If I were to ask Ernest Hemingway how to write a book, I believe he’d scoff and say something about letting the words bleed onto the page. I’m no Hemingway, but I can understand his mindset: there is no right or wrong way to write a book. There is just the process of getting the words onto the page.
When I’m asked about how to write a book, I avoid my own process. It’s my process, and, even though I’ve yet to write a full-length book, I know that my process for the lengthier pieces I have written will follow me into that work. My process is one of information consumption and of grab all the books on the subject at the library – even if only loosely associated – and of printing out articles from JSTOR or Texshare and of reading the main text so many times that the margins disappear in a swirl of notes about the work and cross references to different pages, and the binding breaks from the wear and tear. It’s the process of a particular sort of perfectionist, and it isn’t a one-size-fits-all sort of thing. Despite all that, I may be able to offer some general advice about how to write a book:
- Just start. The blank page isn’t going to do you any good. Start writing down ideas and thoughts as they come to you. Don’t even think of this as writing a first draft. You’re writing ideas. You’re brainstorming. Some of these ideas will be tossed long before you start a draft. Then again, you may find that in jotting down your ideas you have stumbled upon your first draft. If you do find it, go with it.
- Don’t worry about being perfect. Strange advice from a perfectionist, but it’s true. Write the horrible first draft. Write the second and third. Perfection isn’t what’s important. Getting your ideas down in some sort of format is.
- Don’t start at the beginning unless you’re a person who needs to start at the beginning. I’m a linear person, so most of my work starts at the beginning and goes toward an ending. Not everybody’s like that. You may be one of those people. If the middle of your work is what’s driving you, right here and now, write the middle and work from there.
- If you do start at the beginning, don’t focus on it. My beginnings are my entry point into a thing, but I can’t find my way into a topic unless I get that crappy beginning down. Once I have it, I can tinker with it later. Doing so may impact the rest of the work, but that’s why a work goes through multiple revisions and edits.
- Write in the way that eases the process. For longer pieces, I type them. I then print them out and basically revise and rewrite them by hand. Poems? I have an entirely different process. I start on paper, write in pencil, and do some slight revisions there before moving onto the screen where I can deliberate line breaks for what seems like an eternity.
- Trust that the words know what they’re doing. When you’re first writing a draft, go where the words lead. It may be hard to trust them, but do. Suspend skepticism. Turn off the editor in your head. Write them even if they seem maudlin. Those words need to get out of your system, and they’ll only stay there and prevent the real words from coming if you don’t write them. It’s only later that you can distrust the words and start to manage them.
- Create for yourself first. I don’t care if you’re writing a business book, you have to create for yourself first. If you don’t, you won’t enjoy the work, and that lack of joy will be transmitted in the work. You also won’t consider other solutions or stumble upon other questions. Creating by yourself for a time lets you explore, to say “I don’t know.” It’s only later that you should seek outside input about your work.
Those of you who have written books, what advice do you have?
Image: Graham Holliday (CC BY NC 2.0)