you’ll eventually see how the suggestions and edits actually have improved your writing. Once this process is complete, so is your book!! Congratulations! Now go celebrate. You’ll need it for when you start the next phases — publishing, distributing and marketing!


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