5 Tips For Writing a Book People Will Actually Read (From a First Time Author)

I was sitting alone in a garage surrounded by packing boxes.

My usual morning routine, which started with coffee back then (and now is more about black tea), segued into a new idea for this column. I started writing about what it means to be driven, to push yourself so hard that you have no other choice but to find a solution. Like someone absolutely committed to obtaining a college degree or finding their way through downtown traffic, you just push and push and push.

And yet, the neurons were not firing that day. I was in a garage because we had sold our house, and a friend had offered a place to live for a few weeks. On a cabin by a lake–sounds idyllic, right? And yet, the cabin didn’t have an office or a place to work. In fact, it barely had a working air conditioner.

That garage, sitting on the end of a dirt road, became a haven for me, but it wasn’t easy to keep writing. My chair creaked. The oil stains smelled. I’d sometimes hear the scraping of some wild animal late at night, giving me the creeps. Pushing was not exactly an option. It was more like a mind game; I was trying to stay productive.

I wasn’t. In the midst of acquiring bank loans and arranging for a U-Haul, I kept driving and pushing myself. Since 2001, I’ve worked as a columnist in magazines and online (including about seven years writing this column). This time, I was pushing against a brick wall, so I decided to retreat back into the cabin and fetch more coffee.

On my way back, I thought pretty hard about why I’m so driven. What was this internal motivator pushing me forward? Was it money? Or the appeal of success? Or a desire to prove my father wrong after I left a corporate job? I stopped in my tracks. I didn’t see a light shining down from the sky–other than the sun–but I did have an epiphany. I realized right then and there that I needed to stop trying so hard, living under my own power. I went back to the cabin and wrote a column about how “being driven” is not the answer.

And then I had an idea for a book. It’s on a spiritual topic, but the basic concept is that we can’t do it all on our own. We need help. We can stay driven and keep pushing, but at the end of the day, there’s only so much we can do to find success. In a business context, it means letting other people mentor us, letting our team develop and grow outside of our control. In marriage or in raising kids, it means allowing friends and extended family to become part of our inner circle, to help us move forward.

We push so hard, and yet–for most entrepreneurs–the constant pushing often leads to more stress, anxiety, and even depression. I wrote my first book as an attempt to come to terms with this for myself, but along the way, I learned a lot about what actually works and how to write an extended piece of non-fiction that people will read and understand.

Here are my best tips if you follow a similar path.

1. Write with empathy

My book is about my own spiritual journey in life. I had to think long and hard about my topics, and I restarted several chapters when it seemed like they were mainly a feeble attempt to set myself up as an expert. That process–setting ourselves up–usually ends in failure. You’re either an expert or you’re not. My topic, living a spiritual life, is one where few of us are experts. So I wrote mostly about my own experiences, a memoir of sorts, and I decided to write in a way that treated the reader as a fellow non-expert. We’re all in this together, I thought, and we might as well admit none of us have all of the answers. This helped me see the reader as a partner, not a pupil.

2. Stick to your instincts

A piece of me is in the book. A big piece. I avoided flowery language, or overly complex segues. On a long plane ride to Austria in the fall of 2016, I wrote two full chapters of the book; on the return trip, I wrote two more. I poured out the stories in a flash of inspiration, and I didn’t worry too much about whether any of the material would win a literary award (it won’t). However, I wanted to directly and succinctly communicate a simple idea, and I wanted to use everyday language. If you write a book, this is perhaps my biggest tip of all: Keep it simple. Keep it straightforward. Trust your instincts.

3. Persevere through the process

Most authors will tell you that writing a book is laborious. It takes an incredible investment in time; it can take months or even years. For my book, I wrote the basic chapters in a draft form in about two months, writing almost everyday. That does not include revisions and editing. Yet, the hardest part was not the drafting or the editing or even the revisions. The hardest part was writing a book that reflected exactly what I wanted it to say, and within the publication window. This is more than editing and revision; this is soul searching. It’s a monumental struggle to translate from the idea to the written word in a way that makes sense and communicates the idea clearly, and in a way that makes you feel proud.

4. Give your ideas time to germinate

That struggle to write is no match for the struggle to find insight in the first place. It’s more than staying on a rigid sleep schedule and drinking extra coffee. You can’t quickly find insight. Your ideas have to germinate and grow, and they originate with experiences and the hard lessons you’ve learned. I’ve persevered through many struggles over the past 30 years, and my book is mostly a document of those struggles. Now, I worry about the next book, which is already in an infant stage, because I’ve already drawn from the well so many times. If you can’t quickly find insight, you also can’t quickly have experiences. You need to give them time to develop (in fact, I might take another full year).

5. Know when to put the pen down

I know, there’s no pen involved. We’re all on keyboards. For me, it was hard to finally stop hammering on my laptop and to realize when the stories were documented enough for my own purposes and for the purposes of my publisher. I finished the book last year, and every month I’d think about making revisions. Yet, I resisted the temptation because it became a record of my thoughts and ideas during that timeframe. Changing it too much would pull the book into my current timeframe. You have to accept the risk that what you have documented during that season is what is the most accurate and best version. And you have to accept when a book is done and ready to debut. For me, it’s time.

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