How to Write a Book

The title of this post is presumptuous, because I haven’t written it yet.

I have a book contract for my dissertation. Yay! Cheers! What every graduate student dreams of while slaving away over their hot word processor, eyes glazed over as they attempt to wrangle the methods section into submission for the umpteenth time. And I’m very lucky and psyched about it. But now I’m faced with the task of actually writing the book.

This is my third major writing project. The first was my MA thesis (200 pages). The second was my dissertation (500 pages). (I also wrote a very bad NanoWriMo novel in 2002 which shall remain hidden forever.) Clearly, my problem is not actually WRITING. The problem is GOOD WRITING. And GOOD WRITING only comes from butt in chair focus, day after day.

So here are my tips for those of you struggling with book-length projects:

1. Write every day. Even if it’s only 200 or 500 words. I got a job while I was writing my dissertation so I had to compress a year’s amount of work into four months. I set myself a very aggressive goal of 2,000 words a day, which I usually made. The advantage of writing every day (even if it’s only a few paragraphs) is that it keeps the project in the front of your head and your consciousness all the time, and it prevents the dreaded “I’m scared of my book/dissertation so I don’t even want to open the .doc file ” problem, which is what REALLY causes trouble.

During my diss, if I made my 2000 word count I considered myself done for the day and rewarded myself with a trip to the library to take out more YA books, an iced coffee, or what have you. Those of us writing while still working or juggling other projects probably can’t skive off like that, but the idea is there: you don’t need to work on something for 12 hours a day, day in and day out, to make it happen.

(Some people do hourly goals, but I find it’s too easy to spend that time rewriting a few pesky sentences or staring off into the distance.)

2. While you’re working on your daily goal, do not do anything else. This includes: Facebook, Twitter, cleaning your kitchen, wandering over to the refrigerator to see if anything tasty has appeared there since the last time you looked, reorganizing your iTunes library, taking a pair of shoes to the cobbler, falling into a Wikipedia k-hole, etc. There are a lot of tools you can use for this purpose. SMC affiliate and all-around nice guy (Dr.) Fred Stutzman wrote a piece of software called Freedom which will cut off your internet access for X amount of time so you can write. There’s also a great Firefox extension called LeechBlock, which will block a list of websites for an allotted block of time. I use it to block Tumblr, Go Fug Yourself, and anything else potentially fun from 10-12 and 1-6 every day.

3. Use the Pomodoro Technique to keep yourself focused. A pomodoro is a tomato, in this instance, a tomato-shaped kitchen timer. (I do not use a tomato. I use a Windows desktop gadget called “Work Break Cycle Timer”. I’m sure there is something sexier for the Mac. You can also use your cell phone.)

picture of a tomato-shaped kitchen timer

Set the timer for 15 minutes. Work straight until those 15 minutes are over. Then take a FIVE MINUTE break– here’s your opportunity to check that fridge again. Then get back to work. 3 pomodoros = 45 minutes of work. You can extend the amount of work time as your concentration progresses. If you get in the zone and don’t want to stop, don’t. This is super useful if you’re terrified of a certain task and will do anything to avoid working on it. 15 minutes isn’t very long, and usually that’s enough to make you realize that it’s not that scary and you can do it.

4. Stay positive and have faith in your abilities. After writing a few chapters I noticed a cycle:

– Research.
– Research. OMG what an idea, I am a genius.
– Writing.
– Writing.
– Writing. OMG this is a disaster. My ideas are ridiculous. This chapter is a tangled mess. I am a failure.
– Writing.
– Writing.
– Writing. OK, this is decent. I’m happy with it.

You need to get through the “OMG this is a tangled mess” phase. Just trust that you’re smart enough to figure it out. Because you are!

5. Carry around a notebook or a piece of paper, and sleep with it next to your bed. I woke up out of a dead sleep in the middle of the night and wrote down the entire outline for my third chapter. I had an idea for a thesis statement while crossing the street. If there’s something bugging you, you WILL figure it out. It just might need a few days to percolate. Talking problems out also helps. I often find that just by trying to clarify my thoughts to someone else, they become more clear to me, as well.

6. Finally, I switched from Word to Scrivener for this project. Scrivener is a program specifically designed for writing novels, non-fiction books and screenplays. I am probably one of the only Word fangirls out there, but Word kept hacking up my manuscript because it was too big. Scrivener is good for moving around sections, reorganizing stuff, writing things in the margins, and they finally released a Windows version (I’m also a Windows 7 fangirl). Scrivener is a bit fiddly, and I’d recommend reading the tutorial. I’m also not very excited about its Zotero integration (e.g. there is none), but I’m willing to overlook this because it’s so much better than my old method of Word + a million “notes” files + OneNote.

So GOOD LUCK! And with that I’m going to spend the next hour working on the book.

4 thoughts on “How to Write a Book

  1. This is great! Thank you, Alice! I especially lol’d and felt your pain at “OMG I AM A GENIUS” –> OMG I am a failure, this makes no sense.

    I think the link to the Scrivener tutorial didn’t make it in. Can you provide that? I’ve tried to use Scrivener in the past and always gotten tripped up. I was especially annoyed that the text on a card and the text in the document weren’t somehow linked or the same.

    And congratulations on the book contract!

    1. Thanks Lilly!!

      The tutorial I used is actually built into Scrivener. Go to Help > Interactive Tutorial. There’s also various video tutorials here:

      I agree that Scrivener is fiddly to use. t’s very full featured and not always obvious what it does. But so far I think it’s better designed for book writing than is Word.

      Good luck! I can’t wait to hear about your fieldwork!

  2. G.Russell

    I didn’t know it was so easy.
    I’m starting mine right now,
    but I’m going to have LOTS of pictures.

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