Steps in the Book Writing Process
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Writing is a process. Many new writers think all they have to do is sit down at a keyboard and ideas will automatically pop into their head. There are very specific steps in the book-writing process.
This almost never happens, of course, so writers start complaining about so-called “Writer’s Block.” As you know, with my three decades of writing experience, and mentoring many hundreds of writers over those years, I don’t believe writer’s block is a genuine problem. Writer’s block goes away when writers adopt a professional process.
There are distinct phases in the writing process. Some of it is geared to human creative cognition (how our mind creates and processes ideas and other information), and some of it has to do with practical productivity.
Here is a summary of the writing process. This applies to both fiction and nonfiction writers.
The Preparation Process
Louis Pasteur is the man who discovered the germ theory of disease back in the 1850s. His work has since given the gift of health to billions of people.
As a scientist, he formulated many ideas and tested them. Do you know what he said? “Chance favors the prepared mind.”
The same applies to writers. Good writing favors the prepared mind.
As a young writer, a man I knew said he had a great idea for a book. He would share the idea, he said, and I could write the book. He said we could split the profits 50-50.
As I said, I was a young writer, so I entertained his proposition. For about two minutes. I realized back then that ideas were dime-a-dozen, and the real work was turning ideas into a valuable literary asset.
Personally, I am never at a loss for ideas. I write them down when I get them and then use them as a kind of automobile recycling center, where I use parts of them to create something unique and interesting.
I jokingly told someone just the other day that I had enough ideas and preliminary outlines to keep the writing for seven years after I died.
That’s not as funny as it seems. I am generating great ideas all the time, and it will only stop when I shuffle off this mortal coil. I’ll always have a backlog. Any writer can create an idea bank. There is nothing special about this ability, and I discuss it in detail in the section below.
Collecting and Conserving Data
Have you ever heard that old joke about the good ole Southern guy who said, “I don’t know what I think—I ain’t stared talkin’ yet.”
Authors cannot afford the luxury of talking without fore-thought. They must collect ideas and conserve them. Then, they must be able to retrieve them and make curated ideas a part of the fabric (structure) of their fiction or nonfiction book.
First, know that there is no such thing as an original idea. As King Solomon said in about 1,000 BC, “There is no new thing under the sun.”
The human brain organizes sensory input and re-frames existing knowledge into revised and, depending on the context, unique concepts.
The best way to get so-called “new ideas” is to is simply by recycling old ideas through your unique heredity, personality, and unique experiences.
This process is the basis of human advancement. It is sometimes called “Standing on the shoulders of giants.”
This understanding of how we recycle ideas is what makes modern academic and corporate definitions of plagiarism so mindless and corrupt. You can see my full rant about the nature of creativity and the problem of new, politically correct definitions of plagiarism here.
Second, understand how the human brain works. Every human brain is an electro-chemical masterpiece. It is designed to take sensory input and transform it into useful information that you can use. It all happens in a synaptic grid where electrical connections are made, which form meaning.
This is how imagination and creativity are triggered. It all happens along neural pathways.
For example, as a child, you may have captured a sensory image of an old person with rotting teeth. You saw a TV commercial about toothpaste. Someone made an unkind comment to you about your bad breath. You went to the dentist and had a cavity filled, and that painful experience stuck with you. At some point, there was a synaptic connection from all these sensory inputs. The message was: “Brush your teeth every day if you want a long-lasting smile.”
The same principle applies to writing books, and everything else in life. You allow your brain to collect as much data as possible, and then you merge it into desirable outcomes.
Therefore, to get ideas for any kind of book, you want as many sensory inputs as possible:
⯀ Observe. Good writers are good observers of what is happening around them. They watch and they listen. They observed all the little details about how people look and what they say. You may use these observations in a story you are writing today, or you may test them away and use them in a totally different set of circumstances other than the one where you initially observed them. The point is, you want to enhance your power of observation, and that includes what you see, smell, hear, taste, and touch.
⯀ Socialize. Interact with people, especially those that have different backgrounds than your own. You may not think you are feeding your electro-chemical brain cells, but the fact is such socializing makes new connections. There was a documented increase in creativity in 19th century Vienna. Diverse groups of people met in newly established coffee houses, and the interchanges spawned there revolutionized the intellectual world. Undoubtedly, the caffeine made people more animated, but it was the socialization process across intellectual disciplines that made the difference.
⯀ Read. Reading widely not only causes the electrical charges in your brain to become active, but you also make new synaptic connections. Those are the ideas that are shaped by the combination of things that you have read, plus your heredity, personality, and unique experiences. It is important to read widely. You may be a romance novel lover, but you need to read history and science as well to trigger those synaptic flashes.
It’s best to read books, in my opinion, but you can get some of the same benefits by reading on the Internet. One of my favorite sites is little-known BananaSlug.com. Search on any topic you desire, but you pair it with one of the preset random category concepts. These categories include things like archetypes, emotions, colors, wine words, and other selections. You get some amazing associations by using BananaSlug.com, and they will trigger fresh ideas in your mind.
⯀ Document. It’s not enough to observe, socialize, or read. You must conserve what you ingested. If you intend to make the most of the ideas you gather, you must document them. That is, you must write them down in real-time (as they happen), rather than thinking you will remember them later. You won’t remember them. Write them down.
You must write them down in a way that you can retrieve them. I have a background in journalism, so I have always carried around notepads, and it’s easy to jot notes using one. As a substitute, you might make a note of what you experience or read as an email on your smartphone and send it to yourself. I gather all these kinds of notes together in Microsoft OneNote, although there are a large number of other such software apps like it. With OneNote, I can just do a search on the thought or idea and find my notes without having to put them into categories.
Collecting and conserving ideas is a way of feeding your brain. Anyone can develop the habit of doing this. Next, you take the raw data you select and shape it into the contents of your book.
Structuring Ideas with an Outline
As someone who had been writing for over three decades, and who has mentored many hundreds of aspiring writers over that time, I have completely given up trying to tell others that “writing by the seat of your pants” is a terrible idea. I know it seems crazy, but the same people who will plan a meal, party, or vacation, but somehow think it’s wrong to plan their book.
Flying by the Seat of the Pants
You see, there is an endless battle among writers about whether they should write according to an outline or whether they should just type the story as it emerges randomly in their mind, like a pilot flying by the seat of his or her pants. These “seat of the pants” types are under the illusion they are “automatic writers.” That is an unusual conceit.
Yes, I understand that some people are able to write without an outline. However, the reason you read about them is that the ability to do that is so rare. Most writers cannot do it. When they try and fail, they complain about so-called writer’s block, and it takes them forever to write a book if indeed they finish it at all.
So, I strongly stand against writers who attempt to write by the seat of their pants. You can discover all my reasons in this video.
Those who insist on writing by the seat of their pants say their reason for doing so is that it gives them unfettered creativity. I say that’s nonsense. The human mind works in a structured way as we have seen, and so trying to get synaptic flashes to cluster into a cohesive idea just before your fingers touched the keyboard is more superstition than science.
Seat of the pants writers also say they like to write without an outline because they want to be surprised by what they write next. Such writers are confusing writing with reading. It’s nice to be surprised as a reader, but terrible to be surprised as a writer. This idea is just further evidence that the writer is wandering aimlessly.
Should you be a slave to an outline? Not at all. I tell my students that they should think of an outline as a roadmap. They are starting at Point A, and their destination is Point Z. They want to include all the major stops along the way in either their fiction or nonfiction writing.
There is plenty of room for intuition when you write an outline and also when you write from an outline. A writer is not a robot. An outline does not enslave writers; it frees them.
Writers can and should make side trips that are triggered by that spontaneous brain action we call ideas. However, if you ever get lost, you can always check your map and get back on track.
Having an outline enhances creativity and does not limit it.
As I am fond of saying, you can take a trip to the grocery store without a map. However, if you’re taking a longer trip, you need to check a map or at least glance at your car GPS. The same applies to writing something like a blog post or a book. You may be able to write a short blog post without planning (not recommended), but it is extremely difficult to write a long interesting book that way.
The Elements of an Outline
Most of us have been taught to use a more structured outline. The main heading is Roman Numeral I (chapter titles), and then there are headings and subheadings under that as writers drill down on an idea.
My personal method is to create a preliminary outline follows this pattern:
⯀ My preliminary outline is based on what I know and the points I want to make.
⯀ These ideas help me to do research. I learn more about what I know, but I also learn new, important things.
⯀ My research then informs my understanding, so I flesh out my preliminary outline, or restructure it completely, based on what I learned.
An outline can take many forms. Some authors, particularly fiction authors, like to visualize their story like a filmmaker. So they are happy to make the drawings on sheets of paper or use mind mapping software to give structure to their ideas.
For example, I am in the process of writing a short story trilogy. Like all my fiction, I base the structure on real-life experiences, either my own or those from popular culture or history. Then I distort them into a unique fictional story. Truth be known, that is the way most fiction is written. However, as I was writing one of the stories in this trilogy, I found myself confused by the travels of the main character. So I created a map showing the city, the road, the river, the bridge, and the village, and I included distances between various points where events occurred.
This map was an outline within an outline, and it aided me in giving my readers what they deserved, and that was clarity and a sense of purposeful activity as my character moved through the plot.
The same principle applies to nonfiction. In my experience, nonfiction outlines itself. With how-to books, you are taking your readers through a logical sequence of events to accomplish a task. In self-help, you are stating a problem and then offering solutions along with case histories. In history, you are using the timeline of a series of events. In a biography, you are focusing on the stages of a person’s life or on one major aspect of it.
The overarching principle comes from Oxford professor and author CS Lewis. He said, “Know exactly what you want to write and write exactly that.”
Writing the First Draft
Want to fail as an author? Let me share the technique that will kill you off faster than any other: “Labor over your first draft.”
That’s it. Write your first paragraph, and reread it and change it. Still not satisfied? Change a word or two. Better yet, stop writing for the day and think about that paragraph and rewrite it later. Even better, ask a friend to read the paragraph and get their opinion before proceeding.
Am I being silly? Only slightly. Tens of thousands of aspiring writers take this approach, and it’s positively disgusting. It is evidence of self-doubt or perfectionism, and both of these character flaws will torpedo the hopes and dreams of any writer.
Here is an immutable writing rule:
Do your search, outline your book, then write your first draft as quickly as possible. Days or weeks, not months.
⯀ DON’T stop to think. You have done the research and have an outline, so just write. If you go dry, jump to another spot in your outline.
⯀ DON’T stop to look up a fact. Mark the spot with a searchable letter combination (X?X) and clear up all these issues AFTER you have completed the first draft.
⯀ DON’T worry about spelling, punctuation, or any other aspect of grammar. Just get your ideas on the page as rapidly as possible. Nothing else matters.
⯀ DON’T seek perfection. Did you put Step 3 before Step 2 in your nonfiction book? Forget it for now and keep writing. Does the scene in the garden take place before the scene in the library in your novel? Forget it. Keep writing.
Your goal as an author is to go into a single-minded writing groove and produce the best writing you can without second-guessing or correcting every paragraph, section, or chapter as you write
Yes, your first draft may be crap. But it is sweet-smelling crap. You have your entire story written, and now you are in a position to do what all genius writers do, and that is to revise your work in a second, third, or additional drafts.
Writing is like mining gold. First, you must have some, and only then can you refine it.
Revision is the Key to Writing Genius
Most first drafts are bad. And they should be. They are a left-brain activity, and that’s the stage where you pour your story out onto the page.
Never be unhappy with your first draft. You have something with which you can work.
Revision is not editing. It is not rewriting the entire book. It is reviewing a book in-depth, changing any aspect of it to make it better.
James Michener was the Pulitzer Prize winner of many successful epic novels like Hawaii and Centennial. He said, “I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.”
Many successful writers agree.
Laurie Halse Anderson said, “Revision means throwing out the boring crap and making what’s left sound natural.”
Cathryn Louis said, “Rewriting is the crucible where books are born.”
I particularly like Paul Lynch’s approach. He says, “Writing is rewriting and though there are many passages in my books that are essentially a first take, everything else can take many, many attempts before it finds the ideal shape. And what makes it ideal? I know it when I read it.”
Don’t fuss with your first draft. Just get all out ideas on paper as rapidly as possible. Don’t revise as you write the first draft. Save revision for the second and subsequent drafts.
Think of your first draft as the chunk of granite from which Michelangelo sculpted “David.” This is not his first effort. He reworked the granite for three years to get the result we see today.
I’m not suggesting that you invest three years in revising your book. The best plan is to write the first draft as rapidly as possible, let the manuscript rest for a week or so, and then come back to it. The weaknesses will be more apparent to you then. Add and change things to make a better book.
These changes may be simple things like rephrasing individual sentences or major things like swapping the order of sections or chapters. You can see what you need to do when you have a complete first draft.
The Importance of Objective Insight
Authors get blinded by their own work. They are so close to it, and they don’t see obvious problems.
That’s why they need a manuscript assessment by an objective third party.
It’s ideal when you can send it to a Developmental editor (sometimes called a Substantive editor) after one revision (second draft), and to consider the insight offered before doing a third and perhaps final draft.
Many new writers ask for “beta readers.” That’s nonsense. Such writers are seeking praise, in my view, not a professional analysis of their manuscript. Most beta readers are not qualified (little or no education/experience) to know what is good or bad or how to fix it.
Some new writers ask a friend or relative to be a beta reader. Will these people give you an objective assessment? Not a chance. If they like you, you’ll get only praise. If they think you are wasting your time, they will condemn it. Objective assessment does not enter the picture.
A good Developmental editor is not a critic in any negative sense. He or she points out both strengths and weaknesses in the manuscript. A good Developmental Editor inspires and encourages writers.
Common wisdom says you don’t want to take criticism from someone you wouldn’t take advice from. And you don’t have to prove your worth to some stranger on a Facebook writing page. When you hire a competent Developmental editor, you have the opportunity to learn, grow, and produce a better book.
After you have objective input and completed your final revision based on the objective assessment, your book is ready to go to a Copy editor. That is the final check of spelling, information, and other elements of grammar.
Once your book has been competently edited, then you are ready for the publishing stage. Learn more about how editing makes books better here.
Follow a Proven Process
These are the steps in the writing process:
⯀ Get a marketable idea for a book.
⯀ Collect and conserve ideas.
⯀ Create a roadmap (outline) to guide you.
⯀ Write the first draft as rapidly as possible. Do not revise as you write this draft.
⯀ Revise your first draft as many times as needed. Polish it so it is as good as it can be.
⯀ Hire a competent Developmental editor to get objective input about the strengths and weaknesses of your writing.
⯀ Do a final revision and have it copy edited by a proficient Copy editor.
These are the steps in the writing process. You will write a better book when you follow them closely.