Writing Your Book Once You’ve Planned It

If you read my column from April and thought: “Yes, writing a book is exactly what I want to do with all my free time for the next one+ years”, then you may be wondering how to get to the next step of actually writing a book. Firstly, I want to include the caveat that so far my oeuvre amounts to one book, and these kinds of methodologies are personal, so please customize or outright ignore this advice as you think is appropriate for you. This post is about what worked for me.

Firstly, I will say that I designed my book writing methodology with the goal of writing a book that covered the topic I wanted to cover with the minimum of fuss and wasted time. This led to a plan that allowed me to get my book draft written and ready for submission within a year from contract signing to delivery to my editor.

So much of the success of writing a book is contained in choosing an idea and a treatment that will support something the length of a book. It shouldn’t be an article topic that goes on too long or a subject that can only be properly addressed in a series.

I always remember reading about Joseph Needham’s “Science and Civilisation in China,” which was originally proposed as a single book and is now up to 24 volumes. A task of researching the accomplishments of a great culture and sharing your findings with the world is a worthy goal, but you won’t have your book written in a year. The first volume of “Science and Civilisation in China” was published in 1954 and still isn’t complete (I read about it in Simon Winchester’s The Man Who Loved China). You will of course make your own decisions, but I would like to encourage you to be careful not to do this kind of thing by accident.

The best way to assess if your topic will work for what you plan is by working on your outline and thinking about how much writing you can reasonably include about each topic. If you are used to writing shorter pieces, you can think about it something like how many sections of approximately 800-1000 words you will write to cover everything you plan to discuss.

My book Legal Data and Information in Practice was contractually limited to be 60,000 – 65,000 words. Your book length will vary based on concerns like topic, audience, authorial vision, and publisher preferences, but if we use the 60,000 words as an example the math may look something like this:

60,000 words / (9 chapters + 1 chapter worth of acknowledgements, introduction, bibliography, etc.) = ~6,000 words / chapter

6,000 words / chapter = approximately 6 – 8 substantial topics in each chapter that will be discussed in 800 – 1,000 words

When I was writing, I managed the length calculations in a spreadsheet that I updated each day I wrote. This allowed me to make sure that I was on track and helped me monitor my progress:

Screenshot of a spreadsheet with book length calculations

The green and blue colour coding indicates how close to the length target each chapter is and whether it is over or under the required average length.

Once I started researching, I found it helpful to have a series of physical file folders for each chapter, the introduction, and other sections. I kept my notes on index cards, which I divided into the chapters as appropriate. I could then write each chapter draft using the references in the folders. As I researched, I could also redistribute any points or references among the chapter folders I wasn’t working on, so they could be integrated into other portions of the book later.

I think the best way to write a book is as a series of iterations of writing the complete book with more detail each time, rather then sitting down and writing each section until it’s completed. This starts with creating an initial possible table of contents, and proceeds by stages. A completed book proposal already represents several iterations.

Once a book proposal is agreed on, a first draft can be written. I decided to start by writing a short draft of about 40,000 words which I didn’t edit at that stage. This allowed me to do all my literature research and make sure that I had a mental picture of the whole book. From there, I did interviews with the experts I wanted to speak with about the book. Once that was complete, I did the first set of revisions. This involved integrating insights from the interviews, any references or points I had put into my chapter folders as I wrote other chapters, and other rewrites.

The next stage of editing involved printing out the detailed table of contents for each chapter, which I then taped together. I used crayons to colour code each theme as it went through the book. I then went through the book tracing each theme to make sure that I wasn’t repeating myself, that the flow made sense, and that there wasn’t anything that wasn’t introduced properly or that got dropped inappropriately. Here is an image of what that looked like:

A photograph of the printed pages with colour coding on a desk.

I then did a final rewrite of the entire book for language and flow. This process gave me the draft that I submitted to my editor, which then proceeded through the in house editing process at the publisher.

When I started writing my first draft I was editing the chapters as I went, but a friend who writes full time suggested this was unnecessary, so I just kept going through the whole first draft without edits. This was effective in helping me continue to move forward as I wrote and not get bogged down at the beginning. It also meant that I understood the book as a whole when I did the next draft and was able to better understand how the book sections came together.

I hope you find this helpful. I’d be happy to see your suggestions too as I am preparing my next book proposal. Good luck with your writing!

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