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How to Write a Book

By: David Alan

Yes, I’m going to explain how to write a book in 750 words. After writing more than seventy books myself, I feel I can boil down the book-writing process to several simple tips.

Note that I said book-writing process. Before attempting to write a book longer than Goodnight Moon, a person should understand and be able to execute the craft of writing. Skills such as proper grammar, syntax, paragraph construction, and story structure can only be honed through years of reading and instruction, be it in schools or through self-education.

I believe the following about writing: 1) Some people are naturally inclined to write, just like some folks are mechanically inclined or drawn to complex mathematical equations. 2) A great percentage of writers have a need to write; they embrace it as the best way to express themselves. I had difficulty expressing myself verbally when I was younger. Writing became my outlet. 3) Even if you’re not naturally inclined to write, you can become a strong nonfiction writer if you’re passionate about succeeding at it. Hundreds of great books on writing are available; you can learn a little each day and construct yourself into a skilled wordsmith.

But even those who have expository writing down cold still may be overwhelmed by the thought of writing a long book. This is my advice:

Break it down.

A good outline is key to writing a well-structured book that’s written to length. Instead of being overwhelmed by sitting down and writing a manuscript, focus your initial thoughts on writing a detailed outline.

First, understand your subject matter. Say your goal is to write a 20,000-word biography on Senator Bernie Sanders. Plan to spend 10 or 20 hours—or more if you have the time—reading about the Independent progressive. I like to read a short biography of my subject first so that I get a basic understanding of him or her or it, then I read one or two longer biographies.

Take notes while you read, both on the source material and in your notebook. On your source material, highlight potent quotes or facts that you think will be compelling in your book.

Before you write the Sanders biography, make sure you have a thorough understanding of the senator—thorough in a broad sense; you can hone in on details later. Never start writing a book on a topic you’re still unclear about. You’ll end up wandering down a foggy road, not knowing where you’re going.

Break your outline into chapters. Typically, the opening chapter of a biography or historical event should be the “hook” chapter—a “you are there” anecdote that will wow readers and want them to learn more about the subject. The succeeding chapters are typically in chronological order, and the final chapter offers an overall perspective on the subject.

Within each chapter, break down the outline into 10 or 20 or 30 topics. They should follow a logical progression. Read through your outline and make sure there’s a compelling flow. Make sure the chapters are distinct. Make sure that you’ll finish strong.

I’ve worked with a lot of writers who overwrote by thousands or even tens of thousands of words. There’s a simple way to avoid overwriting or underwriting:

Assign word counts to every topic in your outline. If your targeted word count for the book is 20,000 and you have 100 topics, you know off the bat the topics should average 200 words each. Assign an important topic 300 or 400 words, and a less-important topic 50 or 100 words. Add up all the word counts and make sure you’re at 20,000. If you’re short, increase the word count for certain topics.

Assigning word counts gives you another advantage: You can now write your book in easy pieces. Say, post-outline, you want to finish your book in 100 days. That’s 200 words per day. If a topic is 200 words, that’s all you need to concentrate on that day. Make sure it’s an interesting read. Micro-research that particular topic. Use active voice, colorful description, short quotes, interesting facts, and other literary tools to make that 200-word topic as interesting as possible. Then transition to your next topic.

Millions, if not billions, of words have been written about the craft of writing, but the above is my advice for the day. It is meant to turn an overwhelming project into something that’s easily manageable. From my experience, those word counts are the key.


DAVID ALAN has authored, cowritten, and edited books for 20 publishers, including Random House, HarperCollins, St. Martin’s Press, Barnes & Noble, Scholastic, and Total/Sports Illustrated.

 

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