How to Write a Book: Everything You Need to Know in 20 Steps

How to write a book image 10So you want to write a book. Becoming an author can change your life—not to mention give you the ability to impact thousands, even millions, of people.

However, writing a book is no cakewalk. As a 21-time New York Times bestselling author, I can tell you: It’s far easier to quit than to finish.

When you run out of ideas, when your own message bores you, or when you become overwhelmed by the sheer scope of the task, you’re going to be tempted give up.

But what if you knew exactly:

  • Where to start…
  • What each step entails…
  • How to overcome fear, procrastination, and writer’s block…
  • And how to keep from feeling overwhelmed?

You can do this—and more quickly than you might think, because these days you have access to more writing tools than ever. The key is to follow a proven, straightforward, step-by-step plan.

My goal here is to offer you that plan.

I’ve used the techniques I outline below to write more than 190 books (including the Left Behind series) over the past 40 years. Yes, I realize averaging over four books per year is more than you may have thought humanly possible. But trust me—with a reliable blueprint, you can get unstuck and finish your book.

This is my personal approach to how to write a book. I’m confident you’ll find something here that can change the game for you. So, let’s jump in.

How to Write a Book From Start to Finish in 20 Steps

  1. Establish your writing space.
  2. Assemble your writing tools.
  3. Break the project into small pieces.
  4. Settle on your BIG idea.
  5. Construct your outline.
  6. Set a firm writing schedule.
  7. Establish a sacred deadline.
  8. Embrace procrastination (really!).
  9. Eliminate distractions.
  10. Conduct your research.
  11. Start calling yourself a writer.
  12. Think reader-first.
  13. Find your writing voice.
  14. Write a compelling opener.
  15. Fill your story with conflict and tension.
  16. Turn off your internal editor while writing the first draft.
  17. Persevere through The Marathon of the Middle.
  18. Write a resounding ending.
  19. Become a ferocious self-editor.
  20. Find a mentor.

Want to save this 20-step guide to read, save, or print whenever you wish? Click here.

Part One: Before You Begin

You’ll never regret—in fact, you’ll thank yourself later—for investing the time necessary to prepare for such a monumental task.

You wouldn’t set out to cut down a huge grove of trees with just an axe. You’d need a chain saw, perhaps more than one. Something to keep them sharp. Enough fuel to keep them running.

You get the picture. Don’t shortcut this foundational part of the process.

1. Establish your writing space.

To write your book, you don’t need a sanctuary. In fact, I started my career on my couch facing a typewriter perched on a plank of wood suspended by two kitchen chairs.

What were you saying about your setup again? We do what we have to do.

And those early days on that sagging couch were among the most productive of my career.

Naturally, the nicer and more comfortable and private you can make your writing lair (I call mine my cave), the better.

(If you dedicate a room solely to your writing, you can even write off a portion of your home mortgage, taxes, and insurance proportionate to that space.)

How to Write a Book Image 1

Real writers can write anywhere.

Some write in restaurants and coffee shops. My first fulltime job was at a newspaper where 40 of us clacked away on manual typewriters in one big room—no cubicles, no partitions, conversations hollered over the din, most of my colleagues smoking, teletype machines clattering.

Cut your writing teeth in an environment like that, and anywhere else seems glorious.

2. Assemble your writing tools.

In the newspaper business there was no time to handwrite our stuff and then type it for the layout guys. So I have always written at a keyboard.

Most authors do, though some handwrite their first drafts and then keyboard them onto a computer or pay someone to do that.

No publisher I know would even consider a typewritten manuscript, let alone one submitted in handwriting.

The publishing industry runs on Microsoft Word, so you’ll need to submit Word document files. Whether you prefer a Mac or a PC, both will produce the kinds of files you need.

And if you’re looking for a musclebound electronic organizing system, you can’t do better than Scrivener. It works well on both PCs and Macs, and it nicely interacts with Word files.

Just remember, Scrivener has a steep learning curve, so familiarize yourself with it before you start writing.

Scrivener users know that taking the time to learn the basics is well worth it.

So, what else do you need?

If you are one who handwrites your first drafts, don’t scrimp on paper, pencils, or erasers.

Don’t shortchange yourself on a computer either. Even if someone else is keyboarding for you, you’ll need a computer for research and for communicating with potential agents, editors, publishers.

Get the best computer you can afford, the latest, the one with the most capacity and speed.

Try to imagine everything you’re going to need in addition to your desk or table, so you can equip yourself in advance and don’t have to keep interrupting your work to find things like:

  • Staplers
  • Paper clips
  • Rulers
  • Pencil holders
  • Pencil sharpeners
  • Note pads
  • Printing paper
  • Paperweight
  • Tape dispensers
  • Cork or bulletin boards
  • Clocks
  • Bookends
  • Reference works
  • Space heaters
  • Fans
  • Lamps
  • Beverage mugs
  • Napkins
  • Tissues
  • You name it

Last, but most crucial, get the best, most ergonomic chair you can afford.

If I were to start my career again with that typewriter on a plank, I would not sit on that couch. I’d grab another straight-backed kitchen chair or something similar and be proactive about my posture and maintaining a healthy spine.

There’s nothing worse than trying to be creative and immerse yourself in writing while you’re in agony. The chair I work in today cost more than my first car!

How to Write a Book Image 2If you’ve never used some of the items I listed above and can’t imagine needing them, fine. But make a list of everything you know you’ll need so when the actual writing begins, you’re already equipped.

As you grow as a writer and actually start making money at it, you can keep upgrading your writing space.

Where I work now is light years from where I started. But the point is, I didn’t wait to start writing until I could have a great spot in which to do it.

3. Break the project into small pieces.

Writing a book feels like a colossal project, because it is! But your manuscript will be made up of many small parts.

An old adage says that the way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.

Try to get your mind off your book as a 400-or-so-page monstrosity.

It can’t be written all at once any more than that proverbial elephant could be eaten in a single sitting.

See your book for what it is: a manuscript made up of sentences, paragraphs, pages. Those pages will begin to add up, and though after a week you may have barely accumulated double digits, a few months down the road you’ll be into your second hundred pages.

So keep it simple.

Start by distilling your big book idea from a page or so to a single sentence—your premise. The more specific that one-sentence premise, the more it will keep you focused while you’re writing.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Before you can turn your big idea into one sentence, which can then be expanded to an outline, you have to settle on exactly what that big idea is.

4. Settle on your BIG idea.

FInding your big idea

To be book-worthy, your idea has to be killer.

You need to write something about which you’re passionate, something that gets you up in the morning, draws you to the keyboard, and keeps you there. It should excite not only you, but also anyone you tell about it.

I can’t overstate the importance of this.

If you’ve tried and failed to finish your book before—maybe more than once—it could be that the basic premise was flawed. Maybe it was worth a blog post or an article but couldn’t carry an entire book.

Think The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, or How to Win Friends and Influence People. The market is crowded, the competition fierce. There’s no more room for run-of-the-mill ideas. Your premise alone should make readers salivate.

Go for the big concept book.

How do you know you’ve got a winner? Does it have legs? In other words, does it stay in your mind, growing and developing every time you think of it?

Run it past loved ones and others you trust.

Does it raise eyebrows? Elicit Wows? Or does it result in awkward silences?

The right concept simply works, and you’ll know it when you land on it. Most importantly, your idea must capture you in such a way that you’re compelled to write it. Otherwise you’ll lose interest halfway through and never finish.

5. Construct your outline.

Starting your writing without a clear vision of where you’re going will usually end in disaster.

Even if you’re writing fiction and consider yourself a Pantser* as opposed to an Outliner, you need at least a basic structure.

[*Those of us who write by the seat of our pants and, as Stephen King advises, put interesting characters in difficult situations and write to find out what happens]

You don’t have to call it an outline if that offends your sensibilities. But fashion some sort of a directional document that provides structure and also serves as a safety net.

If you get out on that Pantser highwire and lose your balance, you’ll thank me for advising you to have this in place.

Now if you’re writing a nonfiction book, there’s no substitute for an outline.

Potential agents or publishers require this in your proposal. They want to know where you’re going, and they want to know that you know. What do you want your reader to learn from your book, and how will you ensure they learn it?

Fiction or nonfiction, if you commonly lose interest in your book somewhere in what I call the Marathon of the Middle, you likely didn’t start with enough exciting ideas.

That’s why and outline (or a basic framework) is essential. Don’t even start writing until you’re confident your structure will hold up through the end.

You may recognize this novel structure illustration.

Did you know it holds up—with only slight adaptations—for nonfiction books too? It’s self-explanatory for novelists; they list their plot twists and developments and arrange them in an order that best serves to increase tension.

What separates great nonfiction from mediocre? The same structure!

Arrange your points and evidence in the same way so you’re setting your reader up for a huge payoff, and then make sure you deliver.

If your nonfiction book is a memoir, an autobiography, or a biography, structure it like a novel and you can’t go wrong.

But even if it’s a straightforward how-to book, stay as close to this structure as possible, and you’ll see your manuscript come alive.

Make promises early, triggering your reader to anticipate fresh ideas, secrets, inside information, something major that will make him thrilled with the finished product.

How to write a book - graphWhile you may not have as much action or dialogue or character development as your novelist counterpart, your crises and tension can come from showing where people have failed before and how you’re going to ensure your reader will succeed.

You can even make the how-to project look impossible until you pay off that setup with your unique solution.

Keep your outline to a single page for now. But make sure every major point is represented, so you’ll always know where you’re going.

And don’t worry if you’ve forgotten the basics of classic outlining or have never felt comfortable with the concept.

Your outline must serve you. If that means Roman numerals and capital and lowercase letters and then Arabic numerals, you can certainly fashion it that way. But if you just want a list of sentences that synopsize your idea, that’s fine too.

Simply start with your working title, then your premise, then—for fiction, list all the major scenes that fit into the rough structure above.

For nonfiction, try to come up with chapter titles and a sentence or two of what each chapter will cover.

Once you have your one-page outline, remember it is a fluid document meant to serve you and your book. Expand it, change it, play with it as you see fit—even during the writing process.

6.Set a firm writing schedule.

Ideally, you want to schedule at least six hours per week to write.

That may consist of three sessions of two hours each, two sessions of three hours, or six one-hour sessions—whatever works for you.

I recommend a regular pattern (same times, same days) that can most easily  become a habit. But if that’s impossible, just make sure you carve out at least six hours so you can see real progress.

Having trouble finding the time to write a book? News flash—you won’t find the time. You have to make it.

I used the phrase carve out above for a reason. That’s what it takes.

Something in your calendar will likely have to be sacrificed in the interest of writing time. Make sure it’s not your family—they should always be your top priority. Never sacrifice your family on the altar of your writing career.

But beyond that, the truth is that we all find time for what we really want to do.

Many writers insist they have no time to write, but they always seem to catch the latest Netflix original series, or go to the next big Hollywood feature. They enjoy concerts, parties, ball games, whatever.

Man staring at screen

How important is it to you to finally write your book? What will you cut from your calendar each week to ensure you give it the time it deserves?

  • A favorite TV show?
  • An hour of sleep per night? (Be careful with this one; rest is crucial to a writer.)
  • A movie?
  • A concert?
  • A party?

Successful writers make time to write.

When writing becomes a habit, you’ll be on your way.

7. Establish a sacred deadline.

Without deadlines, I rarely get anything done. I need that motivation.

Admittedly, my deadlines are now established in my contracts from publishers.

If you’re writing your first book, you probably don’t have a contract yet. To ensure you finish your book, set your own deadline—then consider it sacred.

Tell your spouse or loved one or trusted friend. Ask that they hold you accountable.

Now determine—and enter in your calendar—the number of pages you need to produce per writing session to meet your deadline. If it proves unrealistic, change the deadline now.

If you have no idea how many pages or words you typically produce per session, you may have to experiment before you finalize those figures.

Say you want to finish a 400-page manuscript by this time next year.

Divide 400 by 50 weeks (accounting for two off-weeks), and you get eight pages per week. Divide that by your typical number of writing sessions per week and you’ll know how many pages you should finish per session.

Now is the time to adjust these numbers,while setting your deadline and determining your pages per session.

Maybe you’d rather schedule four off weeks over the next year. Or you know your book will be unusually long.

Change the numbers to make it realistic and doable, and then lock it in. Remember, your deadline is sacred.

8. Embrace procrastination (really!).

Embracing procrastination

You read that right. Don’t fight it; embrace it.

You wouldn’t guess it from my 190+ published books, but I’m the king of procrastinators.


Don’t be. So many authors are procrastinators that I’ve come to wonder if it’s a prerequisite.

The secret is to accept it and, in fact, schedule it.

I quit fretting and losing sleep over procrastinating when I realized it was inevitable and predictable, and also that it was productive.

Sound like rationalization?

Maybe it was at first. But I learned that while I’m putting off the writing, my subconscious is working on my book. It’s a part of the process. When you do start writing again, you’ll enjoy the surprises your subconscious reveals to you.

So, knowing procrastination is coming, book it on your calendar.

Take it into account when you’re determining your page quotas. If you have to go back in and increase the number of pages you need to produce per session, do that (I still do it all the time).

But—and here’s the key—you must never let things get to where that number of pages per day exceeds your capacity.

It’s one thing to ratchet up your output from two pages per session to three. But if you let it get out of hand, you’ve violated the sacredness of your deadline.

How can I procrastinate and still meet more than 190 deadlines?

Because I keep the deadlines sacred.

9. Eliminate distractions to stay focused.

Are you as easily distracted as I am?

Have you found yourself writing a sentence and then checking your email? Writing another and checking Facebook? Getting caught up in the come-ons for pictures of the 10 Sea Monsters You Wouldn’t Believe Actually Exist?

write your book - sea monster

Then you just have to check out that precious video from a talk show where the dad surprises the family by returning from the war.

That leads to more and more of the same. Once I’m in, my writing is forgotten, and all of a sudden the day has gotten away from me.

The answer to these insidious timewasters?

Look into these apps that allow you to block your email, social media, browsers, game apps, whatever you wish during the hours you want to write. Some carry a modest fee, others are free.

10. Conduct your research.

Yes, research is a vital part of the process, whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction.

Fiction means more than just making up a story.

Your details and logic and technical and historical details must be right for your novel to be believable.

And for nonfiction, even if you’re writing about a subject in which you’re an expert—as I’m doing here—you’ll be surprised how ensuring you get all the facts right will polish your finished product.

In fact, you’d be surprised at how many times I’ve researched a fact or two while writing this blog post alone.

The importance of research when writing

The last thing you want is even a small mistake due to your lack of proper research.

Regardless the detail, trust me, you’ll hear from readers about it.

Your credibility as an author and an expert hinges on creating trust with your reader. That  dissolves in a hurry if you commit an error.

My favorite research resources are:

  • World Almanacs: These alone list almost everything you need for accurate prose: facts, data, government information, and more. For my novels, I often use these to come up with ethnically accurate character names.
  • The Merriam-Webster Thesaurus: The online version is great, because it’s lightning fast. You couldn’t turn the pages of a hard copy as quickly as you can get where you want to onscreen. One caution: Never let it be obvious you’ve consulted a thesaurus. You’re not looking for the exotic word that jumps off the page. You’re looking for that common word that’s on the tip of your tongue.
  • Here you’ll find nearly limitless information about any continent, country, region, city, town, or village. Names, monetary units, weather patterns, tourism info, and even facts you wouldn’t have thought to search for. I get ideas when I’m digging here, for both my novels and my nonfiction books.

11. Start calling yourself a writer.

Your inner voice may tell you, “You’re no writer and you never will be. What do you think you’re doing, trying to write a book?

That may be why you’ve stalled at writing your book in the past.

But if you’re working at writing, studying writing, practicing writing, that makes you a writer. Don’t wait till you reach some artificial level of accomplishment before calling yourself a writer.

A cop in uniform and on duty is a cop whether he’s actively enforced the law yet or not. A carpenter is a carpenter whether he’s ever built a house.

Self-identify as a writer now and you’ll silence that inner critic—who, of course, is really you. Talk back to yourself if you must. It may sound silly, but acknowledging yourself as a writer can give you the confidence to keep going and finish your book.

Are you a writer? Say so.

Part Two: The Writing Itself

12. Think reader-first.

This is so important that that you should write it on a sticky note and affix it to your monitor so you’re reminded of it every time you write.

Every decision you make about your manuscript must be run through this filter.

Not you-first, not book-first, not editor-, agent-, or publisher-first. Certainly not your inner circle- or critics-first.

Reader-first, last, and always.

Thinking reader first when writing

If every decision is based on the idea of reader-first, all those others benefit anyway.

When fans tell me they were moved by one of my books, I think back to this adage and am grateful I maintained that posture during the writing.

Does a scene bore you? If you’re thinking reader-first, it gets overhauled or deleted.

Where to go, what to say, what to write next? Decide based on the reader as your priority.

Whatever your gut tells you your reader would prefer, that’s your answer.

Whatever will intrigue him, move him, keep him reading, those are your marching orders.

So, naturally, you need to know your reader. Rough age? General interests? Loves? Hates? Attention span?

When in doubt, look in the mirror. The surest way to please your reader is to please yourself. Write what you would want to read and trust there is a broad readership out there that agrees.

13. Find your writing voice.

Discovering your voice is nowhere near as complicated as some make it out to be.

You can find yours by answering these quick questions:

  1. What’s the coolest thing that ever happened to you?
  2. Who’s the most important person you told about it?
  3. What did you sound like when you did?

That’s your writing voice. It should read the way you sound at your most engaged.

That’s all there is to it.

If you write fiction and the narrator of your book isn’t you, go through the three-question exercise on the narrator’s behalf—and you’ll quickly master the voice.

Here’s a blog I posted that’ll walk you through the process.

14. Write a compelling opener.

If you’re stuck because of the pressure of crafting the perfect opening line, you’re not alone.

And neither is your angst misplaced.

This is not something you should put off and come back to once you’ve started on the rest of the first chapter.

How to Write a Book Image 5Oh, it can still change if the story dictates that. But settling on a good one will really get you off and running.

It’s unlikely you’ll write a more important sentence than your first one, whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction. Make sure you’re thrilled with it and then watch how your confidence—and momentum—soars.

Most great first lines fall into one of these categories:

  1. Surprising

Fiction: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” —George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

Nonfiction: “By the time Eustace Conway was seven years old, he could throw a knife accurately enough to nail a chipmunk to a tree.” —Elizabeth Gilbert, The Last American Man

  1. Dramatic Statement

Fiction: “They shoot the white girl first.” —Toni Morrison, Paradise

Nonfiction: “I was five years old the first time I ever set foot in prison.” —Jimmy Santiago Baca, A Place to Stand

  1. Philosophical

Fiction: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” —Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Nonfiction: “It’s not about you.” —Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life

  1. Poetic

Fiction: “When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon. —James Crumley, The Last Good Kiss

Nonfiction: “The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there.’” —Truman Capote, In Cold Blood

Great opening lines from other classics may give you ideas for yours. Here’s a list of famous openers.

15. Fill your story with conflict and tension.

Your reader craves conflict, and yes, this applies to nonfiction readers as well.

How to Write a Book - Image 6In a novel, if everything is going well and everyone is agreeing, your reader will soon lose interest and find something else to do—like watch paint dry.

Are two of your characters talking at the dinner table? Have one say something that makes the other storm out.

Some deep-seeded rift in their relationship has surfaced. Is it just a  misunderstanding that has snowballed into an injustice?

Thrust people into conflict with each other. That’ll keep your reader’s attention.

Certain nonfiction genres won’t lend themselves to that kind of conflict, of course, but you can still inject tension by setting up your reader for a payoff in later chapters. Check out some of the current bestselling nonfiction works to see how writers accomplish this.

Somehow they keep you turning those pages, even in a simple how-to title.

Tension is the secret sauce that will propel your reader through to the end. And sometimes that’s as simple as implying something to come.

16. Turn off your internal editor while writing the first draft.

Many of us are perfectionists and find it hard to get a first draft written—fiction or nonfiction—without feeling compelled to make every sentence exactly the way we want it.

That voice in your head that questions every word, every phrase, every sentence, and makes you worry you’re being redundant or have allowed cliches to creep in—well, that’s just your editor alter ego.

He or she needs to be told to shut up.

Turning off your inner self-editor

This is not easy.

Deep as I am into a long career, I still have to remind myself of this every writing day. I cannot be both creator and editor at the same time. That slows me to a crawl, and my first draft of even one brief chapter could take days.

Our job when writing that first draft is to get down the story or the message or the teaching—depending on your genre.

It helps me to view that rough draft as a slab of meat I will carve tomorrow.

I can’t both produce that hunk and trim it at the same time.

A cliche, a redundancy, a hackneyed phrase comes tumbling out of my keyboard, and I start wondering whether I’ve forgotten to engage the reader’s senses or aimed for his emotions.

That’s when I have to chastise myself and say, “No! Don’t worry about that now! First thing tomorrow you get to tear this thing up and put it back together again to your heart’s content!”

Imagine yourself wearing different hats for different tasks, if that helps—whatever works to keep you rolling on that rough draft. You don’t need to show it to your worst enemy or even your dearest love. This chore is about creating. Don’t let anything slow you down.

Some like to write their entire first draft before attacking the revision. As I say, whatever works.

Doing it that way would make me worry I’ve missed something major early that will cause a complete rewrite when I discover it months later. I alternate creating and revising.

The first thing I do every morning is a heavy edit and rewrite of whatever I wrote the day before. If that’s ten pages, so be it. I put my perfectionist hat on and grab my paring knife and trim that slab of meat until I’m happy with every word.

Then I switch hats, tell Perfectionist Me to take the rest of the day off, and I start producing rough pages again.

So, for me, when I’ve finished the entire first draft, it’s actually a second draft because I have already revised and polished it in chunks every day.

THEN I go back through the entire manuscript one more time, scouring it for anything I missed or omitted, being sure to engage the reader’s senses and heart, and making sure the whole thing holds together.

I do not submit anything I’m not entirely thrilled with.

I know there’s still an editing process it will will go through at the publisher, but my goal is to make my manuscript the absolute best I can before they see it.

Compartmentalize your writing vs. your revising and you’ll find that frees you to create much more quickly.

17. Persevere through The Marathon of the Middle.

How to Write a Book - marathonMost who fail at writing a book tell me they give up somewhere in what I like to call The Marathon of the Middle.

That’s a particularly rough stretch for novelists who have a great concept, a stunning opener, and they can’t wait to get to the dramatic ending. But they bail when they realize they don’t have enough cool stuff to fill the middle.

They start padding, trying to add scenes just for the sake of bulk, but they’re soon bored and know readers will be too.

This actually happens to nonfiction writers too.

The solution there is in the outlining stage, being sure your middle points and chapters are every bit as valuable and magnetic as the first and last.

If you strategize the progression of your points or steps in a process—depending on nonfiction genre—you should be able to eliminate the strain in the middle chapters.

For novelists, know that every book becomes a challenge a few chapters in. The shine wears off, keeping the pace and tension gets harder, and it’s easy to run out of steam.

But that’s not the time to quit. Force yourself back to your structure, come up with a subplot if necessary, but do whatever you need to so your reader stays engaged.

Fiction writer or nonfiction author, The Marathon of the Middle is when you must remember why you started this journey in the first place.

It isn’t just that you want to be an author. You have something to say. You want to reach the masses with your message.

Yes, it’s hard. It still is for me—every time. But don’t panic or do anything rash, like surrendering. Embrace the challenge of the middle as part of the process. If it were easy, anyone could do it.

18. Write a resounding ending.

This is just as important for your nonfiction book as your novel. It may not be as dramatic or emotional, but it could be—especially if you’re writing a memoir.

But even a how-to or self-help book needs to close with a resounding thud, the way a Broadway theater curtain meets the floor.

How do you ensure your ending doesn’t fizzle?

  • Don’t rush it. Give readers the payoff they’ve been promised. They’ve invested in you and your book the whole way. Take the time to make it satisfying.
  • Never settle for close enough just because you’re eager to be finished. Wait till you’re thrilled with every word, and keep revising until you are.
  • If it’s unpredictable, it had better be fair and logical so your reader doesn’t feel cheated. You want him to be delighted with the surprise, not tricked.
  • If you have multiple ideas for how your book should end, go for the heart rather than the head, even in nonfiction. Readers most remember what moves them.

Part Three: All Writing Is Rewriting

19. Become a ferocious self-editor.

Agents and editors can tell within the first two pages whether your manuscript is worthy of further consideration. That sounds unfair, and maybe it is. But it’s also reality, so we writers need to face it.

How to Write a Book - Image 8How can they often decide that quickly on something you’ve devoted months, maybe years, to?

Because they can almost immediately envision how much editing would be required to make those first couple of pages publishable. If they decide the investment wouldn’t make economic sense for a 300-400-page manuscript, end of story.

Your best bet to keep an agent or editor reading your manuscript?

You must become a ferocious self-editor. That means:

  • Omit needless words
  • Choose the simple word over one that requires a dictionary
  • Avoid subtle redundancies, like “He thought in his mind…” (Where else would someone think?)
  • Avoid hedging verbs like almost frowned, sort of jumped, etc.
  • Generally remove the word that—use it only when absolutely necessary for clarity
  • Give the reader credit and resist the urge to explain, as in, “She walked through the open door.” (Did we need to be told it was open?)
  • Avoid too much stage direction (what every character is doing with every limb and digit)
  • Avoid excessive adjectives
  • Show, don’t tell
  • And many more

For my full list and how to use them, click here. (It’s free.)

When do you know you’re finished revising? When you’ve gone from making your writing better to merely making it different. That’s not always easy to determine, but it’s what makes you an author. 

And Finally, the Quickest Way to Succeed…

20. Find a mentor.

Get help from someone who’s been where you want to be.

Imagine engaging a mentor who can help you sidestep all the amateur pitfalls and shave years of painful trial-and-error off your learning curve.

Just make sure it’s someone who really knows the writing and publishing world. Many masquerade as mentors and coaches but have never really succeeded themselves.

Look for someone widely-published who knows how to work with agents, editors, and publishers.

There are many helpful mentors online. I teach writers through this free site, as well as in my members-only Writers Guild.

Want to save this definitive guide to read later? Click here or below to download a handy PDF version:
write a book download

Struggling with knowing how to write a book? Tell me in the comments and feel free to ask questions.

Related Posts:

How to Write a Memoir: A 3-Step Guide

How to Write a Short Story That Captivates Your Reader

How to Become an Author: Your Complete Guide

  • Thanks for sharing this valuable information! I know my writing has improved using your suggestions, methods, and editing techniques. (I was quite surprised how many that’s and subtle redundancies I found in my writing!) I have sent links to people I know who need help with their writing. However, when I read another one of their story chapters there is no improvement in their writing style. I guess maybe they don’t have the time to read something that could help them.

    • Thanks for trying, Laura. It’s true there are those who seem never to learn or improve. But it’s worth finding the ones who will.

  • Rebecca Hricko

    This was very timely, thank you so much! I am finally taking my brother-in-law’s challenge to write a short devotional book about gardening and the life lessons God has taught me through it. This is a crazy amount of information all in one place, and I love it!

    • I need to put that on my business card, Rebecca: Crazy and all in one place. :)

      • Rebecca Hricko

        Happy to be of service :)

  • Shared it! So thanks from my soon-to-be happy friends!

  • Glenda

    Hi, Jerry. :) I’m finding that although:
    1) I’m following an established outline
    2) The passion persists
    3) The duet between my exceptional editor and me resounds with high notes
    4) Nine/Thirteen chapters completed

    The blank page of every first chapter often terrifies me. It never gets easier.

    Any advice on how to keep the fingers dancing on the keyboard?

    Thank you!

    • Sure. Read your own points 1 through 4 above.

      • Glenda

        5) Keep reading blog
        6) Mine the vast resources offered on the Jerry Jenkins Writer’s Guild
        7) Stay plugged in with fellow writers

        Tack, tack, tack! (Swedish)


  • Kato Nkhoma

    Thank you very much! Just got the guide and browsed through it. This is a very in depth guide that will change many of our lives and ultimately the world; after all, the pen is mightier than the sword!

    Thanks Jerry.

  • C.G Souche

    Thank you!

  • Wendy Pearson

    Great info and resources. Many thanks, Jerry!

  • nb

    Great information, Jerry, thank you again. I have a question a bit outside this subject I was wondering if you could answer. 2 actually!! Does an editor only edit the grammatical, punctuation, etc. mistakes OR does an editor also advise a writer to rearrange, eliminate, add more, etc. to the manuscript? I am paying an editor quite a lot of money every time I send 120 pages, but sometimes feel like it’s an awful lot for what I’m getting. Also, I am getting close to the end of my first novel. Geez!!! What do I do now???? It feels like graduating from college after being safe & in school for 12 years. It’s getting time to go out into the real world. Thanks for any help, Jerry.

    • It depends on your agreement with the editor. You can arrange and pay for only the line editing (the first of what you list above), or you can ask for what we call substantive editing (the latter of what you listed). If you’re paying a lot, you want the whole package.

  • Ken Hartley

    Thanks for releasing this, Jerry. I’ve shared it as well. Great information!

  • Jessica Wynn

    Thank you!

  • Cork Hutson

    Thank you, sir. Excellent guide. Probably what hit me the most is “Carving out the time”. Other writers have said that is what they struggle with the most as well. I do read the blog posts you send out regularly. Thanks for taking the time at this stage in your life to help mentor others who want to write full time. I don’t post a lot of comments, but all is much appreciated.

  • Karen Crider

    Such great advice here. Some I stumbled upon years ago. The main thing I have not encountered yet, is the mentor part. It seems I have mentored others more times than I can count. And that is good. Because I know when I help others, I am helping myself. When I think about that, I realize that is like a second helping. ( I see everything in relation to food.) But the best part about those second helpings in writing, is that it’s non caloric. And I can partake as much as I want. It’s the best way to pig out.

    • Good, Karen. I see everything in relation to food too. In fact, I’ll be right back…

  • brownin329

    Um…many people write their books differently. There’s no one way to write a book. Figure out what works for you and do that.

  • Michelle

    Thanks for this information! It’s been a very useful tool in helping me to become more organized. I love the part about embracing procrastination. I always feel so guilty for putting it off, but sometimes I sit down and can’t think of anything to write, so I go clean up my kitchen, and half way through, I will think of several things to add to it.

  • Barbara Frazier Fairchild Rebe

    Thanks, appreciate this – I get bogged down whenever I try to write my story, this should be a big help. I have shared it on Facebook.

  • GeorgeAnn Dingus

    Shared it! Doable and helpful! Thanks Jerry!

  • Hope Nwosu

    Exactly what I need at this stage in my career!
    With a manuscript revised many times already and I’m still not satisfied. It’s easier to give up yet I’m determined to succeed, and become the writer I’ve always dreamed of.

    Thank you Jerry for this motivation.

    • Thanks, Hope!

    • Karen Crider

      In reply to your comment, how you relate everything through food… I believe a growling stomach scares off creativity. Feed the appetite, and good writing follows. It rises like the cream–or is that ice cream? Thanks.

  • marissa

    What is considered the middle of a novel? Is it the final climax? Would you consider outlining writing as well? I am currently struggling to outline a novel, and I have plenty of days where I either don’t have anything to come up with, or I don’t feel like writing. Sometimes its a combination of both. I am aspiring writer who wants to get published traditionally, do deadlines apply to those who have never been published before?

    • “What is considered the middle of a novel?” Roughly the middle two-thirds.

      “Is it the final climax?” No, that would be the end.

      “Would you consider outlining writing as well?” Sure. It’s all part of the work, and a good thing to do when not actually composing the story.

      “I am aspiring writer who wants to get published traditionally…” I applaud that. Anybody can pay to be printed; you’re aiming to be paid to be published.

      “Do deadlines apply to those who have never been published before?” Yes, but naturally they’re self-imposed. That’s why you want to tell someone your deadline and ask them to help keep you accountable.

  • Nadine Pickering

    Thanks for sharing. Much appreciated

  • tassajoh

    This is an anatomy for writing practice, thanks

  • Rosemarie H

    I LOVE this! Thank you!!

  • 4 Season’s Farm

    Thanks so much for this. I will practice this and see where it leads me. I have already started my book, but I have failed to discipline myself to writing on a consistent basis. That will change.

  • Vallerie Sharmain Smit

    a Word of appreciation for all your writings, Jerry.
    With the grace of God, I am a writer, covered with His mercy and love. Now, I can go write my first book…

  • Passion With Pen


    My only problem now is how to create tension and how to make sure that the story will keep on going in the part where Marathon of the Middle. Still need to practice in creating tension.

    I’m really glad to follow this blog. So many helpful tips, and motivating thoughts from a seasoned writer!

    Salute Jerry!

    • Tension is not as complicated as you may think. Sure, certain genres have stories that necessarily increase tension, or should. But even a simple set up and payoff in a paragraph depends on the tension provided by the set up. For instance, if I told you that at the end of this paragraph I was going to urge you to do something outside your comfort zone for the sake of your training, I’m guessing you’d stay with me to see what that is. Until you get to it, I’ve injected tension into our interchange. And now I’m going to pay it off: If at all possible, write at an entirely different time of day than you’re used to or that even feels right to you. See if it makes you more creative. If it doesn’t, find the perfect writing time for your inner rhythm.

  • 4 Season’s Farm

    Sometimes I get stuck in the middle of my book and all I can think about is the end. Do you ever write the end first and work backwards? Just curious if it’s just me or can this actually be a good practice for some?

    • You bet! If you haven’t heard me express this, you likely will many times in the future: the best practice is to do what works best for you.

      • 4 Season’s Farm

        Thanks for the comment. Encouraging to know I am free to find my writing style and my comfort zone. God Bless.

  • Nathaniel Bivan

    Lord, this is timely! God bless you, sir.

  • Glenda

    Hi, Jerry! Thanks for this repeat/refresher post. I’ve shared it on my FB page, told a couple of new friends (who are aspiring authors) all about it, and downloaded it, too.

    Time to read it again, then!

    In the course of reading my growing library of your 190 books, your blog posts, and gleaning wisdom you share on videos,I’ve found you to possess a blend of humility, wit, and confidence.

    [Btw-your Writer’s Guild offers outstanding content and a writing community like no other!

    And the staff you’ve recruited? Super, fantastic, exceeding expectations, and at times precocious! :) ]

    So, my question:

    Aside from preparing to l-i-s-t-e-n, what would you say is the best way to prepare for my first conference in August? (Tell me everything? Laughing.)

  • Gary Mabry

    Sweet! Question ? Is it wrong or bad idea to keep it a secret that your writing a book ( your first ever) . And dang it , how do these televangelist write books when there on tv so much , traveling,interviews,workshops,guest speaking,etc . And yet publish many books and thick ones at that . Seriously , someone(s) has to writing the major fill – fill in’s- from their outline /notes . However , I do have all these ideas in my brain that’s ready to be unleashed- that at times I think I could write my book in
    a week -a short 300 pages – that would be a best seller and a movie. – I’m biting my tongue in revealing my title -afraid it would be stolen . – which leads to copywriter laws . I want to seal my title . How do I do that ? My bad . I’m a Chem Instructor ( Heisenburg Breaking Bad Rocks- cause its Chemistry that makes things happen!) – not a English instructor. Ugh . Please forgive . Oh well, maybe someday .. Just to busy – kids, family ,job, church . Meanwhile, guess I can start a new journal with – ( the story to be told ) ! Much love !

  • Robert Murphy

    Thanks for the guide, those are great reminders to help keep me on track. Like they say, knowing the problem is half the solution and your guide helps me realize where my problems are, and how to work around them. With summer approaching, training my four dogs and maintaining four acres, plus my service commitments, it’s a busy time and so I’ve had to reschedule my writing. One thing that’s done is force me to procrastinate, which has led to better ideas. Now that I’m on my “final” draft, I’ve been reading out loud to myself which has been a real help.

  • Liesbet

    This is an excellent article with great advice. I bookmarked it for future reference, when I get stuck and demotivated writing my memoir. It all makes sense, but is easier read than done. :-) Coming up with enough content is not the issue after living an alternative lifestyle of international camper and sailboat travel for a decade, while starting a business in the Caribbean and crossing the Pacific Ocean, living 24/7 in a very small and bouncy living space with a partner, who was diagnosed with cancer in Tahiti. Writing a short synopsis and one line blurb proves to be harder. :-) And, sticking to a certain theme, focusing and building up from the premise.

    Liesbet @ Roaming About – A Life Less Ordinary

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      You’re right, Liesbet, it’s much easier to write longer than short, isn’t it? But you can do this.

  • ☀️BeckHart Branding☀

    Stripped of everything but her chipped toenail polish, Sari stood naked and shivering in the damp shower room, staring at the floor.

  • Sherry Eyssen

    Thank you so much for this very encouraging and timely guide! For several years I wrote a weekly blog that aired on Moody Radio Cleveland and was challenged by the young man I recorded with to consider expanding the talents God has given. He was the one that directed me to your site and I am so glad he did. After the loss of employment last April, I took his words to heart and started a website for the sole purpose of applying Biblical truth to everyday life. This unexpected journey has been unfolding and I am currently working on my first book. Your advice is helping measure where I am on track and where I need to adjust. Thank you for investing in the efforts of aspiring writers.

  • Lia Martin

    The closer I get to my goal, the more I struggle. I find my ideas stale and dull. Where did my imagination wander off to?

  • Gungun Upadhyay

    want to write a book and i title ‘A LIEAR’ but dont know how to begin this novel want your help

    • Hi Gungun! Dean from Jerry’s Team, here!

      Jerry’s not able to help folks individually, but please do make use of his countless blog posts and other free resources like this one, or if you can make the investment his wonderful standalone courses are available by clicking on “Courses” on his website

      We wish you the best with your writing!

  • BrandonDuncan

    Another good gift from above, an answer to a man of fire to share, thank you for making this available to all of us and I pray that God continues using you to impact and effect others for His mighty works.

  • An excellent, in-depth post, Jerry – useful for fiction and non-fiction writers alike. I’ll share this through my networks and have linked to it at

  • louis martinez

    I have written a book. I have made every mistake possible. It deals about the miracles in my life and struggles. It started as a simple outline and became 40 short chapters. It has taken 2 years to write and it has a good message, but it needs editing and better flow. I have promised God any money should the book succeed. A professional writer from church agreed to edit the book….and changed his mind. A professional editor agreed to edit the book and have not heard from her . I do not want to use a vanity publishing house, they are unaffordable. I know nothing of agents and know it is not clean enough…I know the book could help others… but feel I need a chance. Any ideas?

  • Timur Chekovich

    I appreciate the time you divided for us. Very useful advice and every writer at least should try to make the proposed steps. Thanks a lot.