Writing a book is a long, drawn-out process. It’s hard to say when you’re “done” other than that moment when the book arrives in your mail box and sits on your coffee table like a long lost friend. Nevertheless, along the way there are certain mile stones to aim for and to celebrate.
Yesterday I wrapped up the first draft of my next book Saving Evangelicals from Themselves. The first draft often entails the lion’s share of the book writing process. There is research, brainstorming, organizing, stream of consciousness writing, editing, reorganizing, more writing, and more editing and polishing.
By 5 PM yesterday I had my draft completely finished and ready for the publisher. It even came close to the 60,000 word count with a total of 61,610 words. I’d like to share a little bit about the process of writing a first draft of a book. I hope this helps as you plunge into your own projects.
Read… A Lot
You don’t need to quote directly from every book or cite everything, but read, skim, or browse as many books as you can in your topic area. You want to communicate your own ideas in fresh ways, while giving credit where it is due.
Set up Google Alerts for your subject areas, read and tag articles using del.icio.us, dig through surveys, and look up articles in key papers and magazines such as Time, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and any other magazine closely related to your topic. For myself I keep a close eye on Christianity Today.
Organize and Outline
You need to know where your book is going, and so a rough outline is necessary. Don’t be afraid to delete, add, or reorder chapters as you set out. Better now than later. Set up a rough idea of each chapter’s trajectory.
Write, Write, Write
I like to just cut loose and write a ton once I have some research and outlines to provide general guidance. I end up scrapping at least 25-35% of what I write, but the core that remains is generally pretty solid. Let your mind wander, write about things you care about, and think deeply about your topic. Always keep in mind your one-two sentence summary of your book from your proposal (you did put together a proposal first, right? If not, do that NOW!)
Fill In Gaps
After you have a good chunk of material together, you need to fill in the gaps with more research, quotes, and stories. Try to get a sense of the flow of your chapter. Are you on target? Can readers follow with you? Are they still interested? Have you backed up your claims? This is the time to ask hard questions and to be critical of your work. I have a scrap folder for each book with a document that matches each chapter. Many scrap documents have at least 7 pages of material in them. That means you need to keep adding content to your chapters, making sure you’ve sharpened your points.
When you’re relatively confident you have a solid chunk of chapter, seek out a friend or two to read it. Ask them to point out places where stories don’t work, ideas need to be developed, or the whole thing falls off course. I recommend at least two different readers since people can be very different in how they read something.
Never Stop Researching
Hopefully you’ve been keeping up on your field while you’re doing the heavy part of the writing. By saving key stories and articles on del.icio.us I have saved myself on several occasions. You never know when a crucial piece of information will surface.
The Critical Read-Through
Keeping in mind your book’s focus, reader-benefits, and goals, read through each chapter with a critical eye to anything that doesn’t fit, discredits you as a writer, loses your readers, or doesn’t sound quite right. Kill adverbs without mercy, tighten up sentence structure, delete a lot, insert strong verbs, and make sure you begin and end with bang.
Hit Send, Tell a Friend, and Buy Yourself a Treat
It’s a wonderful feeling to hit the send button when you’re done with a key phase of a book project. Celebrate the moment, treat yourself to something you enjoy, and share the joy of the moment with your friends. Chances are you won’t be celebrating when your editor writes back in two months with the revisions you need to make… 😉