Lifehack: How to write a book and actually finish the job

how to write a book

My dear friend Marcus Sheridan recently wrote a post lamenting that one of his biggest disappoints was an inability to finish a book he had started in 2013. Instead of calling him up with advice I am going all Web 2.0 on him and providing some advice through a blog post that might help all of my readers at the same time.

First of all, let’s not sugar-coat this. Writing a book is really hard work. It is just about the hardest work I have ever done. Let that sink in.

If you’re not planning to work your ass off, you are not going to be able to finish a book. So start there. You have to get serious about this commitment. Having said that, I have developed some lifehacks to help you get the job done. Check it out … how to write a book:

The essence is the outline

Although a book has a linear flow, trying to write a book from start to finish is inefficient. You have to learn to write non-linearly.

To get the job done as rapidly as possible, you have to be able to work on different parts of the book at different times, or maybe even different parts of the book at the same time.

Here’s an example of what I mean … Let’s say you are waiting to line up an interview with an expert but it can’t be scheduled for a month. If you are writing linearly, that means everything would come to a stop until you do the interview, which is a big waste of time. So you need to have a vision of where the whole thing is going, meaning an outline.

Before you start writing, spend sufficient time upfront getting clear on where you are heading with this book, chapter by chapter. As you will soon see, this is the key to effective non-linear writing.

Evernote your way to content success

Think of each chapter in the book as a bucket you need to fill with excellent content. After you have completed your outline, but before you start writing, spend a few months using Evernote as a tool to help you get clear and organized.

Evernote is a free organizational tool that helps you save web content into topical files. Once I have an outline, I create an Evernote file for each chapter of the book.

When I come across an idea, post, person to interview, or any other inspiration for the book, I dump it into the right chapter file in Evernote. It doesn’t have to be perfect. At this point, you are just collecting ideas to flesh out your outline.

Old school organization — The Paper Wall

There are lots of digital tools to help you organize your book and one that I use is Scrivener. However, to really get the job done, I have developed a simple and elegant system that flat-out works — The Paper Wall.

Create an easel-sized Post-it page for each chapter in your outline. Across the top I write the title of the chapter and then I draw a line down the middle of the page. The left side is for “to-do” items and the right side is for “completed” items.

paper wallHang each page, in order, on a wall in a room in your house, preferably where you do your writing. Next, get some small Post-it Notes in three different colors, one for “content” one for “interviews” and one for “research.” Now, go back to all the ideas you have in Evernote. Write each idea, concept or story on a Post-it Note and put it in the left-hand (to-do) column of the appropriate chapter.

Once you start this exercise, you will be able to visualize what concepts and stories really belong in which chapters. You can re-arrange your content in a highly visual way and get organized before you ever write one word.

Once you start writing, and you “consume” an idea in the chapter, you move that Post-it Note to the “completed” side of the page. That is always a good feeling. Now, taking over your living room with easel pages may seem like a silly and extreme method of writing but here is why this works:

  1. The most difficult part of writing a book is keeping the flow straight across many chapters. This provides a powerful, visual map of where you are going. You can see the entire book flow, all your ideas, all the remaining work ahead in one place.
  2. Your final book will probably not resemble your first outline. During the process, you might move content around, add chapters, re-order the flow. To do this, all you have to do is literally move your pages and stickers around until you think you are getting it right.
  3. To me, the Paper Wall is the key to highly-effective, non-linear writing. If you get stuck on one chapter, you can look at your wall of tasks and start working on something else until you can move it to the “completed” side. Instead of writing chapters, you are finishing mini-tasks that lead to a chapter.
  4. If you are married, your spouse is not going to want to have this stuff on the walls forever. You are going to have to stick to a commitment to get this done in a certain time frame. Having a paper wall and a deadline is an assurance of accountability.

How to write a book through your blog

When I start writing a book, I will “test market” some of the content through blog posts. Yes, many ideas you read on {grow} may end up in a book!

There are two primary advantages of this. First, it provides blog content while I am also busy writing the book. More important, I get a preview of the reaction from my audience. So if I float something out there and you give me additional ideas through blog comments, your ideas may actually end up in my book. I have used quite a few attributed reader anecdotes and comments in my books.

Be an Olympian

To finish a book you have to develop an Olympian mindset.

To reach their goal, an Olympian does not take a day off, they do not quit, they do not make excuses. They practice their sport every day, in all weather, under all circumstances.

If you are going to finish a book, you have to write every day, without excuse, without exception. You need the same dedication as if you were on a diet, recovering from an injury, or mastering an Olympic event.

Think of it this way, if you write 1,000 words a day (less than the length of this blog post) you will complete a 240-page book in two months.

For this reason, writing a book needs to be a family decision. When I was planning to write Return On Influence — a massive undertaking that required months of research — I talked about it with my wife first. I was going to have to give up a lot of free time and miss some favorite summer activities. I could not have stuck to the discipline to finish the book if I had not had her support.

So there you have it. Marcus (and everyone else out there) I hope this helps. Writing a book is not for everyone, but I found the experience very rewarding.

I’d love to engage with all of you about this topic in the comment section.

Top illustration courtesy Flickr CC and Tori Hoover

Links to book and Scrivener are affiliate links.

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  • Great article, not only if your writing a book, but much of the advice also applies to blogging and creating great articles 🙂

    Would love to write a book 🙂

    Oh, and a Happy New year by the way! 🙂

  • You had me at Olympian 🙂 Cheers! Kaarina

  • Christine Webber

    Happy New Year Mark and thanks for another great article. Love your ideas of using Evernote and The Paper Wall. Wish I had heard these tips when I was writing my book! They would have definitely helped. It took me 7 years to write my book and get it published for three reasons:

    1. I did not believe in my writing ability or see myself as a writer.

    2. I was scared of what people would think and say when they read my words.

    3. I was not turning up to the page and writing every day

    Self belief and the ability to overcome the fear of criticism are what set me free as a writer!

    Cheers
    Chrissie

  • I actually thought of you when I wrote that!!!

  • Go for it! And Happy New Year to you!

  • Those are all very tangible issues for any writer! Thanks for adding your experience to the community Chrissie!

  • Great post! Love the Olympian analogy.
    In 2013, I actually did finish a book. For what it’s worth, here were my big lessons:
    1) Using Scrivener was the best decision I made. CC Chapman had recommended it. As our book was based on a big research undertaking, Scrivener allowed me to write in chunks as data was crunched. And to re-arrange those chunks easily.
    2) Putting myself into a fortress of solitude was the worst decision. For 5 weeks all calls went to voicemail, I blew off friends, and I didn’t respond to personal emails. Not what I’d recommend for others … but in the end I did meet deadlines …

    Best of luck to Marcus. I hope we’ll see that book of his in 2014!

  • Gordon Diver

    Great post Mark. Thanks for the tips and reminders (Grade 11 History teacher Mr. Bobb, drove many of these points home). I really like the idea of your wall – simple and effective.

  • Works well for me at least! : )

  • I need the fortress of solitude — long blocks of quiet to write! But it does take a toll on the business. When I wrote Return On Influence, I made a decision I have never made before or since — I disappointed a customer. I eventually made it up to her but that was painful.

  • I dream of having a room big enough and with enough bare walls to do this. I love Evernote, I keep an online calendar, but nothing beats my written to-do lists and paper dayrunner.

  • Thanks for the great tips Mark! I hope it motivates plenty others to get busy writing great books. I know I’m going to book mark this one!

  • This post really hacks me off, Mark…because it is spot on, and shines a really bright light on a) how hard the work of writing a book is; and b) all of my glaring weaknesses.
    Terrific work, as usual. I’m printing your post, and posting it along with all those “hanging pages” I’m working on. Thanks! –EF

  • Ouch. Thanks, Mark, for continuing to share your experiences with all of us.

  • I used our dining room. This was not a popular decision but it forced me to get it done!!

  • Awesome. Glad this helped!

  • Todd Lyden

    This ALMOST got me over the fear… almost…

  • : )

  • Thank you Mark, your post today is just what I needed!

    To “actually finish the job” I am going to dismantle my on-line book-in-progress ‘What Makes Your Heart Sing’, and work backwards.

    Using my Evernote tool as a “way to content success” is both encouraging, and motivating.

    Re: “Blog your way to a book.” I’ve been told by several agents/publishers they have no interest in anything that is on-line.

    Is this still the case?

    Your response is appreciated, and welcome ~Rae

  • Jody L

    I must say this came at exactly the write (;-)) time for me as I take steps towards writing my book. Thanks for this great post, and for your willingness to share!

  • Kitty Kilian

    Performing like an Olympian would be no problem, but the diet… 😉

  • Gil Amminadav

    These are really good suggestions, Mark. Thanks for sharing your process. I especially liked your version of a storyboard (“The Paper Wall”)!

    The app that I use for outlines is “Outliner” for Android. All items are check-able and drag-able, and all lists are collapse-able (both in segments and in their entirety). It’s simple and effective, and I’m sure there are similar programs for iPhone/desktop.

    The actual pen-to-paper stage seems the hardest. Have you ever tried voice-recording your ideas and then coming up with a written draft via speech-to-text software? I’ve never done this but I’ve heard good things from people who find this method effective.

  • Well that just makes my day a gold medal day! 🙂

  • A very good summary of the process, Mark and I have to ditto liking Scrivener. I started using it last year for all my writing, including my blog posts and I love it. I just started writing a new series and I use it to organize my series “bible.” Thanks!

  • Annie Sisk

    Great post – another vote for Evernote here! I manage five of my own “brands” (various blogs and writer pen names) and several clients – content for all! I would fail utterly and completely without Evernote. I use the Clearly plugin with my Chrome browser, to strip out all the extra formatting and create a note with one click. Sometimes I have to click “edit” on the resulting note just to make sure I’ve tagged it and put it in the right notebook but to pull one page into Evernote and tag it appropriately with the URL included takes me under 3 seconds on average. Highly recommend Clearly for this reason – makes a great time-saving addition to any Evernote + web based system.

  • Mack Collier

    Mark you are exactly right, the outline is key. You’ll need a structured Table of Contents for the book proposal anyway, so you might as well flesh that out first. It was SUCH a help for me in getting the outline set, it really helps you flesh out your ideas for the book and what you want to cover. Great advice!

  • Jeffrey Slater

    Mark, thanks for another great post. I would like to add two ideas to this conversation.

    When I started writing my book a year ago January, I mocked up a book with a cover I created with some basic Photoshop graphics. I placed this motivational physical book on my writing desk so I could see what I was working toward each day. It helped keep me focused on the finished product. Every time I saw this book, I was doing a little ‘time-shifting’ to see the future.

    The other small lesson I learned was that by writing a book, I would learn a tremendous amount about publishing, working with Amazon/Kindle and more. The first-hand experience helped me learn by doing and taking that active leap. I could only learn so much by reading – actually doing the work and shipping, as Seth Godin calls it, was key.

    Thanks for offering some useful structure for the next book and sharing your experience with the Grow community.

  • I’m not sure what they mean by that. The blog is a way to test ideas and find your voice. You would think that they would appreciate “battle-tested” content. I’ve never had anybody in the publishing business mention this, Good luck!

  • That’s wonderful. Best of luck to you Jody!

  • So true. Pass the pie Kitty?

  • I guess I am an old-school writer. I started out as a journalism major and I have just been typing for too long! It’s a great idea though Gil and I appreciate you sharing that with the community. It will probably help a lot of people. Thanks!

  • You know I had not thought of using it for blogging but I will look into that Pauline!

  • Well done. Great tip there Annie. Thank you!

  • Funny thing, the outline I turned for Return On Influence looked nothing like the final version. The topic was so new and the research kept twisting and turning me in different directions. I was lucky to have a patient publisher. Thanks for commenting Mack.

  • I self-published my first book and it was an EXCELLENT experience! Would not have had it any other way. ALways great to hear from you Jeff and I look forward to seeing the book.

  • Check out Hyperbole and a Half blog. It is also a book. There are a lot of authors who have taken blogs to books (including Mark, of course, but not just social media blogs).

  • I took a course on using Scrivener from Gwen Hernandez who wrote the Scrivener for Dummies book and she mentioned using it for all her writing, including her blogs. It’s really been helpful, because I can make notes and save photo links for upcoming blogs. It was totally useful when I did a Nov, blog every day, challenge last year. It’s such a great organizational tool!

  • Useful,

    I remember My friend, she dreamed to be a writer, she loves reading blogs most of her life. It happens that collective information/ideas she gain push her to create that dream possible. She have now a blog of her own and hoping sooner he can create her book. According to her It’s hard to create a book because it requires time, patience and proper idea to make that thing full-fledged.

  • useradvocate

    “What I did for my holidays” – I started to write a book. Again.

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve taken a shot at this. For some reason this time I believe I’m going to see it through so your post today is perfectly timed for me. What resonated most for me was your coming right out and saying it’s the hardest work you’ve ever done. The other big takeaway is your advice to write every day. I know that’s where I’ve gone off course in the past so I’m taking that advice to heart.

    In terms of technique, I’ve gotten very attached to using MS Word and organizing the structure through headings. I really like the navigation panel that allows me to see the headings (and hence the outline as it evolves) and I love the fact that I can drag and drop entire sections around from within the panel.

    This time I’m going to do it. Thanks for sharing your wisdom Mark.

  • It does! : )

  • I actually like Word also. The newest version has a ton of useful features. Good luck with your project buddy!

  • Kitty Kilian

    (grin) Only if you’ll pass the whipped cream

  • Thnx for this.

    I had to look up “easel” and then when I saw what it was, I was so embarrassed that I didnt know in the first place. lol

  • Ha! I never thought of that as an obscure word. There is probably another name for those big pads but I that’s my name for them. PS loved the bow tie! : )

  • All right!! Go for it Eric!

  • It’s still painful to think about that. But it was either focus or miss the deadline for the book.

  • Mack Collier

    I saw the exact same thing with mine. Originally, the Intro for my book was the 1st chapter. Then I moved it to the Intro and added a completely new 1st chapter that was later stripped out completely. Then when Kathy Sierra looked at my outline I decided to totally revise the first half of the book based on her recommendations. But if I hadn’t started with an outline it would have been a complete mess. The outline really helps you get organized and helps you crystallize your thoughts!

  • Thank you Pauline for your response to my inquiry.

    I visited Allie’s Hyperbole and a Half blog. and.downloaded a sample of her book.

    The responses I received from agents/publishers may have been because my book-in-progress is on-line.

    “What Makes Your Heart Sing’ has blogs dating back to 2007 interwoven in various parts of the book.
    .
    An option may be to take the book down once I am ready to speak to them again. ~Rae.

  • Thank you Mark for sharing your experiential,publishing wisdom, and wishes!

    I’ll keep you posted on my evolving experiences with the “publishing business.”

    I’ve self-published before, and may once again ~Rae

  • They won’t do it until they see $$ signs, and then they will do it. If they see a platform building? Yeah, they’ll do it. Everything is changing out there. Everything. 🙂

  • Ana Isabel Canhoto

    I really like the idea of the speech to text – I mean, to get a quick draft out. Then, you could build on it. Thanks for the idea!

  • Ana Isabel Canhoto

    It is a great post, indeed, Mark. Like others mentioned, I love the idea of the paper wall, and moving things from the ‘to do’ to the ‘done’ column. I am going to steal this one. Thank you 🙂

    Something that may help ‘useradvocate’ (and others) is a tip shared with me by my PhD supervisor. He told me to start with the descriptive sections – i.e., where you say what you have done (e.g., who you interviewed or what you asked) or explain the state of the problem (e.g., reporting some facts or statistics). These sections usually progress very quickly and help us get motivated.

    Another piece of advice that somebody gave to me was to produce a first draft very, very quickly, without worrying about style, grammar, etc. Once you have that, you can start the first of many edits. Most likely, the final draft will have very little resemblance with the first one.

    Thanks, again.

  • jeanniecw

    Happy New Year, Mark! Guess what I’m doing this year? This was great advice. Thank you!

  • Thank you Pauline for sharing your perspective…

    I totally agree with you!

    Now ‘my job’ is to work with what is “…out there.” to create a new reality ~Rae

  • useradvocate

    Great! Thanks for sharing this Ana Isabel 🙂

  • Gil Amminadav

    Glad you guys found the idea useful. My suspicion is that the speech-to-text software is better on Mac than on PC but that’s based on anecdotal evidence I hear.

    Mark, have you written a blog post about your evolution from journalism to marketing? That sounds like a good story.

  • Awesome! It is hard work, Hang in there!

  • Yes absolutely agree. My first draft looks like it is in some sort of secret code usually : )

  • Hmmmm … I think on that. Basically I took marketing in college and got hooked but it was too late to change my major and I needed a job. So I started in PR and worked my way into marketing : )

  • Gil Amminadav

    It’s amazing how many subjects and ares of study intersect with marketing.

    What hooked you about marketing?

  • I fell in love with it in college but when I was in business I had a mentor who was a marketing genius. He brought an idea to market that required a $50 million new facility that created 150 new jobs. Marketing is on the front line of business. That is a huge rush for me!

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  • Tina Holewinski Griffin

    WOW! I’m going to ask my husband to raise our 4 kids 5 and under while I get this beast done! tHank you for the tips!

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