One of the interesting things about specialization is how we often take for granted the things we do well. I am insanely impressed by the Europeans I encounter who can speak at least five languages and are likely adding a sixth, but they usually just shrug their shoulders and think it’s no big deal. Truck drivers who can back up a 16-wheeler into a loading dock with little margin for error? That looks more complicated than brain surgery, but to them it’s no big whoop.
I’m just a small-town political scientist, so I don’t think of myself as possessing any special skills. But from recent conversations, I’ve learned that there is one thing that seems impressive to other folks but is nothing extraordinary to me: I write nonfiction books. My sixth book will be out in less than two months, and I’m spending a lot of this month pondering how to write my seventh book. People keep publishing them, so I guess my books aren’t awful.
This isn’t that big a deal to me. I had to write a dissertation to get my PhD, which led to my first book. I suppose the first one is the hardest, though for me some of the others proved to me more taxing. Most people, of course, are not getting PhDs, so they don’t have that option.
So, if you’re a non-grad student who thinks that you have a great idea for writing a book but don’t know how to start, here are five useful pieces of advice I can proffer about the process.
1) Don’t start by writing a book. Start by writing a prospectus. While it is possible to self-publish a book these days, let’s presume you want an actual publisher to do that for you. In the movies, an author beavers away for years to complete a magnum opus of a manuscript, which publishing houses then read. In real life, that still happens on occasion but tends to overlook the thousands of spec manuscripts that are written, submitted and promptly discarded by editors.
The good news for people intimidated by the process of writing an entire book is that you don’t have to start that way. You start by writing a prospectus. A good prospectus is much shorter than a book — less than 5,000 words or you’re doing it wrong. It should contain your core argument, why anyone should care about your topic, an explanation of why other books on the topic are not as fabulous as your idea, why you are well-situated to write about this must-read topic, and a sample table of contents.
Spend some time on your prospectus and polish it up real nice. Editors will read it to see if you can engage them, so for 99 percent of you, the first draft won’t be good enough.
2) Know your audience. Another thing that you need to put in your book prospectus is your targeted audience. Who do you want to read your book? Why, everyone, of course, and they should each buy 10 copies just to be safe. The better question to ask is: Who do you think needs to read your book? Business leaders? College students? Stay-at-home parents? Retirees? Make sure you have the answer to this question in your head — and then, when you’re crafting the prose, imagine that reader.
3) Learn how to self-discipline. Looking for that simple trick to get started with the actual writing? Okay, here it is: There is no simple trick. The hardest part of writing a book is that it’s just you, the keyboard and a notional deadline. You can try to make that deadline seem super-imposing, and that might work for some of you. For others, it will just cause you to stress out and be even less productive.
There is no one-size-fits-all guide to the meat and potatoes of writing. I know some people who like to do all their research in advance and then write all at once. I know others who prefer to bang out a very skeletal draft and then research the gaps. Some authors adhere strictly to their outlines; others do not.
The one thing that all nonfiction authors have to face is that they need to motivate themselves into doing the writing. One way to make this easier is to eliminate possible distractions. Which means …
4) Ration your social media. I’m not saying you should abstain from the interwebs, because that is impossible. Indeed, for some books the information gleaned from social media feeds can be invaluable. But let’s be honest, the time suck of these platforms is considerable. Only let yourself go on it for small segments of time, or as a reward for finishing an intermediary goal.
But the most important piece of advice I can proffer is this:
5) When you get on a good writing jag, tune everything else out. There are days of writing a book when you can concentrate all you want and you will only produce a few hundred words. But then there are the days when you are in the zone, when all you are really doing is transcribing the elegant turns of phrase from your brain to the computer. It’s like a baseball pitcher who finally tweaks his throwing mechanics and goes on a streak.
Really great writers probably feel like this every day when they wake up. For the rest of us working stiffs, these streaks are to be savored, because they don’t come along too often. So never mess with a streak.
If you’re writing thousands of words a day, then don’t check your phone, don’t clean up your office, don’t spend inordinate amounts of time on food, and sleep only when you must. Apologize to your significant other that you are so distracted — but between the two of us, it’s really a #sorrynotsorry kind of moment.
Just take advantage of the moment and get the words on the page. Worry about everything else once the writing jag ends.