Lifehack: How to write a book and actually finish the job

how to write a book

My dear friend Marcus Sheridan recently wrote a post lamenting that one of his biggest disappoints was an inability to finish a book he had started in 2013. Instead of calling him up with advice I am going all Web 2.0 on him and providing some advice through a blog post that might help all of my readers at the same time.

First of all, let’s not sugar-coat this. Writing a book is really hard work. It is just about the hardest work I have ever done. Let that sink in.

If you’re not planning to work your ass off, you are not going to be able to finish a book. So start there. You have to get serious about this commitment. Having said that, I have developed some lifehacks to help you get the job done. Check it out … how to write a book:

The essence is the outline

Although a book has a linear flow, trying to write a book from start to finish is inefficient. You have to learn to write non-linearly.

To get the job done as rapidly as possible, you have to be able to work on different parts of the book at different times, or maybe even different parts of the book at the same time.

Here’s an example of what I mean … Let’s say you are waiting to line up an interview with an expert but it can’t be scheduled for a month. If you are writing linearly, that means everything would come to a stop until you do the interview, which is a big waste of time. So you need to have a vision of where the whole thing is going, meaning an outline.

Before you start writing, spend sufficient time upfront getting clear on where you are heading with this book, chapter by chapter. As you will soon see, this is the key to effective non-linear writing.

Evernote your way to content success

Think of each chapter in the book as a bucket you need to fill with excellent content. After you have completed your outline, but before you start writing, spend a few months using Evernote as a tool to help you get clear and organized.

Evernote is a free organizational tool that helps you save web content into topical files. Once I have an outline, I create an Evernote file for each chapter of the book.

When I come across an idea, post, person to interview, or any other inspiration for the book, I dump it into the right chapter file in Evernote. It doesn’t have to be perfect. At this point, you are just collecting ideas to flesh out your outline.

Old school organization — The Paper Wall

There are lots of digital tools to help you organize your book and one that I use is Scrivener. However, to really get the job done, I have developed a simple and elegant system that flat-out works — The Paper Wall.

Create an easel-sized Post-it page for each chapter in your outline. Across the top I write the title of the chapter and then I draw a line down the middle of the page. The left side is for “to-do” items and the right side is for “completed” items.

paper wallHang each page, in order, on a wall in a room in your house, preferably where you do your writing. Next, get some small Post-it Notes in three different colors, one for “content” one for “interviews” and one for “research.” Now, go back to all the ideas you have in Evernote. Write each idea, concept or story on a Post-it Note and put it in the left-hand (to-do) column of the appropriate chapter.

Once you start this exercise, you will be able to visualize what concepts and stories really belong in which chapters. You can re-arrange your content in a highly visual way and get organized before you ever write one word.

Once you start writing, and you “consume” an idea in the chapter, you move that Post-it Note to the “completed” side of the page. That is always a good feeling. Now, taking over your living room with easel pages may seem like a silly and extreme method of writing but here is why this works:

  1. The most difficult part of writing a book is keeping the flow straight across many chapters. This provides a powerful, visual map of where you are going. You can see the entire book flow, all your ideas, all the remaining work ahead in one place.
  2. Your final book will probably not resemble your first outline. During the process, you might move content around, add chapters, re-order the flow. To do this, all you have to do is literally move your pages and stickers around until you think you are getting it right.
  3. To me, the Paper Wall is the key to highly-effective, non-linear writing. If you get stuck on one chapter, you can look at your wall of tasks and start working on something else until you can move it to the “completed” side. Instead of writing chapters, you are finishing mini-tasks that lead to a chapter.
  4. If you are married, your spouse is not going to want to have this stuff on the walls forever. You are going to have to stick to a commitment to get this done in a certain time frame. Having a paper wall and a deadline is an assurance of accountability.

How to write a book through your blog

When I start writing a book, I will “test market” some of the content through blog posts. Yes, many ideas you read on {grow} may end up in a book!

There are two primary advantages of this. First, it provides blog content while I am also busy writing the book. More important, I get a preview of the reaction from my audience. So if I float something out there and you give me additional ideas through blog comments, your ideas may actually end up in my book. I have used quite a few attributed reader anecdotes and comments in my books.

Be an Olympian

To finish a book you have to develop an Olympian mindset.

To reach their goal, an Olympian does not take a day off, they do not quit, they do not make excuses. They practice their sport every day, in all weather, under all circumstances.

If you are going to finish a book, you have to write every day, without excuse, without exception. You need the same dedication as if you were on a diet, recovering from an injury, or mastering an Olympic event.

Think of it this way, if you write 1,000 words a day (less than the length of this blog post) you will complete a 240-page book in two months.

For this reason, writing a book needs to be a family decision. When I was planning to write Return On Influence — a massive undertaking that required months of research — I talked about it with my wife first. I was going to have to give up a lot of free time and miss some favorite summer activities. I could not have stuck to the discipline to finish the book if I had not had her support.

So there you have it. Marcus (and everyone else out there) I hope this helps. Writing a book is not for everyone, but I found the experience very rewarding.

I’d love to engage with all of you about this topic in the comment section.

Top illustration courtesy Flickr CC and Tori Hoover

Links to book and Scrivener are affiliate links.

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