You have a book idea, and you’ve spent quite a few hours thinking about the book, but how do you actually sit down and write it? You’ve heard about mind mapping and outlining. You’ve heard of some authors who start with the title of the book. The other day, you sat down and tried to type out the intro of the book (that really didn’t go very well) and ended up typing a bunch of random thoughts that were more confusing than clarifying. What’s the best way to start writing a book?
First, how not to start a book.
Don’t start with an outline.
Yes, I know that’s how high school English students learn how to start a paper – with Roman numeral I, and outline every major point in the paper ahead of time, in a logical order, with sub-points. The outline method is very easy to teach but very difficult to actually do. In my experience, you end up just staring at Roman numeral I for a long time, with little progress to show for it and a lot of pent up frustration. An outline is very useful, but it’s most useful a little later on in the writing process.
Don’t start with a mind map.
Yes, I know there are courses and coaches who specifically advise pulling out a large piece of paper, writing down a bunch of ideas, and drawing lines between them. A mind map is a fantastic tool, but if it’s the first thing you try, you’ll just end up with a lot of ideas and lines going every which way. It’ll be difficult for you to figure out the connections and patterns, and even more difficult to feel confident about starting to write.
Don’t start with a book title.
I had a mentor who always started with the book title. He said it kept him motivated to write the book. When he felt blocked, he would just start doodling the book title. The problem was, he spent a lot of energy just thinking about the book title, and a lot less energy actually writing. If you feel the need to come up with the perfect book title before you start writing, you might never start writing. It’s far easier to title something that has already been written rather than something that doesn’t even exist yet.
The best way to start is with free writing.
By the time you’ve decided you want to write a book, you’ve probably already been thinking about it for a while. You have the equivalent of tens of thousands of words stuffed up inside your head, crashing into each other and all competing for your attention. If you get a headache just thinking about your book topic, you could use a few good free writing sessions.
Let me give you the short and sweet version of how to free write.
- Sit down at your desk with your computer open or have notepad and pen ready.
- Close all social media. Put your phone on do not disturb.
- Fix in your mind the topic that you’d like to explore with free writing. Even if it’s broad, just turn your attention to what you’re planning to write about.
- Set a timer for 10, 15, or 20 minutes.
- Go! Type or write as fast as you possibly can until the timer runs out. Don’t let your fingers stop moving. If you have to type, “Umm, umm, umm” a dozen times in a row or talk to yourself with crazy questions, like, “I don’t know why I don’t have anything else to say, I’m supposed to be some sort of expert, have some sort of knowledge, but I don’t know, it’s just not coming as easy as I thought it would. Why is it not coming?” Don’t be afraid to talk to yourself and prompt yourself with questions. Just. Keep. Writing. Constantly, without stopping, without even pausing, until the timer rings.
- When the timer rings, stop. If you felt like you were really on a roll, you can take a 5-minute stretch and set another timer. I would recommend no more than 3 free writing sessions in a row.
If you're curious about freewriting, I wrote a more extensive post about free writing here.
Repeat this for several days. I’d say at least 3 days, at most 7 days – all within the span of one week. Somewhere in this time frame, you will gain immense clarity around what your book will center on.
What do you do with all this free writing content?
Some people feel like they want to use the freewriting words like words are food, and if you don’t use them up or you just threw them out, it’s a waste. Words and ideas are not like food. They don’t spoil, and but I don't recommend reheating the leftovers. With words, there's nothing wrong with starting again fresh.
Now, it’s time to plan what I call a “rough organization.” You can skim back through your freewriting if you want. Often, though, I find that simply having typed out my thoughts helps me organize them. The exercise of free writing should help you clarify what you’re writing about, even if you don’t reuse any of the free writing passages. Sometimes, I feel clear enough just to sit down the morning after my week of free writing and start typing out a rough organization.
What I recommend is a rough list, grouped into sections, and by rough, I do mean rough. Let me give you a sample of how I wrote the organization for the book I’m currently writing (click to enlarge):
That's the rough organization of the first few chapters, anyway. I would show you the rest, but that would ruin surprises in the book! I have the sections in all caps and just a list of ideas in each section. You can see that I’m somewhat listing, somewhat writing notes to myself. I promise I did not retouch this at all. This is an authentic look at my messy, rough organization, with incomplete sentences and grammar errors and all. It doesn’t need to be perfect, as long as you remember what you want to say about each point in each topic.
You can also consider adding notes where you’ll need to include research. This particular book is not research-heavy because it’s based on my own experience as a writing coach. But many nonfiction books do include a lot of research. Come up with your own system. Maybe a [*note] would indicate where you’ll need to reference a study. Then, you could always run a search in the document for the * symbol to double-check that you included the research.
I don’t want you to get sidetracked by the research. You only include research in order to support your main argument. So, get your main argument down first, then the research. Besides, if you’re like most nonfiction writers, you have more research in your brain than is really useful. It’s time to stop focusing on research for a little while and focus on your own words. You’ll be able to add layers of research in subsequent drafts.
It may take you a few writing sessions to really flesh out the rough organization, but not more than a week’s worth of writing sessions. By the end of the second week of writing, you should have a good idea of what you’re writing about. And you'll have momentum built up around writing. Starting to write a book will be no problem at all. (Finishing a draft, though, that's for another post.)
So, what are you writing about now? How do you start?
Leave a comment below, and let me know!