How to Start a Book



Writing a book is challenging, but it doesn’t have to be impossible. A lot depends on making a good start. Here’s how to do that—in four steps.

Check your knowledge. The first step, which can’t be put off, is to check what you know. Are you drawing on a body of knowledge that others share? How are your ideas the same as and different from what they know? Has your knowledge been tested and used successfully? Is there a generally accepted set of terms for referring to it? Can you specify the relation between the ideas that make up the body of knowledge? Are there parts of what you know that you feel are solid but which you haven’t completely articulated?

This work can involve some writing, but it doesn’t have to. You can draw charts, make tables, create notes, compile lists of resources. You can use idea-mapping software to great benefit, as well as repositories of knowledge such as libraries or websites. When you write things down, remember that you’re not writing the book, so don’t worry about polishing text. Just concentrate on making sure you have a good grasp of what you know, and that what you know is useful (broadly speaking), complete, and coherent.

Many people skip this step because they believe they will do these things as they write their books. They have heard that writing is thinking, and that is true, but thinking is not only writing. Much of the thinking needs to be done prior to working on the book. If it is not, then the writing will likely be overwhelmed by the requirements of the knowledge work.

Conceptualize your book. Once you are sure that you have a complete sense of what you know, you must turn this knowledge into content, which means identifying a part of it that has a specific purpose for a defined audience. You project the value and use of what you know. In short, conceptualize your book by asking yourself what good you want it to do in the world.

Note that your book should not try to say everything you know—because it can’t. In carrying out this step you might think of other ways you can disseminate your content—in another book, in a related workbook, on a website, in a blog, and so on.

When conceptualizing your book you will need to develop an idea that organizes what you know. In addition, you must establish a set of terms that will effectively portray the main aspects of that idea. If you can draw on terms that your audience is already familiar with (adjusted for your particular presentation), it will help the book be more accessible.

The combination of audience, purpose, and an organizing idea constitute your book’s proposition.

Put together a first draft. Now you are ready to capture in text all the content you want the book to contain. This is where the writing begins. It is a task that takes some time, although in many cases you can make progress by gathering together material you have already written. But you need to make sure that you write statements about your audience and purpose. It is the goal of the first draft to be substantive and complete, not finally organized. You address the latter in the next step.

Structure your book. In this step you determine how the book will present its proposition. The best way to do this is by writing the introduction—at which point you are moving on to your second draft and the writing occurs in earnest. In the introduction you give an overview of your proposition, citing the audience (primary and secondary), saying what the book will do for audience members, and detailing chapter by chapter how the book will accomplish this. The introduction thus becomes a guide for turning the first draft into a second draft. You’ll note that the book’s proposition is closely related to its structure, but they aren’t identical. Authors sometimes conflate them.

Also, remember that a book is long text that typically supplies the big picture while providing specific observations and advice.

Moving on. With a complete first draft and a second draft introduction in hand, you will have made a good start on your book. In fact, it is much more than a start; more than half of the work of the book is done. Finishing the book will require you to complete the second draft, redoing text from the first draft and writing some additional material as necessary to realize the structure and accomplish the argument.

Then, in a third draft, you will polish what you’ve written, adjust the introduction to accommodate any changes that had to be made as the rest of the book was created, and do a final check for consistency and completeness.

Note: Publishing is by its nature a collaborative activity, which means to do it well you should get help with starting (and finishing) your book. At Publishing in Context we have years of experience in providing such help and would be pleased to assist you. See the description of our services for more information.

© Martin Wilcox