The Ultimate 10 Step Guide to Plan and Write Your Book

Writing a book isn’t easy.

It takes weeks, probably months, of consistent work.

It will challenge you.

Yet ... a book can change everything.

Perhaps your book will add an extra income stream to your freelancing business, bringing in royalties so that you’re no longer purely tied to by-the-hour work.

Perhaps your book will be an important signifier of your expertise in your field, impressing current clients ... and netting you new ones.

Perhaps your book will give you access to a brand-new audience: you’re not doing it for the book-sales money, but the new leads who might buy considerably higher priced products or services from you.

Or perhaps your book will reach thousands or even millions of people, having a real impact on their lives.

If you never get it written – you’ll never know.

And even the most daunting tasks become manageable if you break them down.

Here’s how to plan and write your book, in ten simple steps.

Note: This post focuses on non-fiction books, as the planning process is very different for fiction. If you’re a novelist or would-be novelist, you may find some of the general advice helpful – but for more tailored help, check out my post Your Two-Year Plan for Writing, Editing and Publishing Your Novel (However Busy You Are) 

Step #0: Check That People Actually Want This Book

Allow 60 minutes for research.

This step precedes any actual planning! If you’re going to write a book, you (probably) want people to eventually read it. That means making sure there’s an audience for your work before you spend a ton of time creating it.

Even if it seems ridiculously obvious to you that people need your book, that doesn’t necessarily mean they want it.

Here’s how to get an idea of what people do want:

Run a survey of your audience (if you have an existing audience – e.g. through your blog, email newsletter or Facebook page). Ask them about your possible book ideas: which would they most like to read?

  • Look for existing books on a similar topic: how well are they selling? You might take a look at their rank on Amazon.
  • Look for blog posts about the topic. Have they got a reasonable response, in terms of comments, shares, etc, compared with other posts on the same blog?
  • Think about questions that you frequently get from people new to your topic area. Is this book something that would answer those?

If you have yet to come up with an idea, all of these can be great ways to get to know what your audience wants so you can deliver exactly that.

Important: Don’t try to cover everything about a broad topic – it’s way too much to handle, plus, what will you write next?

KEY ACTION: Make sure that there’s an audience for your book. Don’t leap into planning and writing without taking this step.

Step #1: Get Clear About Your Book’s Eventual Format and Purpose

Allow: 15 – 60 minutes to think about it, depending on how clear you already feel about this.

We already took a quick look at some of the great benefits a book might bring. It’s time to be crystal clear about what you want.

Is your book going to be:

  • A physical book you sell at events, to bring in a little extra money, but also to leave participants with a lasting reminder of you and your work?
  • A free ebook you give to your email list, as an incentive to subscribe?
  • A premium ebook you sell through a website or blog you own? (These often contain specialist information, and they’re usually priced high – $29 or $49 wouldn’t be uncommon.)
  • A mass-market ebook you sell through Amazon and other online retailers? (These are priced much lower, anything from $0.99 - $9.99, but you have the potential to reach a much larger audience.)

All of these have different benefits, and some will suit different types of ideas – for instance, a free ebook for your email list is likely to be short and specific. Decide up-front what sort of book you’re writing.

KEY ACTION:  Come up with a target word count for your book: to help you with this, you might want to look at similar books and figure out roughly how long they are. (Count the words on an average-looking page and multiply by the number of pages.) This will be important for the next few steps.

Step 2: Figure Out a Working Timetable

Allow: 15 minutes to work out a sensible timetable.

I can tell you one sad truth about writing a book: if you wait for a chunk of free time to appear in your schedule ... it’s never going to happen.

The good news, though, is that a small regular effort really will add up. You just need to decide when you’re going to fit “write my book” into the rest of your life.

Chances are, you have a busy life. You might not have much flexibility over your time: perhaps you have a day job, or a health condition, or (like me) you have to find time to write while raising young children.

At least one of these should be possible for you, though:

1. Writing for 15 minutes first thing in the morning, seven days a week (as Darren Rowse, of ProBlogger fame, mentions here, this is exactly how he got his first ebook written).

2. Writing for 30 minutes, Monday to Friday, in your lunch break at your day job.

3. Writing for 10 minutes, twice a day, while your baby is napping.

4. Writing for an hour every Saturday and Sunday morning.

5. Writing for an hour on two weeknights each week. (Decide which nights in advance.)

Each of these will net you two hours or more per week on your ebook. That’s enough time to write 2,000 words, which means that for a 40,000 word ebook (which would definitely be long enough to count as full-length), you’ll be done with your draft in 20 weeks, or about four and a half months.

If you’re impatient like me, four and a half months might feel like ages. But trust me, if you wait to suddenly have a whole free week to write like the wind ... you’ll still not be finished, months later.

Of course, if you have more time available, by all means use it! If you can find, say, an hour a day for your ebook, you’ll have that 40,000 word draft done in a little over a month.

Bonus tip: If you’re planning ahead for promoting your ebook (e.g. lining up guest posts), don’t forget to allow time for editing and publishing. My rule of thumb is to allow about 2/3rds of the drafting time for this phase – so if it took you 20 weeks to draft your ebook, allow roughly 13 for the editing and publishing.

KEY ACTION:  Commit to a specific “book writing” time: write this down and share it with at least one person (pop it in a comment on this post, if you want).

Step 3: Get Your Book’s Outline Started by Mindmapping

Write a book

Allow 10 – 20 minutes for your initial mindmap.

Perhaps you’ve already got a good sense of what’s going into your book, or maybe you just have a title or topic idea and you don’t know what to include.

Either way, mindmapping is a great way to get started.

Write down your book’s topic in the centre of a sheet of paper, then jot down related ideas around the edge. You can link ideas together, indicate sub-ideas, and so on.

This definitely doesn’t need to be a work of art. Here’s my very quick mindmap for a book idea I’ve been mulling over:

Although you’ll be turning this into a traditional linear outline soon, it’s important to start with a non-linear approach: it helps you get all the ideas out of your head and onto paper without worrying about what order they need to go in, and it can free you up to be more creative.

Note: There are lots of apps available to help you create mindmaps: personally, I like good old pen and paper– no learning curve, and maximum flexibility!

KEY ACTION: Create a mindmap. Don’t wait to feel inspired, just grab a bit of paper – right now, if you can – and get going.

Step #4: Develop Your Ideas into an Outline

You might want to allow a couple of separate sessions for brainstorming: sometimes, new ideas will quietly bubble away in the back of your mind when you’re not actively working, ready to pop out when you return to your mindmap a day or two later.

Once you’ve got plenty of ideas down, you can develop them into a linear outline. I do this by noting on my mindmap which ideas are key ones and which probably won’t – on reflection – fit within this book at all. I figure out a sensible order for the key ones and this forms the start of my outline – often the chapter headings.

Good ways to order your ideas include:

1. From first step to last step. If you’re taking readers through a process, like publishing their ebook on Amazon, it makes sense to start with what they’ll need to do first (e.g. commission a cover design).

2. From easiest to hardest. Some books cover advice that’s more pick-and-mix: ways to develop your freelancing business, for instance. You might start with the easy, quick wins and move on to more complex tips.

3. From A to Z. If your ebook is more like a directory of resources (e.g. reviews of 100 books on writing), and you don’t want to imply any kind of “best” to “worst” ordering, then an alphabetical list can work well.

4. From earliest to latest. Perhaps you’re writing about a historical event or movement; often, it makes sense to order at least some of your chapters chronologically, starting with the earliest point in time and working forward to the latest point (which might be the present day). You might well have a broader overview at the start of the book, though, and a conclusion at the end.

5. In separate parts. If your ebook covers distinct areas within a topic, it might make sense to split it into several parts (at least two, probably not more than five).

Here’s an example of how you might structure an ebook into different parts. I’ve written a full chapter plan for Part One, then the other parts have rough notes about what will be included:

How to Find Time to Write When You Have Kids

Introduction

Part One: What Do You Want to Achieve?

Chapter One: You Don’t Need to Feel Guilty About Wanting to Write

Chapter Two: Setting (Sane) Writing Goals for the Year

Chapter Three: What Are You Willing to Give Up, or Compromise On?

Part Two: Setting a Writing Schedule That You Can Stick To ... And Enjoy

(sample schedules, how little blocks of time add up, where to carve out extra time, sticking to schedule, productivity / procrastination)

Part Three: How Routines Help You Write (And Get Everything Else Done Too)

(routines for your writing sessions or working days, housework checklists, single and multi-tasking where appropriate)

Part Four: Specific Tips for Different Ages and Stages

(from babies to teens; bring in guest writers here with older kids)

For me, this is one of the most exciting stages of writing a book: with a list of chapters, that book feels much closer to becoming real. The next step is simply to start filling in the details.

KEY ACTION: Create at least a high-level overview of your book. You should have a written record of all the major areas that you’ll be covering – and ideally, you’ll have working titles for your individual chapters.

Step #5: Fleshing Out Your Chapters with Key Points

Allow 1 – 2 hours to go through your whole chapter plan. You may want to do this in stages.

For each of your chapters, you’ll probably want between three and five key points (if you’re ending up with more than five, think about splitting it into two chapters; if you have two or only one key points, you might want to merge it with another chapter).

Go through your mindmap and pull out any sub-points into their relevant chapters. If you like, you can also start new mindmaps for each part or each chapter, to help you get ideas down.

If you’re stuck on a particular chapter, wondering what to include, you could:

1. Go through any related posts on your blog. Do any of them spark a new idea?

2. Think about common questions you get from readers. What do they most need to know within this particular chapter?

3. Consider ways to give more advanced information, where relevant: this sometimes fits best into an appendix or on your blog, with a link in the ebook, so that a chapter doesn’t end up becoming really long and unwieldy.

KEY ACTION: Flesh out at least the first three chapters of your book. If you’re really keen to start writing, you don’t necessarily have to do the whole plan at this stage – you can plan ahead a few chapters at a time.

Step #6: Make Writing a Breeze with Your Standard Chapter Template

Allow 15 - 30 minutes to come up with a strong chapter template.

This isn’t something you have to do to write a book – but it will definitely make your life easier, and it guarantees a well-structured, easy to follow book for your reader.

Come up with a “standard chapter template” that you use for all your chapters, unless there’s a good reason not to. (Your introduction and conclusion will likely be a bit different, for instance.)

Here’s a possible chapter template: many non-fiction authors use some variant of this.

  • Chapter title
  • Brief introduction to what you’ll learn in this chapter, possibly in bullet points.
  • Three to five key points, each with a subheading. (This is the bulk of the chapter.)
  • Brief conclusion, summing up what you’ve learned – again, this may use bullet points.
  • Exercises to help you put what you’ve learned into practice.

As you can see, this is very like the standard structure you’d use for a blog post:

  • Title
  • Introduction
  • Main body
  • Conclusion
  • Call to action

So if you’re a blogger, you should find this a natural and hopefully fairly easy way to structure your book.

(In fact, it’s certainly not unheard of for bloggers to construct books that are, essentially, a series of blog posts. Michael Hyatt’s Platform and Darren Rowse’s 31 Days to Build a Better Blog are both edited collections of blog posts.)

Of course, you can get more detailed with your template. You might decide to follow a standard structure for your key points, for instance, perhaps starting each one with a quote, example, or screenshot. You might add a “case study” or “further reading” or other bonus section to each chapter, before the conclusion.

Good news: you’re done with the planning!

Of course, there may well be other planning-related tasks to tackle (perhaps you’ll need to do research for specific chapters) – but you’ve got a strong, solid overview of your whole book and you can start writing.

KEY ACTION: Decide on a basic chapter template. Feel free to use the five-point example above, or come up with one of your own – you might want to look at how the chapters are structured in books that are similar to yours.

Step #7: Tackle Your Writing in a Sensible Order

Allow 15 minutes to decide how best to approach writing your book.

While there’s nothing stopping you creating your chapters piecemeal, adding in bits and pieces of text to your detailed outline until it eventually becomes a finished book, I prefer a more structured way of working.

For most books, it makes sense to:

1. Draft each chapter in turn, starting with Chapter 1 and working forward. It’s usually best to work sequentially as then you can easily refer back to things you’ve already covered – and you can get a sense of flow and progression into your book.

2. Draft the introduction after writing the main bulk of the book. That way, you’ll know exactly what you’re introducing! Quick tip: once you’ve drafted it, try cutting the first paragraph or two – and see if the introduction reads better without them. Most writers (me included) tend to produce some “warm up” text before really getting going.

3. Draft the conclusion last. Make sure you don’t miss this out: it’s easy to end up stopping with your final chapter, but it’s usually a good idea to have some kind of overall wrap-up that offers the reader some sensible next steps. These may well include checking out another book you’ve written, or subscribing to your blog or newsletter.

4. Add any extras after completing the manuscript. These might include an “About the Author” section, a dedication, a page where you thank people who helped with the writing, and so on. You’ll also want to include a Table of Contents – which you can generate automatically in most word processors, if you set up your chapter titles correctly.

Of course, there are other ways you might choose to tackle this. Maybe you want to write the easiest chapters first, to help you overcome your initial resistance to getting started. Or maybe you want to take on the most research-intensive chapters to begin with, so you know that some of the hardest work is out of the way quickly.

It’s up to you. What matters is that you have a sensible plan, so you don’t constantly waste time wondering what the heck to work on next.

KEY ACTION: Decide how you’re going to approach the writing of your book: write down your plan so you can refer back to it as you go along.

Step #8: Staying Focused When You Sit Down to Write

Allow 5 – 10 minutes to decide what you’ll do to improve your focus.

Writing a book is a big, high-resistance task – and lots of us have trouble staying productive. Having set writing times (see Step #2) can help you get past some of the initial resistance to sitting down – it’s book writing time, so you’re going to open the document up and get moving – but you may still find yourself getting distracted.

Procrastination can easily become a habit: if you spend your writing sessions constantly checking Facebook or watching cute cat videos then that’s going to feel like a natural, normal part of writing. You’ll end each session feeling frustrated and disappointed.

There are a lot of different little things you can do to boost your focus, but these are the three that are likely to make the biggest, most immediate difference:

1. Switch off your wifi, or unplug your Ethernet cable, when you’re writing. If you can’t go online at all, you’ve removed a whole bunch of distractions! (Yes, I know you can just switch it back on or plug the cable back in ... but that adds in an extra step, and an extra decision point where you can remind yourself to stay focused.)

2. Work in short timed bursts of 10 – 30 minutes. You might like to try the Pomodoro technique. Tell yourself that you only have to write for X minutes and then you can take a break. I like to set a timer running; some writers find this a bit too pressuring.

3. Reduce external distractions as much as possible. If you’re in a busy coffee shop and you’re distracted by other people’s conversations, wear noise-cancelling headphones and play music to drown out the world. If you’re at home and family members keep interrupting, work in a quieter room.

Of course, there are other ways you might choose to tackle this. Maybe you want to write the easiest chapters first, to help you overcome your initial resistance to getting started. Or maybe you want to take on the most research-intensive chapters to begin with, so you know that some of the hardest work is out of the way quickly.

It’s up to you. What matters is that you have a sensible plan, so you don’t constantly waste time wondering what the heck to work on next.

KEY ACTION: Decide on one thing you will do to boost your focus whenever you’re working on your book. Try to make it something very quick and simple, so you can do it straight away at the start of each writing session – that way, it’ll quickly become a habit. For instance, “switch off wifi” or “set a timer for 15 minutes” or “put my music on”.

Step #9: Knowing How  to Write Each Sentence of Your Book

Allow 15 minutes to jot down key details about your “typical” reader.

Even if your blog posts seem to flow easily onto the screen, you might find yourself feeling stilted and uncomfortable writing your book. Perhaps the writing seems awkward or affected; maybe you’re veering between going into way too much detail on every point and skating over important information.

Often, this is just a case of pushing on with the writing until you find a natural voice and flow – it can take time. To speed up the process, you may find it helps to focus on one specific “typical” reader of your book (perhaps someone you know in real life, perhaps someone who’s commented on your blog). You might hear this called your “ideal reader”, “reader avatar” or “reader persona”.

How would you write it if you were explaining it to them in an email? What would they think about that off-color joke – would it make them laugh or cringe? How much do they already know, and where might they need some extra pointers?

Remember, too, that you’ll be able to come back and edit – so even if your writing is a little rough around the edges at present, keep moving forward!

KEY ACTION: Write down a few key details about your “typical” reader. Ideally, pick an actual person: if that doesn’t work for you, come up with a composite. How much do they already know about your topic area? What sort of tone will they respond best to (encouraging, brash, practical, jokey)?

Step #10: Follow Your Working Schedule (and Get Back On Track When Needed)

Allow 10 minutes to decide how you’ll deal with problems.

Starting a new book can be a bit like starting a new diet: you go at it enthusiastically for a few days ... only to end up slipping back into bad habits. After a few weeks, you give up altogether.

Inevitably, you’ll have bad writing days. You’ll have sessions where you just can’t focus, or when you get interrupted just as you’re getting into flow. You’ll have hectic weeks where life gets in the way.

What’s important is that, after a bad day or week, you get back into writing. Don’t let one blip turn into an excuse to give up altogether.

You might find it helps to:

1. Find ways to protect your writing time. If you’re constantly being interrupted, can you go somewhere else (coffee shop, library, park) to write in peace?

2. Make the most of the time you do have. Even if you can only find 30 minutes this week, use them to the full.

3. Set times for “catch-up” writing sessions if needed. Perhaps you normally write from 6pm – 6.30pm after work, but if that doesn’t happen for some reason, you’ll write first thing on a Saturday morning instead.

4. Take a proper break from writing. If you’re starting to burn out, have a week off. Finishing your book a week later than planned won’t make much difference (unless you’re on a deadline); giving up on your book at all will!

Assume that, at some stage, things will go a bit pear-shaped ... and prepare for it.

KEY ACTION: Decide now what you’ll do if you have a bad week and feel tempted to give up. Take some time off? Talk to a supportive friend? Reconnect with the reason why you wanted to write the book in the first place?

And that’s it! If you follow these steps, you’ll soon have a full first draft of your book.

If you do just one thing from this list this week, make it this one: set a regular time to work on your book. If you can do that, everything else will fall into place: you can go through the plan during your initial working sessions, then get started on the writing.

Further Reading

Once you’ve finished writing your book, check out some of these detailed posts for help with the next stages – editing and publishing:

Eight Simple Tips for Editing Your Own Work (Ali Luke, Write to Done) – even if you’re hiring an editor to help, it’s a good idea to make your book as good as possible first.

5 Ways to Find the Right Freelance Book Editor (Stacey Ennis, JaneFriedman.com) – editing isn’t cheap, and you want to make sure you’ll be working with the right person.

How to Self-Publish An Ebook (Joanna Penn, The Creative Penn) – a hugely in-depth article with loads of helpful links and tips.

How to Self-Publish A Print Book (Joanna Penn, The Creative Penn) – again, lots of great information, and a good look at whether print is worth it or not for you.

About the author

Ali Luke

Ali Luke’s free mini-ebooks Time to Write and The Two-Year Novel are for any writer who wants to fit in some extra writing (and enjoy it more)! You can download them here when you sign up to her weekly email newsletter – which includes writing tips, discounts, and more.

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