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Does it really take 20 years to write a book?

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I recently read Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan. In the introduction, he says he researched for 20 years before writing the book.

The author researched for 20 years before writing his book!

That stopped me in my tracks and made me wonder, was the quality of the book so greatly affected by 20 years of research?

Would the book have been half as good if he’d only spent 10 years researching?

Or would his career and platform be more advanced, had he published sooner and more frequently?

This is actually a discussion that I often have with writers, as they’re writing their books. There’s a cultural sentiment that good books are written slowly and that shoddy books are written quickly.

I would push back against that sentiment.

In my experience there are a few things that most certainly happen when you intentionally spend many years writing a book:

1. You spend many hours reading and researching, only to forget most of it within about a year.

2. You spend many years second-guessing yourself, wondering if the book is even worth writing.

3. You spend very little time writing and quite a lot of time staring at a blank screen, agonizing over every word.

If you ask me, none of those is exactly a pleasant or worthwhile experience. Sure, yes, you may have more references to cite, more nuanced discussions, and the occasional turn-of-phrase that you’re really proud of.

My question back to you is, “Are any of those things truly, substantially helpful to the reader?”

I don’t want to knock Aslan, here, because his book was amazing. But if I had the opportunity to interview him, I would ask him some questions about why he felt that it took 20 years to write a book that’s roughly 300 pages.

Yes, there are complicated ideas that take 10, 20, 30 years to master, but do you have to wait until you’re a master to write a book?

My philosophy around writing quickly centers around a few main points:

1. Reading and researching do not provide as much clarity as writing does. We sometimes use research as an excuse to “figure something out,” when we could actually figure it out much more quickly through writing.

2. When you write quickly, you give power to your own ideas and your own voice. When you’re not leaning on the crutch of reading and research, instead encouraging yourself to write a fast first draft, you find your own words develop a new glow of authenticity. There’s less time to hem and haw over whether your book is worthwhile because you’re in the flow and writing quickly.

3. Writing at a steady pace on one project until it’s finished allows your mind to remain focused on and attentive to that one project. You end up spending quite a lot of time thinking through difficult concepts, simply because you’re writing about them nearly every day.

And it’s only once you have a completed first draft that you can begin the editing and revision process, and let me tell you, that is where the literary magic comes in! You would not believe what a difference there is between a first draft and a published book.

Every traditionally published book goes through at least three rounds of editing. Yes, the book changes dramatically from the beginning of the editing process through to the end. And it’s almost always for the best.

So, why would you spin your wheels and procrastinate writing your book’s first draft?

You’re like every other writer who has ever lived. You’re afraid of judgment.

But the only way to move past fear is to begin with action.

Don’t plan to spend 20 years writing a book. Instead, plan for a few months of research (maybe longer for academic researchers) and then commit to writing the book about what you’ve learned.

As you continue to research and learn, you’ll write more books. Along the way, you’ll be building a platform and a fan base. And those are beautiful pieces to an author’s career.

So, it’s time! Start writing. :)

And let me know in the comments. How long have you been working on your book? And there’s no shame here. Hey, Aslan took 20 years, and he turned out to be a bestseller. Of course, he could have been a bestseller 10 years before, but that’s okay.

How long have you been working on your book, and when do you hope to finish your book?

FREE QUIZ: Which "Publishing Path" Is Right For Your Book?

There are four different publishing paths for the modern author.
Do you know which is right for your book?

TAKE THE QUIZ