How to start writing a book

Every artist was first an amateur. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

I get hundreds of comments and emails in response to the post on how to write a book. Here’s another interesting, and life-grounding, question from the mailbag:

I found your website hand thought it was awesome. I watched your videos and decided I could use some advice from you.

My house burnt down 3 weeks ago in Burnsville, Minnesota. I lost a 38 foot RV, a 69 Plymouth Fury Convertible, and monster truck and trailer in the driveway and my 16 years old sons car he worked on so hard and never got to drive. I also lost 5 animals in the fire and that really hurts. I still have my 3 children ages 23, 16 and a 10 year old daughter who is having night mares with all this life changing overnight experience. Guess what? I want to write a book about my life and how it changed so quickly. I am very grateful we are all alive and ok. Like everyone else I dont know where to start. I am living my worst night mare in a hotel gong on a month. We have nothing but the cloths we were wearing that day. Any advice would be greatly appreciated. Please contact me.

Very sorry to hear about your loss. I do hope there are local government agencies or non-profits that can offer you some assistance. Books aside, I do wish you and your family well.

On starting: there is no single easy way. Everyone is different. There are tricks I list in this essay on writing hacks, but some or one will work for you. The truth is how you start doesn’t matter, but if you wait for a perfect way you’ll never get started. If that essay doesn’t help, here’s additional advice:

  • Plan to come back. One trick that helps is to remember that the real work in writing is editing. I plan to come back later and revise, cut, rewrite and do all kinds of work later on. The “writing” part is just the beginning and believing this has a freeing effect. When I sit down with a blank page I have no preconceptions. I just start writing and plan to figure it all out later once there are a few pages of rambles and rants to work from.
  • Go chronological. In your case you’re writing about things that have happened, or are happening to you. Great. Pick a date, say a week before the fire, and write about what happened every day from them to now. It could be as simple as two or three facts per day, or memories per day, or your recollection of your thoughts on those days, whatever you like. But anchor on time as the spine of your writing. It creates an easy way to divide up your memories, and to trigger thoughts or recollections. You then might choose to go to your family and friends and get their stories and recollections on every day, giving you even more material to work from.
  • Draft an outline. An outline can be one page long or fifty. It depends on how much detail you feel you need to get going. If it’s your first book, I’d strongly recommend writing a two page outline that covers, at a high level, all of the major events or points you want the book to cover. It’s a good test: if you can’t write two pages, you probably won’t be able to write a book. If you can write a two page outline, put it aside for a day or two and then come back and re-read the whole thing. Is there a better order to explain events? If so revise. And then pick one of the chapters and get to work. Repeat.
  • Keep a notebook with you. Have a place to write down ideas and thoughts about your experience and keep it with you all the time. Your rule should be whenever a thought crosses your mind, no matter how strange or personal, you write it down. Worry later if its good or interesting, but in the moment, commit yourself to writing something down. I have piles of old notebooks, and go through one every few weeks.
  • Read books like the one you want to write. Learn from other writers by reading their work. For every “how can I?” question you have go find a book and see how a successful writer solved the problem. If your book is a memoir, many great writers have written books about their personal experience with tough times. Check out Joan Didion’s The year of magical thinking, about her experience with having two loved ones become seriously ill at the same time. It can help to see how other writers have tackled the same type of writing you’re going through.
  • Write every day. Even if it’s just for 5 minutes, even if it’s just a sentence or a few words, sit down and write every single day. You have to get used to how it feels to sit there and that only happens if you put your ass in the chair every single day. Find a slot in your schedule that you can protect (early mornings or late nights often work) and ask family to respect that time.
  • Have a plan for staying motivated. A book will take about 1000 hours of work to write. That sounds scary, but most people watch 1000 hours a TV every year (4 hours a day).Writing is straightforward to do, but you have to keep showing up. Think about your reasons for staying motivated. Create a writing calendar where you can leave a note, or a mark, every time you sit down to work. This will help get some positive feedback every time you put in some effort, even if you’re not very productive on a given day. Your output from any writing session doesn’t matter much provided you continuing to work on it day after day.

I hope that helps get you started. Best wishes.

Have a question for the mailbag? Leave a comment or contact me here.

60 Responses to “How to start writing a book”

  1. Elaine Saunders

    I think write every day is your most important piece of advice. However, “writing” doesn’t just mean sitting down at the computer.

    Any time your attention is free to wander, allow your imaginatin to run through the piece you’re working on. On the commute to work or when doing mundane jobs around the home, use this time to think about the next scene you’re going to write. Then, when you finally do sit down at the keyboard, you’re ready to begin typing without wasting any of your precious time.

    Elaine Saunders
    Author – Fiction Writing Exercises
    http://www.completetext.com

    Reply
    • Gary Howard

      Not to sound like an anarchist, but I think sometimes that wasting precious time actually helps me to write! Some folks write well under pressure, but it’s the opposite for me.; I like to disengage from reality, and sort of float around for a while. I do agree with Scott that the editing is the real work. That’s when I really get down to business, as I don’t see it as a creative endeavor but as a practical one.

      Just my 2 cents’ worth

      Reply
      • Ellie

        Hear, Hear. Writing under pressure doesn’t work, it stops the flow of creativity!!!!!

        Reply
  2. Deonte Tarver

    thank you for the tips on writing a book,i really appreciate it.it makes me feel highly successful.and equipted to writing.so thank you once again.

    Reply
  3. theshasta

    a warm hello from sicily scott,thank you ever so much for the inspiration that will hopefully help kick off my 1st “novel”.
    good luck with everything.
    theshasta

    Reply
  4. Kristin

    Well, it’s good to know I’m on the right track… :)

    Reply
  5. amber nelson

    I have so many things that seem signifigant that I would want to include in a book if I were to write one. The problem I have is what information should I include when it all seems so important? Also, if I am writting about myself, should I use third person, or first? If I include stories that involve other people, how do I protect myself from being sued if said book was published?

    Reply
    • Miles

      I am facing so many of these issues myself and would love to know the answers. Is it possible to know what the professionals’ answers are to the concerns addressed by Amber Nelson in April, 2010?

      Reply
  6. Abby

    When I look at a book I’m always so suprised to see 100’s of pages. When I first tryed to right a book it came out 5 pages. How do I lenghten my story?

    Reply
  7. brenda

    I quit my job approx 6 years ago and have stayed home to take care of my mom with alzheimers. I have decided to put my experiences down on paper and write a book with a different view of this disease. Reading your advise here is going to help me get started, as I have NO EXPERIENCE AT ALL! Thank you for taking the time to help us.

    Reply
  8. Keri

    Thankyou for your advice it helped me out alot

    Reply
  9. Anomynous

    Thanks for the help, I may be young but I have many aspirations to become a great writer. Thanks for helping me on my way.

    Reply
  10. Tammy

    Thanks so much for your advice. I am not young but I have always wanted to write and now I think I might have the courage.

    Reply
  11. Ivy Marie Burt

    Thank you, so very much.

    Reply
  12. FlyingPen

    I like your style– humorously straightfoward. Thanks!

    Reply
  13. Dana V.

    O.M.G. Thank you so much. I have been trying to write my first book. I have worried more about outlines and paragraphs and on and on. Finally, you have helped me to relax and just write. After all who cares how it sounds right now. I can go back and fix it all later. Thank you.

    Reply
  14. ljduenf

    I have thought about all of these things you have told us about. I thought it was very good information…but i have a few problems…these are my problems, not yours, but I was wondering if you could help answer them for me:
    1). I don’t like writing by hand, I have bad handwriting and my hand starts to hurt easily
    2). I want to get started right away. I always try to write a really good story…but after a while i look back at my work and feel..almost embarrassed at what i wrote… and i don’t want to wait all this time to write a story… I am not a patient person…help please

    Reply
  15. Mary B.

    Thank you so much for your advice. In 2009 I was hit with a tsunami of tradgey – a suddenly disabled spouse, a parent diagnosed with a terminal illness, two sick children – – all within a month’s time and two years later after looking back, I feel there is much to say to the public about surviving that horrible summer of tragedy. I just bought myself a netbook, the Word program and am about to embark on what is a new adventure for me. Thank you again for your advice, I am very sure I will be coming back to your site again and again.

    Reply
  16. Shannon Rose

    Thanks for your tips on writing they have helped me start, I’ve just been putting down thoughts and ideas and lines I’ve had about my book idea, and it’s good to have at least started.

    Reply
  17. stephen

    i have been putting writing aside for far too long now and have just logged onto your site and have found it very encouraging indeed to begin doing the latter, i have never written before and realise at this stage of my life, i have so much to offer to people from my lifes experiences that i most certainly write it all and share it with the purest of intent to people who may through lifes circumstances , find themselves in total despair. i have a wonderful story to tell which i know will definately encourage people to pick themselves up and look at this beutiful life in a complete different way. i died three years ago and was revived and after several months in hospital had a miraculous recovery and have now a new found awareness of life and its circumstances. all this came to being after a lifetime of alcoholism and self destruction and what i have come to learn now as a life of unawareness. i do implore you to give me some advice on this idea as every encouragment to help me with this project, yours hopefully stephen

    Reply
  18. harshal

    thanks a lot. i was actually thinking how & where to start from.. i liked it to know as you said we should take out time & write any thought that crosses our mind..we should always keep a book with us.. first thing i’l do is buy myself a big fat book to pen down my thoughts.. that will really help. i am planning to write a book on my love who is no more. need your best wishes sir. thanks again

    Reply
  19. Hetty

    Thanks so much for your advice.I have really been encouraged to start scribbling something down.Thanks so much.

    Reply
  20. kristi l potter

    Hello Mr.Berkun I would like to start an autobiography. Its roughly about growing up with a verbally and an emotionally abusive mother who is a mental case herself. I survived her and her many meaningless relationships with many men. I quit school ended up with my own business, going back to school and graduating etc. Then to only hear from my long lost brother that was given up for adoption before I was even born. There is way more but I thought I would give you a very brief description. How do I get this to the right publishing company and the right people?? Any advice? Thank you, Kristi

    Reply
  21. Jalo Jibrin

    Just like Tammy has mentioned, i think i now have the courage to now start my experience sharing.Sometimes i feel like exploding because of what i have gone through in life. i will only feel better iof i relay it in a book. Thank You again.

    Reply
  22. Bill T

    I think the best thing I learned from reading your material is that I am not alone. Others face the same problems I do and have the same self-doubt. If you guys can conquer the fears, I can too. Thank you.

    Reply
  23. Bill Epps

    Hello there Scott!

    I just finish reading another one of your “messages of inspiration” on writing! You’re a “natural motivator”! It’s a great pleasure reading your stimulating advice on the art of writing! Thanks for the boost!

    Bill Epps

    Reply
  24. jess

    The thought of writing a book or even something in general about the childhood that my brother and I had with immigrant parents, as well as a mom whom fought to her death with Bipolar Disorder and Schizophrenia. Now I suffer the same disorders, but try not to take my past with me like most. Instead, I use it to make me stronger…if not for me for my family.
    I realize that I don’t need permission to write this, but I honestly can’t decide where to start. It’s very frustrating. I just want to tell people what the life we grew up with was like, give some pointers on how to stay healthy mentally and for people to know that living a normal life with bipolar and schizophrenia is absolutely possible

    Reply
    • Scott Berkun

      Jess: It does not matter where you start. Just start. You can edit and revise later. If you cant’ start, it might be just be you don’t actually like writing. Thinking you want to write and actually enjoying it are two very different things.

      Reply
  25. Derek Lantzsch

    Great answers and thoughts! Now more than ever before in Human history we need colossal innovators all over the world. Also never before has Humanity seen such powerful Creative Tools e.g. Internet and public libraries and more.
    The most important tool though really is a notebook that you use and carry with you everywhere. Just by making observations and collecting them as the days pass, you will find more things you want to say, have learned and/or thought of while out. It is a must that the notebook be bound paper and ink penned. Many reasons why, however one of the top reasons is ease of access. In line I have whipped out my notebook, opened to a new page, and caught the ideas as fast as they flooded my imagination. If I had a laptop, I’d have to wait until in the car or at a table…let alone the boot time for it and pulling up a Word doc.! Paper and pen are still the best equipment to have with any Imaginateer! I found a Strathmore coilwire bound, lline free, acid free artists sketch book the best. It is an open field of possibilities and I am free to draw, diagram, scribble and write. Number each note book as you complete it. Include photos, articles, and anything else you can tape or post in it. After about 2 or 3 completed notebooks you then can start referring back from your latest notebook to previous ones. But watchout, becuase the creative energies that will flood you will be exciting and sometimes overwhelming! For more great ideas get Bullion Greys Imagination Workshop Notebook…but key is a notebook and pen.

    Reply
  26. Duncan McKenzie

    Dear Mr Berkun, I like your website and the information contained therein. I’m currently engaged in writing my first book and hope to have it completed by November of this year. I would be most grateful if you would visit the website that I created for the book at:
    http://www.theunluckycountry.com
    Your frank opinion on the material therein would be greatly appreciated. Also, I am having problems with only one thing in terms of writing, that is: how do I incorporate research articles and newspaper articles into the body of my work? Do I simply include them verbatim and give the source on the page, or should I paraphrase all articles and mention the source in the bibliography section of the book? With many thanks and regards.

    Reply
  27. Conner Wait

    Too be completely honest i think that “My house burnt down 3 weeks ago in Burnsville, Minnesota” is how you should open it. That would be such an opening that it would hit a reader. Then you can write about how it happened, what it was like and then write about how your life is now.

    Reply
  28. Luke

    What I’m struggling with right now is the fact that I have 130 pages of random notes collected over the years and wonder how do you put it together? I’m going through it, and I’m afraid to edit out “the good stuff”. Some stuff seems well written so I want to make sure I retain the whole thoughts. Is there a clear and simple way to do this? Would you just opt for taking the core concept from each paragraph and then elaborate once it’s in order. As they say it’s the editing that makes the book.

    Can you suggest where to start?

    Reply
  29. grant kim

    hello, my name is grant, and i have written quite a few short stories but only recently did i think of one that i planned on making my best. problem is, i am suffering creative burnout. i have written 3 chapters so far and only chapter two is of adequite legnth and detail, how can i get back on track?

    Reply
  30. Kyle

    Thanks so much for the advice.
    I wanted to write one novel…thats it…just for me and publish it. I did not care about doing it full time, I like the job I have.
    Now…….after some words of wisdom, I will sit down and write it.
    Publish it myself and give it away……yep….that’s all I wanted to do!
    Thanks

    Reply
  31. Matthew Brunken

    Thanks for the, well simple advice. I am planning to make a book. Hope it goes well.

    Reply
  32. Apachino

    If ever their was anything called advice,it this scott.this is awesome.it’s a wake up call for me from the illuminating pit of darkness.i’ve got great and raw ideas but that tingy i feel whenever i start a new book leaves as fast as it comes.i’ve learn from you mr scott i’m not going to give up untill i’ve got my book published.:-)

    Reply
  33. Marie

    Hello I have been on about writing a book about my life its so traumatic i dont now were to start as soon as i start on 1 thing it takes me some were else i have suffered for 43 yrs and still am i was abused from the age of 3 by lots of family members my mother new and tried to kill me i was a widow at 18yrs old 4 months later my little baby died i have been repeatedly raped beaton up had a major break down ended up in mental hospital in 2009 then in nov 2009 not long after i came out i was raped i ended up takin massive overose was on life suport have tried doing other things to end my life i truely think doing this book will help me to start living because at the moment im not could you help me

    Reply
    • Marie Houston

      Marie,
      Wow! that sounds like a book I couldn’t put down. One that would make you think about it a work, read way to late, remember why you love to read. Stay Strong and don’t give up !! You need to get it out.
      I’ll be waiting for your book.

      Reply
  34. Marie

    Hi I have just read your e-mail I have a true story to tell its that horrific I have been told by professionals that I am damaged goods as I have suffered child abuse by 3 members of my so called family also raped by a vicar this all happened before I was 11 yrs of age my mom never helped or protected me all she said I must have been naughty she tried to kill me when I was 5 she tied me to the gas cooker in my best clothes and left the house she was found by jehovahs witnessis thay untied me sent me up stairs with a glass of milk and 3 biscuits i remember saying I am allowed 1 nothing else was done I then got pregnant at 16 got married on july 12th 1982 had my daughter emma nov 18th he use to sexually/emotionaly/physically abuse me constantly he then was diagnosed in dec 1982 with malignant melanoma he had surgery in jan 1983 was unsucsesful they said he would die in the mean time I had a secoond daughter tracey she was premature if she had not been born early my husband would never have seen her he died oct 1983 then 4 months later tracey died I was only 18 yrs of age no help from no one i remarried 5 yrs later big mistake he was worse I was not allowed to visit the grave for 12 yrs I went once he beat me up broke my jaw/nose i was afraid of him i had 5 misscarrages with him i lost 2 one bec ause he was angry and had car smash then the second time he kept beating me with the hoover in the tummy after i lost the baby he then would take me to some one who had a baby and told not to cry or i would get an other beating I bacame anorexic when i finally picked up the courage to get a divorce i weighted 6st 2lb that was the only thing he could not control he had the house /money/car furniture but i was free i had a son with him he was 8 when got divorced in 2001 in 2009 my so called father died i could not wait for that day promised myself i would ask him before he died why he did what he did never got the answer my so called family sent me death threats and pictures of coffins if i spoke i ended up in a mental hospital i also got raped in 2009 took 19 months before case was finished i took massive overdose i was on life support i also went for a walk on the motorway i was determined to die as i did not want to suffer ant more my daughter emma as not spoke to me now since dec 10th 2009 i have had to move home change my name i am still under the mental health they told me i was damaged goods counselor said think its best if you dont go again as she thinks there to much to cope with mental hospital wont have me again said its not the right place for now on my 3rd cpn were ever i go no one wants to no i have been on about writing a book for yrs an yrs never got round to it i got in contact with a publisher they said good story but need to flower it up dont now how to do that they said i wrote it all down as facts thats the only way i now its a fact it happened also need some one to write /edit book for me as my english not very good as i was bullied at home and at school i been bullied for 44 yrs of my life and i will be 46 this yr can you help me dont now were to turn i now this book will help me and help other my number is 07548712854 if you think you can help me
    Regards Marie

    Reply
    • Ram

      I just read your story, it is a good material for a book. what country are you from? also…may I know your telephone number? its good to talk about your story..God bless

      Reply
  35. Verla

    I too found your site,and found it interesti
    ng, I have keep jounals for thrity years, never
    thought of putting them in book form. Maybe I will rethink this.

    Reply
  36. christy

    Hi, Have been thinking about writing about my life adventures for several years now, but can’t seem to spit it out.
    I started out with panic attacks at 14, loving a married drug addict at 15, seeing friends die from drugs and families ruined. Watching needles go in and out of arms etc…
    Having a mother who was and is wonderful with guilt.
    To having two wonderful children who have made me someone “mom” the best thing in the world.

    But the past which lay’s on my mind…there is so much I have on the tip of my tounge or fingers , that I want to spit out on paper, I need an opinion on how to start this, whether it goes anywhere or not.

    Tonight is the first time I have looked up any info on writing, and low and behold I run up on you! You are very insightful and I love “is your book good idea” hhmmm, makes me wonder…

    Reply
  37. Doreen

    I have been keeping letters from my daughter who is in rehab. Ever since I found out about her addiction when she would write a note, a letter to me. I also, have many thoughts about my experience with her addiction. She had many very bad things happen to her over the course of the years one of which was rape. I had read so many books about the way I should treat her and her addiction. Which I have many different ideas about. But, I am not a writer. I was never very good at grammer. I know what I want to say. Which I have written down many of my thoughts.
    To tell you the truth everytime I start to relive these events I become very emotional and sometimes can not even reread what I have already written.
    Does the publisher go over and correct my grammer? Will they allow me to fumble and maybe sometime not make much sense except to myself or someone in a similair situation?

    Reply
  38. Martin Nustad

    Very well summarized. Thank you. So much that can be said in detail, was summarized in direct language. I can start now…Martin

    Reply
  39. Chris Beckett

    Unbelieveable!!
    I was reading your advice. I was hoping to start writing a book.
    I was even more jacked about it after getting through all your tips until I scrolled down through all the responses and how many people want to write about there LIFE STORY!!
    I now know I will definitely go fictional! I was going to do the same until I saw the above responses. How nieve I was.
    Haha!
    My book, when I get started will now be a novel.
    Thanks for the tips! Where is my next stop on your site for fictional writing!

    Reply
  40. zippy

    typo in last paragraph

    Reply
  41. Austin

    I’m having trouble putting voice into my words what do you suggest i do to get voice and also what is voice exactly.

    Reply
  42. Daniel

    Hi i really want to start a book i have so many things in my head i go through the story in my head and picture, but soon as i go to write it i don’t know where to start and i get everything mixed up. What can i do to make my book come to life? And how to start my first sentence

    Reply
  43. Kosi

    There’s a place that always gets me in writing–the very first sentence. Once I have that, then I have the whole paragraph, but I can’t get it for some reason. So can you help on that? Thanks.

    Reply
  44. kate athend

    Sorry about your fury but I suspect the fury within you and all the good memories will return with every new journey.

    Reply
  45. Loji Roji Saibi

    Thanks for the advice. I am on the right track to write a good story book!

    Reply
  46. Tim

    I’m quite concerned at the low level of spelling, grammar, punctuation and sentence construction displayed here!!!

    I hope it can be attributed to the smartphone/tablet keypad!

    Reply
  47. Antwan Wright

    Thanks for the advice. Remember this name (Antwan Wright) you will hear it in the future.

    Reply
  48. Sarah

    Hi, I am thinking of starting a fantasy book and wanted to know if there are any tricks to writing a good beginning to catch the attention of the reader/publisher?

    Reply
    • Scott

      The trick is to be willing to try many different drafts until it feels right.

      Also read lots of books and pay attention to how they ones that “catch your attention” are constructed and emulate them.

      Reply
  49. Sarah

    This advice is really handy. I’ve been writing since primary school, but I keep hitting this major problem. Inspiration block: I have an idea, a plotline, but at some point in the story I get stuck with the story and I can’t seem to figure out how to get past that point.
    It happens in different points in a story, but usually it’s when I have to write about an important plot development and somehow it’s the build-up to it that gets me. I wonder if you have any ideas on how to get past it?

    Reply
  50. Irene

    Hi there my oldest son convinced me to start writing a book of my life style when I was a young girl from getting beat and when I got together with my ex at the age of 19 where I got controlled and beat up until now I am 40 years old so I wanted to know how I would start out at the beginning thank you

    Reply

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