“Let’s Build a Book!” A Step-by-Step Process that Worked Well for Me

(c) 1995, 2009 Brad Sargent

Someone I follow on Twitter asked, “How do you write a book?” This is a process I’ve added to and adapted over the years for various kinds of non-fiction writing, script projects, case studies, poems, and more. Maybe you’ll find ideas here that will work for your projects.

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Writing a book is overwhelming – if we think about everything all at once. How can we break down the writing process into manageable units that ameliorate our anxieties? (Now, that was a mouthful …)

1. Developing a Working Detail Sheet and “Mission Statement.”

  • Title, subtitle, format, target audience, topics, central idea, take-away value, and unique features. (See the handout on “Focus Questions for Writing Your Book Proposal.”)
  • Write your proposal summary, and mission statement goals in terms of what you’d like your readers to think, feel, and do. Keep material that fits with those goals; set aside material that doesn’t. (But don’t throw it away. It can probably be used elsewhere!)
  • Back-cover copy. Try writing a vivid, two– or three-paragraph overview of your book. Try using a snippet from a dramatic personal story, or a provocative question, as a hook. Don’t worry if it doesn’t come out right at first. You’re working on “tone” here, so this exercise helps set the voice and style when writing your book.

2. Brainstorming.

  • Brain dump. For at least 30 minutes, write out everything you can think of that seems to fit with the book you’re writing. Don’t worry about sorting through the ideas – that will come later. Just “download your brain” onto paper so you capture the essence of important thoughts, anecdotes, quotes, resources, etc.
  • Example: I wrote the outline for one book based on brainstorming and writing a pile of notecards, one idea per card, and then sorting them into clusters of related items. I kept the items that didn’t seem relevant during the sort process, and many of them turned up later as relevant.

3. Clustering Concepts and Adding Ideas.

  • Organize your ideas/notes into relevant clusters of related items.
  • Remove items that don’t fit. (But save them!)
  • Revise your project’s “mission statement” if the brainstorming process helps you see that a change is necessary.
  • Use different kinds of dictionaries (synonyms, antonyms, thesaurus, metaphors, clichés) to add ideas and/or cross-pollinate with what you’ve already written.

4. The All-Important First Chapter.

  • “No one has to read a book, so in chapter one we set the hook.”
  • Publishing house editor Al Janssen suggests that in chapter one we need to: “Grab the reader’s attention immediately. Identify with the reader’s felt needs. Establish your credentials as an author – your right to write to them. Clearly identify the benefits/pay-off of reading the entire book. Let people know where you’re going – give them a promise; then keep it!”

5. Do-able Bits.

  • Break things down into manageable units – book into chapters; chapters into major sections; major sections into subsections; odds and ends (bibliography, indexing, study guide questions, etc.).
  • Example: My mentor in editing, Dr. Lalia Phipps Boone, wrote 26 grade school language arts textbooks in her “spare” time by this method. She broke down the project into a bunch of “do-able bits” that would take either 15 minutes or 30 minutes to complete. Then she listed each bit on a separate piece of paper. (For instance, a 15-minute bit might involve writing a list of 30 to 50 possible vocabulary words for a specific lesson. A 30-minute bit might involve writing three or four paragraphs explaining a grammar rule, giving several examples.) In between classes she taught at the university, she’d pull out a piece of paper and finish that bit.

6. First Drafts.

There’s an excellent tip I learned at a writer’s conference years ago. One speaker said that writing is really about rewriting/editing, and that our first draft is ALWAYS bad, no matter how long it took to pump out. So, why not just write that first draft as fast as possible, because it’ll be just as rough from pouring it out in two hours as if you slave over it and start self-editing immediately and it takes us six hours instead. He called the first draft his “Zero Draft” …

7. Fun and/or Provocative Headlines.

  • In your headlines and subheads, try alliteration, rhyming, humor, allusions to classic or pop culture, questions.
  • Our table of contents is important – headlines act as a roadmap for our readers.

8. Color-Coding to Balance Chapter and Paragraph Content.

  • A helpful process is to color code your manuscripts for different kinds of content components. This will let you see if your material is reasonably well balanced for the type of book you are writing and the kinds of readers you expect. (Different readers need different things in order to identify with you as the writer and keep on reading.) For example, use yellow highlight for personal anecdotes, blue for informational content, green for key points or quotes, orange for practical implications or actions, etc. Then lay out the whole manuscript in order on the floor and step back to get the big picture. If you have more than 2 pages in a row of the same color, you’ve lost some of the readers who need the other kinds of features you offer. For instance, you may need a story section about every other page, and a quote or key point bold-faced every second or third page.
  • If you do this process in MS Word with highlighting colors, you can print it out with the “multiple pages” feature so you get the colors more than the text. Try with 4, 6, or 8 pages printed per single sheet of paper and see what color overwhelms the manuscript. Too much story? Too much theoretical information? See, and adjust …
  • This technique can also help with editing paragraphs, and not just pages. Typically, a paragraph should be mostly one color, maybe two – but if there are multiple colors in the paragraph, and each color is not a block of same-color sentences, then it’s very possible that the types or topics are too mixed up to make sense easily to the reader.

9. Editing.

Writing may be more about re-writing than just getting material down on paper for the first time. Once the editing process gets far enough along, then this tip I learned from my friend Christine Tangvald may prove helpful. Christine writes picture books for children. The word counts per page and in the total book are very stringent for children’s picture books. Once she’s got a good draft done, one of the last stages Christine goes through is to take a highlighter and mark every helping verb in the entire draft: is, was, had, have, been, be, will, may, might, etc. Then she goes through each sentence that has a marked helping verb, and she figures out if that sentence absolutely needs that word in it, or whether the sense can be conveyed by a strong verb without any helping verb. She is usually able to cut a significant number of words from the manuscript that way, plus the remaining text is more direct and uses stronger language. This process isn’t as appropriate for academic, professional, or business writing, where the “indirect voice” is often expected. But it’s worth at least one go-through to remove words that are weak or otherwise just padding, or that are just hedging ourselves from coming across as being too certain.

10. File Organizing – Keep a “Leftovers Drawer.”

Whatever you think you need to “discard” from the current project because it doesn’t fit here means it could fit somewhere else. Keep the leftovers for another project on another day.