Writing a book pt 3 – the writing process

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So you’ve realised you want to write a book, you’ve got your proposal accepted – now you just have to write that damn thing. There will be many ways to approach this, so all I offer here are some tips that have worked for me. But to reiterate a point I made in the previous two posts – it’s largely a prosaic, unromantic task. Treat it like a project – maybe one that you enjoy and gain fulfilment from, but not one immersed in Byronic moments of frantic inspiration as you wrestle the divine spirit and emerge with a work of unrivalled beauty. Instead it’s much more sitting at your desk at 9am with a cup of tea and a word limit to reach by lunch. Here are some methods I’ve developed over the years then:

Don’t start from scratch – some of my friends like to rib me that I just turn blog posts into books. It’s a bit more than that, but what I do like to do is go through my blog and find anything I’ve written that is vaguely relevant and dump it all into a Word document as my starting point. I’ve usually been writing on a topic for a while and from these posts the idea of a book emerges (rather than wanting to write a book and then setting out to blog ideas). In the resulting book actually very little of the initial blog posts remains. The tone is usually wrong, I need to expand upon them, I reject about half as not relevant, I change my mind on some ideas, etc. But the key for me is that I’m not sitting down on day one with 60K words stretching ahead of me. That’s daunting. I can often start with 20-30K of blog posts, even if they aren’t directly useful. Not everyone blogs (apparently), but it is likely you will have some papers, comments, references, etc lying around. I view this content as rocket boosters – it allows you to reach escape velocity into the book.

Plan realistically – this will obviously depend on your circumstances, but given that you have prepared a chapter outline for your proposal this can form the basis for your writing plan. It needs to be realistic and also allow you to enjoy the process. I suggested asking yourself why you were writing a book at the start of the process. Unless it is for the most pragmatic of reasons (“I need a book, any book, on my CV”) then there is likely to be a strong element of personal identity tied up in the process. Writing a book is hard work, and you will probably want to stop at some stage – but overall it should be a rewarding process. You don’t want book writing to be something you resent doing because you have so many other commitments (my last one ended like this because of excessive work demands and I have to tell you it almost broke me). Which brings me on to…

Get agreement from those around you – this will include line managers, research projects, colleagues and family. It needn’t mean abandoning all commitments, and you need to balance care for others (dumping all your work on a colleague and running away to a Greek island for a year may not be a popular move) and responsibilities. But amongst the plan and agreement you should…

Give yourself dedicated time – I cannot stress this enough. It is actually a much more efficient way to write (see below) rather than fitting in an hour or two in between other things. This can be a regular arrangement (every Friday is dedicated book writing day), or a longer chunk of time. I tend to combine both approaches: I work on regular smaller chunks, refining the collected text I started with, then when it feels at a good stage I am a BIG FAN of the dedicated writing retreat. Ideally this is away from home, on your own (dogs are allowed) and at least a week long. The productivity you achieve in this setting is about four times as much as you do when accommodating writing around other work. Particularly if you have sufficient momentum when you start the retreat. During any writing period you should also…

Structure writing sessions – I read one of those pop psychology books once that recommended 90 minute intensive work sessions as optimal. I don’t know how much that holds up, but it’s been an effective planning approach for me. If I have a dedicated writing day then over my morning tea I will plan a structure that goes something like: write/research particular topic for 90 mins – 30 minute break away from computer (repeat x 4 or 5). I try to specify a goal for each of the 90 minute chunks and the day overall. No checking twitter in those 90 minute sessions either!

Allow adequate time for wash-up – once you’ve completed the book that can seem like it’s over. But there is still a sizeable chunk of ‘wash-up’ to complete. This will include responding to copyediting queries, reviewer comments if the publisher uses them, completing an index (sometimes the publisher does this), getting images in the correct format, filling out forms for marketing, etc. In short, it can still take a good chunk of time, so its worth being prepared for this, and getting a timeline from your publisher as to when these tasks will need to be done.

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