How to Write a Book: The Secret to a Super-Fast First Draft
Hey, everyone! This post is a trial run of a new blog post format, and we’re using a video guide I created in 2015 on how to write the first draft of your book to test it out. Basically, I want to make it as easy as possible for you to digest, enjoy, and benefit from the content I produce—and my videos in particular!
I’d love to hear if you find this new format useful. Please let me know your thoughts and feedback in the comments!
If you’d prefer to watch the video version of this blog post on YouTube instead, click here.
Book writing is something that used to be a constant struggle for me. Read on to learn about the process I used to write over 36,000 words in the first two weeks of 2015—and that I’ve been using ever since with great success. I’m also going to give you one tool that is saving me so much time and helping me achieve up to 180 words per minute.
A book is such a huge undertaking. It’s really funny, because I can write a blog post—3,000 or 4,000 words—in just a few hours, but when it comes to writing a book, I struggle a lot. That’s why I have a couple unwritten books just sitting on my computer, in Scrivener, which is the tool I use to help write books. It’s a great tool—the reason those books weren’t finished was because I just couldn’t do it.
I remember sitting for hours. I would block out four or five hours of time during the day, just sit in front of my computer and finish my book or work on it at least, and come out of that with an extra 300 words for four hours of work. It was completely defeating—and I know a lot of you can relate to this. I know a lot of you also, like me, feel you have a book in you—maybe even many books in you. So I’m going to show you a book-writing technique that has changed my life in terms of productivity. I used it to write my book Will It Fly?, and within the first couple of weeks of 2015, I was able to crank out 36,000 words.
Using Post-it Notes to “Brain-Dump” Your Book’s Topics
I’ve adopted this technique from a lot of other people’s strategies and tips for writing books, and it’s involving something that a lot of other people have used before: Post-it Notes. I love Post-it Notes, because you can write on them and move them around. They’re small, but not so small that you have to squint to see them. So they’re perfect. I’m going to show you how to mind-map your next book using Post-it Notes, and how you can achieve incredible words per minute in terms of the rate at which you write your book.
I’ll also show you some tools I’ve been using along with my Post-it Notes, as well as some special things you can do in terms of where your Post-it Notes are that’ll help you crank out books like none other.
The first step is to get some Post-it Notes. Make sure to get a bunch of different colors. I like the smaller ones, because you’re just going to write one or two words on them. Then you want to pick a color—I’ll start with neon green—and just start writing. Just start with anything that comes to mind involving the book that you’re going to write, put it down, and stick it to the surface that you’re working on, whether it’s a desk or a whiteboard or some other surface.
To demonstrate this, I’m going to pick a topic. Something I always talk about on the blog is fly fishing, and it’s something I know a little bit about. Using the example of fly fishing, I’ll show you how I can start to put together my hypothetical book. You’ll see that once you start to put all your ideas onto this board that you’re working on with these Post-it Notes, you can move things around. Then the chapters and subchapters start to form, which will help create what becomes your outline. The next step is to take bits and pieces of that outline and move them to a place where you can then focus on those little bits and pieces. That’s why I love Post-it Notes, because you can move them around into different places.
So, fly fishing. I’m first going to pick a color and place it in the middle to label my central idea. I’m going to pick a pink note and write “fly fishing” on it. With this process, you write anything that comes to mind; there are no rules here. You can always throw things out, but you don’t want to stop yourself. This is the creative process. You don’t want to edit in your head. You just want to put things out there, and later on you can edit.
I’ve got “fly fishing.” Next, what is involved with fly fishing? There’s obviously “fish,” “flies,” and “rods.” There’s “casting techniques” and “reels.”
Again, write down anything that comes to mind. You want to put the stuff that’s in your brain down on paper, because then you won’t have to think about it anymore. You can focus on organizing it later, but we’re not at that part yet. What else? “Lake fishing” or “lake fly fishing.” There’s “rivers and streams,” and there’s “oceans.” Let’s see, what else? There’s “tying flies” and “tournaments.”
What else comes to mind? “How to dry things off after you’re done” . . . which is “equipment!” Good! I like that. Maybe “clothing,” too, because we’ve talked about “rods” and “reels” already. Also, different types of fish I know are popular, so “trout fishing” and “bass fishing.” I know a little about fly fishing, but I’m not a fly fisherman. You’ll obviously know a little bit more about the topic you’re working on, so you should be able to fill up your work surface pretty easily. When I was writing my last book, the table was completely filled with notes.
“Fly fishing”: what else?
Let’s see, “fly fishing for kids,” and maybe “destination areas.” You also need “boots.” You need “safety.” You need a “license,” typically, too. You need a “net,” of course, and need to know how to “catch and release.” By the way, I’m using a different color—green—now.
There’s also “etiquette.” What else is there? “Snacks” that you should bring. Obviously, there’s “where” in the lake—i.e., where in the water should you go?
I probably shouldn’t be doing this on fly fishing, and I’m not going to be publishing a book on fly fishing any time soon, but you’ll get what I’m doing here shortly.
What else? “Fish finders,” “wading boots,” maybe “boats.” “Boats,” “floats”—I feel like I’m doing a word game right now with my son or something. What rhymes with “floats”? “Coats,” “jackets.” Again, anything that comes to mind.
Starting to Create Some Order
At this point, you should have a whole board or desk full of Post-it Notes. Next, you want to start looking at all of them so you can start to tie them together. Pull them off and start moving them to different places, organizing them in groups that make sense to you. You’ll see that your brain will just start to organize them. Again, it’s nice that it’s all here for you because then it’s much easier to move things around.
For example, I can put “jackets” and “wading boots” together. Let’s see, “equipment” and “clothing.” That’s the top-level one here. Then I have “reels” and “rods” and “flies” over here. Then I have behavioral stuff like “etiquette” and “time flies” and maybe “casting techniques” over here. I have “oceans,” “lakes,” and “streams” over here. “Snacks,” which is something to bring, so maybe that’s over here in the equipment area. “License”—that’s another thing that you’ll need before you go out.
“Safety”—I can put that in the behavior area. “Tournaments”—I don’t know what goes with that right now, but that’s okay. Here’s some more “equipment:” “boats” and “floats.” “Destinations”—that could go with “oceans,” “lakes,” and “streams.” “Where in the water,” “what to do with kids,” and “fish finders”—that’s another piece of equipment. “Casting techniques”—that’s its own thing. There’s probably a whole array of different kinds of casting techniques.
“Kids.” You can take them with you on these destinations, so maybe we’ll have one for “kid-friendly.” Now I have four different sections here I can see, maybe five, because of “casting techniques.” Then what I can do is I can start to create a hierarchy, so I can see that this is “equipment,” and “clothing” is here, and then stuff to “bring with you” when you go and then more “fishing-related equipment” here that you’ll need before you go out. Already, I can see a chapter here, and then subchapters happening in this section.
Again, I’m starting to organize; I’m starting to form my book here. “Fish”—that’s a top level thing, obviously. “Fish.” What kind of fish? “Trout,” “bass,” and there’s a whole bunch of other fish. How about “fishing equipment” like “rods” and “reels” and “flies”? That can be separated out from here, so that becomes a nice little chapter. Then what you can do is start to pull out another color and begin to create second or third levels within these.
If I knew a little bit more about fly fishing, I would probably know that there were different flies that I could tie. I don’t know all the names of the flies, but I think there’s a “nymph” fly, so I’ll put that down. What are some other flies? People who actually fly fish are probably going to be mad at me for this, but there’s a . . . “housefly.” There’s “nets.”
Again, you begin to create your chapter on “flies” here, and then maybe under “nymph,” there are two different “nymph” ones. I also know that there are two different kinds of flies, so I’m going to create one for “dry”—those are flies that float—and then “wet.” “Wet” flies—those are the ones that sink. Then within that, I’m going to use a different color to create another level, and put “when to use.” So you can just go deeper and deeper. Then maybe “what to use” based on the type of fish or season.
Then maybe “casting techniques.” I know there’s something called the “roll cast,” so I’ll just create a new level here: the “roll cast.” Then I could create a sub-level under that: “how to use it” and “when to use it.”
Starting the Writing Process
You can see how I begin to structure everything; I start very top-level. I bunch things up, and then I start to break things out a little bit. That will help me decide what my chapters are, what order everything should be in, what my subchapters are, and my subsections. Then, what I typically do when I start to create this order of events here and start to organize them in a sequential pattern, is start from the top. I pull out those Post-it Notes and move them onto my other desk.
That’s when I start writing about that specific topic. Everything else that’s here on the first desk is still here, but I’m not focusing on it, because I’m just writing that little portion. That’s something I struggled with when I was writing books. I was envisioning the whole thing, and thinking about every other part of the book and how it was going to relate. Instead, you’ve got to focus only on that next little section. When you do that, it becomes so much easier, because as you complete them and move things aside, then move on to the next section, and the next section—little by little, you’re chipping away at it. You’re adding more words every single day, and by the end of it, you will have gotten rid of all these Post-it Notes. You start to make progress, and it’s completely motivating.
There’s one more little secret I want to share with you that goes along with this technique, and I’ll show it to you next.
The Technique That Will Dramatically Upgrade Your WPM
You’ve created your Post-it Notes, and you’ve started to see what’s happening in your book in terms of the outline and the chapters, the subchapters, and the little sections within each of those parts. Now it’s time to start writing. Like I said earlier, you’re going to pull out little sections. I might, for example, pull out the sections on how to get involved with “fishing tournaments,” and there’s probably some more hierarchy involved within this one as well. I think there are different types of tournaments, so those would go in here as well. Now that you know this is what you’re focusing on—tournaments—you can start writing about it, and your mind is just focused on this topic. Everything else is still there on the table, but you’re only focused on this one.
Now, for me, writing and actually typing all that out would still be a struggle at this point. I’m a little bit more focused than I was, but my mind still gets into editing mode whenever I get in front of a computer. It works for blog posts, but when I am writing a book it just becomes much harder for me mentally. Even though I can try and treat each of these things as a single blog post, I still want to edit along the way, as if I’m crafting it like a blog post that’s going to be published tomorrow.
Now, the very best strategy I know of if you want to upgrade your writing efficiency is to “puke” what’s in your head onto the screen. Basically, you just want to put everything in your brain about your topic onto the page. I know some people who actually take the “delete” button off their keyboard, because they don’t want to let themselves even accidentally edit. They are just in creative mode. Later, you can come in and edit and move things around, and you’re probably not going to be using a lot of what you write down, but what comes out when your brain is in creative mode is going to be extremely good for your book.
When I was in editing mode, I just wouldn’t let myself think creatively. I would just stop myself, because I had to edit this thing and move things around. It’s not what you want to do. Now, the big trick I use, and the app that I use to help me achieve extremely high words per minute, is called Rev. With Rev, I’m actually not writing, and I’m not typing; I’m dictating my book.
Rev is an app for iPhone and Android. It’s basically an audio recorder, but the cool thing about it is you can take that audio recording and send it to the people over at Rev, and they will transcribe it for you at $1 per minute. You can even just transcribe it yourself or have somebody else on your team transcribe it for you, but Rev does a really great job. The quality is really good, and when it comes back to you a few hours later, it’s all the words you dictated related to that specific item.
So that’s the trick I use to get up to 180 words per minute. It’s how I’ve been able to complete the first brain dump of each of my books over the past two years. You can’t even really call them drafts, because they’re just everything in my brain about these particular topics, on these Post-it Notes, all dictated. Actually, they’re 95 percent dictated, because I start writing on the computer, but then I go to Rev, which has been game changing. Then I go through the book a second time with a little bit of editing mode in mind, and I can then shape and move things around and craft these stories in a way that makes sense for a book. It’s not going to make sense for a book when it comes from your voice, but you can get so many amazing stories and pieces of your book out through your voice.
So, record it on Rev, transcribe it, and you’ll see you have a lot of stuff to work with. And your book’s going to be finished sooner than you know.
- Brain dump all of your ideas about your book onto Post-it Notes.
- Move them around, organize them, shape them, and sequence them to a point where they come to look like a book in terms of chapters, subchapters, parts within those subchapters, and so on.
- Pull out individual pieces and talk about those things, then record them.
- If you don’t want to do that, that’s fine; you can write them, too. But just having that Post-it note there that you’re focusing on is going to help quite a bit.
That’s my process!
Good luck, and I hope it’s helpful for those of you out there working on your first (or next) book! Give it a try, and let me know how it goes in the comments.