As a professional writer with dozens of published books to my credit, I can tell you with absolute certainty that writing a book is not an easy, toss-off task.
Many a client has insisted that his idea is so good, the book will write itself. And while some ideas are certainly easier to work with than others, there’s no such thing as a book that writes itself.
Writing is a craft and a discipline, and if you want to be a successful writer you’ll need to develop certain essential skills. I’ve boiled them down to 10 habits that will see you through any kind of writing that you do—books, magazine or newspaper articles, website content; you name it. But before we start, let me just say that there will be days when you’ll become so frustrated you’ll want to hit the delete button and stomp way from your entire project. But if you continually practice these 10 habits, chances are excellent that you’ll not only complete your book, but create a quality work that you’ll be proud of.
Let’s begin at the beginning by setting a clearly definable goal.
1. Figure Out Your Ultimate Goal
“Setting goals is the first step in turning the invisible into the visible.”
– Tony Robbins
Hopefully, you’re excited about your book. But why? Are you hoping for money, or fame? Or do you simply want to share your great idea or story with the world?
Do you wish to use the book to get on TV shows so you can attract new clients? Are you hoping a book will look good on your resume? Or is this all about getting revenge on your ex?
Begin by figuring out what’s urging you on, then ask yourself whether writing a book is the best way to achieve your goal.
For example, if money is your desire, it’s important to realize that most books don’t make much money, even if brought to market by a major publisher.
If, on the other hand, you’re passionate about changing the nation, a book can be a good idea—but so can writing editorials, joining or founding an organization, and raising money to support a certain cause or political candidate.
If taking revenge on an ex is your passion, you might be better off grappling with your feelings in therapy. I say that kindly, for I’ve learned from clients that spilling your angry guts onto the pages doesn’t make you feel any better.
So dig deep within to discover the real reason you wish to write a book. And if writing the book is the best way to accomplish your goal, dive right in!
2. Select Your Tools & Environment
“Never underestimate the power of a simple tool.”
– Craig Bruce
I once stood with a fellow writer in a university museum, peering at the desk, pens, and inkwell of a very famous author. “Wow,” my friend said. “If I had that desk and those pens, I would be a great writer!”
At the same time, I was thinking, “If I put a better pillow on my crappy desk chair, like this guy did, my back probably wouldn’t hurt so much after lengthy writing sessions.”
Clearly, my friend and I had different ideas about our work tools. For him, it was about figuratively entering into the “writer’s world.” For me, it was all about practicality.
What about you? What kind of environment do you need in order to be comfortable and productive? How about your tools? Do you prefer to work with pen and paper, a typewriter, a computer, or a tape recorder? Do you need to “feel” the words flowing through your fingers into your pen or keyboard, or does your mind focus better when you dictate?
Are you an early morning writer, or are you at your best some other time of the day?
Do you prefer to work alone in your home office or does the bustle of Starbucks stimulate your thoughts? Or maybe you do your best work sitting in bed with a writing pad balanced on your knees and the shades drawn?
Set aside any notion of where and when you “should” write and ignore the ads for the latest software and pens. Experiment, if you have to, to figure out where and when you work best and the tools you prefer. Then you’ll know exactly what you need when it’s time to write.
3. Set Aside the Time
“…don’t waste time, for that is what life is made up of.”
– Bruce Lee
Many a would-be writer waits for the moment when the writing muse kisses her brow and floods her brain with the perfect words. But successful writers know that writing is a job and, like any other occupation, must be performed regularly, preferably at preset hours.
Set aside time to write regularly, at a certain time of the day for a certain number of hours. Turn off your phone, record any favorite TV shows that come on during that time, and tell your family that you don’t want to be disturbed. This is your time. If you don’t guard it like a dog guards a bone, it will be way too easy to skip your writing sessions and, sooner or later, give up on your project.
If you’ll have to miss your kid’s soccer game because you’re writing, or skip that concert you’ve been dying to attend, well, now you’ve got some hard choices to make about your priorities.
There’s no right answer here, but if you want to be a writer you must set aside copious amounts of time to write, and then stick to your schedule.
4. Develop a Routine
“The secret of your future is hidden in your daily routine.”
– Mike Murdock
Regularity is the writer’s friend. Using the same tools in the same place at the same time, surrounded by the same noises and the same people (or lack thereof) will help you establish a writing routine.
I have a small office where I write. It’s nothing special, just a modest room with an aged desk and some non-matching shelves crammed full of books.
It’s not the kind of place that any aspiring young writer would think of spending the next fifty years, but I can’t imagine writing anywhere else. It’s my writing place.
Simply stepping into your writing place will help focus your mind on the task at hand. Sliding into your chair triggers some mysterious brain chemical that sends thoughts about your book to the forefront of your brain; calls your fingers to the keyboard or wraps them around your pen.
You might think that variety is stimulating. So sometimes you sit and dictate into your cellphone while sipping coffee at Starbucks; other times you work late into the night typing away on your home computer; and occasionally you write out notes in longhand while pretending to pay attention at a work meeting. But the quality of your work is bound to suffer.
It’s fine to jot down notes as ideas come to mind, no matter when or where you are, but do your writing in the same place, every time, in every way. Consistency is king.
5. Figure Out What Your Book is About
You’ve come up with your goals, tools, time, and place. Now it’s time to decide what, exactly, you’re writing about. It’s great to get excited about a vague idea, but at some point—preferably early on—you must zero in on your topic and what you’re trying to convey. Otherwise, you’ll wander around in circles forever or you’ll get stuck because you don’t really know where you’re going.
I’ve seen this happen with my clients too many times. They hire me to write their book about Topic X, so I develop an outline that they approve and start writing. But after seeing a first draft of Chapter 1, they decide that they really want to discuss Topic Y. I then create a new outline and write a new first chapter. That’s when they realize it’s really topic Z that lights their fire, and ask me to toss out everything and start all over again.
Before you dive into the writing, decide what your book is really about. You don’t have to plot it out to the nth degree, or write a fifty-page outline. But you do have to think it through from beginning to end. Yes, you’ll undoubtedly change things as you work your way through the manuscript, but if you have a strong, well thought-out premise, you won’t go too far astray.
Begin by considering your idea or story carefully and summarize it in 1,000 words. Then, reduce it to a 500-word description of your book. Once you’ve got that just right, tear it up and write it all over again, in a different way. When you perfect this second version, tear it up and write a third version. When you’ve finally developed the perfect 500-word description of your book, rewrite it again using only 250 words, then 150 words, then 100, and then 50.
Working your way through this exercise will strengthen your concept, as it forces you to explore your idea from different angles and strip it down to the essentials. And then you’ll know exactly what your book is about and how to describe it to others with precision and clarity. That will be invaluable should you have to pitch it to a publisher or sell it to the public.
6. Write Regularly
“Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishment.”
– John Rohn
Writing is a tremendous joy for some; a dreaded chore for others. But even if it’s a joy for you, there will be days when you’d rather be squirming in the dentist’s chair, getting your teeth drilled, than sitting at your keyboard trying to come up with scintillating ideas or perfect words. Still, no matter how you may be feeling, you must continue to write at your regular time. Don’t let yourself wait for “the right moment” or fool yourself into believing that if you skip today’s session you’ll work twice as hard tomorrow. It doesn’t matter if you don’t feel inspired or the ideas aren’t flowing. You must write anyway.
Do ask yourself, however, what’s getting in your way. Is it noise? Block it out with music or use noise-cancelling headphones. A flickering light bulb? Change it. Are you tired? Have a cup of coffee, or whatever it is you do for a boost, then get back to it. To be a writer you must write regularly, with fierce dedication and an unshakeable commitment.
Yes, you can take the occasional day off, and you probably should, but be sure you plan these “writing vacations” ahead of time. Don’t let momentary whims knock you off course.
7. Get Feedback
“We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve.”
– Bill Gates
Rather than waiting until you’ve completely finished your book before showing your work to others, get some feedback early on.
It can be helpful to hire an editor or a book coach to review a few of your early chapters and give you feedback. Think of it as having a building inspector check out the foundation and framing for your new house before you start to wall it in.
Be sure to hire a professional book coach or editor, however. Don’t just email some manuscript pages to a buddy or hand them to your spouse. They probably aren’t qualified to give opinions and will likely tell you it all looks great. That’s not what you need right now. Go with a pro.
Expect to go through several drafts of your manuscript, maybe more, before it’s truly finished. And be sure to get feedback again once you’ve finished your manuscript.
8. Set a Firm Finish Deadline
“One forges one’s style on the terrible anvil of daily deadlines.”
– Emile Zola
“Unfinish-itis” is a distressingly common syndrome among new writers. One newbie author that I know kept thinking that she was finished with her manuscript and ready to self-publish, but at the last minute she’d always realize there were a few more things to do: add something here, delete something there; tweak the cover design a bit, rewrite the back cover copy, have a new author picture taken; you get the idea.
There’s a great temptation to make the book “perfect” in every way. But at a certain point, more tweaking is just as likely to make things worse as it is to make them better. Realize that there will come a time when you’ll have to release your book to the world. You’re not perfect, your book may not be perfect, but if you’ve given it your very best shot, it will be just right.
If you find yourself suffering from unfinish-itis, pick a firm finish date and stick to it.
9. Commit and Recommit to the Task
“Unless commitment is made, there are only promises and hopes…”
– Peter Drucker
Writers sometimes feel like the mythical character Sisyphus, who was doomed to spend every day pushing a heavy rock up a steep and high hill, only to see it roll down again before he got it to the top. Then he had to start all over again the next day, performing a tedious chore that was never finished.
Be aware that your energy and enthusiasm will waver at times as you write. You’ll get behind schedule, you’ll sometimes feel that your book will never be finished. You may fear that it will be an ignominious failure, and wonder why you’ve hung this albatross around your neck.
Feeling this way is par for the course. So don’t fret. Just recommit to your project, yourself, and your eventual success.
10. Pat Yourself on the Back
“A pat on the back is only a few vertebrae removed from a kick in the pants, but is miles ahead in results.”
– Ella Wheeler Wilcox
Writing can feel like running an obstacle course blindfolded, or finding yourself on a TV quiz show where you speak English while everyone else is speaking Greek. It’s hard.
So take a moment to pat yourself on the back every now and then.
Congratulate yourself for writing a certain number of pages today, or sticking to your writing schedule every day this week.
Celebrate the milestones, like writing a particularly inspired passage or making it halfway through the manuscript. Not many people have the skill or the fortitude to do what you’ve just done, so be sure to give yourself some credit. But don’t rest on your laurels for too long. There’s still plenty of work to be done!
Make the “10 Habits of Successful Book Writers” Part of Your Life
A habit is an acquired behavior pattern, regularly followed until it becomes almost involuntary. This means that if you want to acquire the habits of successful book writers, you’ll have to make a conscious effort to practice them daily until you no longer have to think about them.
Make a copy of the 10 Habits and put them up where you can see them every day. They are:
- Figure out your ultimate goal
- Select your tools & environment
- Set aside the time
- Develop a routine
- Figure out what your book is about
- Write regularly
- Get feedback
- Set a firm finish deadline
- Commit and recommit to the task
- Pat yourself on the back
The more disciplined you are about writing, the easier it will become in the long run. And the quality of your work will improve by leaps and bounds.