Practical Tips on Writing a Book from 23 Brilliant Authors

Steve Silberman reading at the Booksmith in SF.

Steve Silberman reading at the Booksmith in SF. Photo by Heather Champ.

I love books. My late father Donald, who taught Wordsworth and Melville to inner-city kids for decades, used to read Ulysses to me while he carried me on his shoulders. Perhaps it was inevitable that I grew up to be a writer. Now, after years of investigative reporting for Wired and other magazines, I’m finally writing a book of my own.

The subject of my book is autism, the variety of human cognitive styles, and the rise of the neurodiversity movement. The seed of the project was an article I wrote for Wired in 2001 called “The Geek Syndrome” about autism and Asperger syndrome in high-tech communities like Silicon Valley. I’m happy and humbled to say that it was an influential article, and I still get email about it from the families of kids on the spectrum and from autistic people themselves, though it was published more than a decade ago.

The science of developmental disorders has made significant advances in recent years, and some of the social issues that I raised in the piece — such as the contributions that people with atypical cognitive styles have made to the progress of science, technology, and culture — seem more relevant than ever. At the same time, the wave of kids diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders in the ’90s is now coming of age, and their heroically devoted families are facing fear and uncertainty about the future as crucial government-funded services and support provided to families of special-needs children dry up. Meanwhile, neurodiversity advocates are challenging narrow definitions of “normal” cognition, and autistic people — even those who are unable to employ spoken language — are using assistive technology like the iPad to express themselves. There’s a lot of new ground to cover.

I’ve signed a contract with a wonderful publisher — a Penguin imprint called Avery Books — and a sharp and enthusiastic editor named Rachel Holtzman. One of the most thrilling moments of my life as a writer was walking into Penguin headquarters in Manhattan and seeing classic jackets for Jack Kerouac’s novels like The Dharma Bums framed on the wall. It was reading the exhilarating, compassionate, and perennially fresh poetry and prose of Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and their friends that made me want to grow up to be a writer in the first place.

I’m not sentimental about old media vs. new media. Nothing will ever replace the sublime feeling of sanctuary created by the printed page, but I treasure the books on my Kindle too, particularly when I’m reading at 30,000 feet. What I love is words — storytelling, the flow of well-wrought sentences, the gradual unfolding of a long and thoughtful tale, the private communion with an author’s mind.

But now comes the hard part. It’s one thing to work up a 4000-word magazine feature and another to sit down and write a 100,000-word book. I’m acutely aware that I’ve been granted a precious opportunity to cast light on forgotten history and provide a platform for voices that are rarely heard. At the same time, I’m scared out of my wits that the two decades of journalism that have led up to this project have not prepared me to write a good book. I wake up at 3am staring into the darkness, wondering if I’ll have the skills, discipline, and inner resources to pull it off.

I’ve chosen to deal with my anxiety by tapping into the wisdom of the hive mind. I recently sent email to the authors in my social network and asked them, “What do you wish you’d known about the process of writing a book that you didn’t know before you did it?”

I’m delighted with the sheer range of practical advice that poured in. The writers in this group are as diverse as the volumes that line the shelves in my home office.  There are top science writers and journalists like Carl Zimmer, Jonah Lehrer, Deborah Blum, Paula Span, and David Shenk; prolific blogger Geoff Manaugh of the endlessly fascinating BLDGBLOG, which focuses on architecture and the future of urbanism; award-winning poet and essayist August Kleinzahler; a wise-beyond-his-years entrepreneur named Ben Casnocha; a Zen master named John Tarrant and an author of Buddhist bestsellers, Sylvia Boorstein; two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee David Crosby of the Byrds and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; and two of the geniuses who helped launch 21st century digital culture and the spunky “maker” movement, Cory Doctorow and Mark Frauenfelder of BoingBoing. A more diverse group of writers, talking about the nuts and bolts of their craft, would be hard to find anywhere on the Web.

A few things became clear as soon as their replies came in. First of all, I’ll have to throttle back my use of Twitter and Facebook to get this writing done (and I may never rev up my idle Quora account after all.) Secondly, scheduling intervals of regular exercise and renewal amid the hours of writing will be essential. And thirdly, I’ll certainly be buying and downloading a software program called Scrivener, which is a powerful word processor specifically designed for writing books and keeping vast amounts of related data in good order.

Reading these tips has made the voice in my head that whispers I can do this a little louder when my eyelids snap open before dawn. I hope the advice here inspires the creation of many great books, not only the one I hope to write. I’m deeply grateful for the time and attention of the master writers assembled here.

Enjoy — and good luck with your own writing!

The Tangled Bank by Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer

Author of A Planet of Viruses, The Tangled Bank, and Brain Cuttings

  1. Do as much research as possible away from the Internet — with living people, in real places.
  2. Be ready to organize vast amounts of data. Use a wall, or software like Scrivener.
  3. Be ready to amputate entire chapters. It will be painful.

The Genius in All Of UsDavid Shenk
Author of The Forgetting and The Genius in All of Us

  1. Make it great, no matter how long it takes. There’s no such thing as too many drafts. There’s no such thing as too much time spent. As you well know, a great book can last forever. A great book can change a person’s life. A mediocre book is just commerce.
  2. Get feedback — oodles of it. Along the way, show pieces of your book to lots of people — different types of people. Ply them with wine and beg them for candor. Find out what’s missing, what’s being misinterpreted, what isn’t convincing, what’s falling flat. This doesn’t mean you take every suggestion or write the book by committee. But this process will allow to marry your necessarily-precious vision with how people will actually react. I find that invaluable.
  3. Let some of you come through. You’re obviously not writing a memoir here, but this book is still partly about you — the world you see, the way you think, the experiences you have with people. And trust me, readers are interested in who you are. So don’t be afraid to let bits and pieces of your personality and even life details seep into the text. It will breathe a lot of life into the book.

For the Win by Cory DoctorowCory Doctorow
Author of With a Little Help, For the Win, Makers, and Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

  1. Write every day. Anything you do every day gets easier. If you’re insanely busy, make the amount that you write every day small (100 words? 250 words?) but do it every day.
  2. Write even when the mood isn’t right. You can’t tell if what you’re writing is good or bad while you’re writing it.
  3. Write when the book sucks and it isn’t going anywhere. Just keep writing. It doesn’t suck. Your conscious is having a panic attack because it doesn’t believe your subconscious knows what it’s doing.
  4. Stop in the middle of a sentence, leaving a rough edge for you to start from the next day — that way, you can write three or five words without being “creative” and before you know it, you’re writing.
  5. Write even when the world is chaotic. You don’t need a cigarette, silence, music, a comfortable chair, or inner peace to write. You just need ten minutes and a writing implement.

And Then There's This by Bill WasikBill Wasik
Author of And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture

  1. The first tip is that readers expect books to be exhaustive on their subjects. That doesn’t mean they want the books to be long — it means that they expect that you will cover all the basic ground that needs to be covered to understand the subject, even if they know some of it already. This piece of advice may or may not be relevant to your subject. In my case, with a very idiosyncratic book on viral culture, it led to people asking me at readings why I hadn’t included an analysis of X or Y viral phenomenon in my book. “Because you already know about it,” the magazine guy in me always wanted to respond. But in the book world, people want to see you mention the stuff they already know, at least in passing (or to knock it down)– otherwise, how can it claim to be a book on the subject? It’s worth taking that point of view seriously.
  2. This is a basic piece of advice, but it can’t be overstated when you’re trying to go from magazine-length to book-length writing: hone your outline and then cling to it as a lifeline. You can adjust it in mid-stream, but don’t try to just write your way into a better structure: think about the right structure and then write to it. Your outline will get you through those periods when you can’t possibly imagining ever finishing the damn thing — at those times, your outline will let you see it as a sequence of manageable 1,000 word sections.

The BLDGBLOG Book by Geoff ManaughGeoff Manaugh
Author of The BLDGBLOG Book

  1. Don’t hold back on that fantasy site visit / phone call / interview / query / meeting that you have always wanted to do, lest it become too late to include the results in your book. Do it now! This book is your golden ticket.
  2. Don’t lose track of your notes and/or future ideas for inclusion by writing things down in multiple notebooks or on scattered pages of the same notebook; concentrate, aggregate, cohere, reread, and compress. Keep it all in one place (with back-ups). Obsessive-compulsive organizational habits are your bestfriend; telling insane and vaguely embarrassing stories later on, about how you used eight different colored markers, four highlighter types, and multiple versions of extra pages stapled into a vast mega-notebook that you re-read every night before bed – and that you also took digital photos of lest you lose the whole thing in a house fire – will be a lot more fun than explaining how you forgot to include certain things and your book sucked because you never got your shit together.
  3. Quick, tossed off, last minute additions, typed right before you submit the final manuscript, probably aren’t a good idea, no matter how funny or emotionally powerful you might feel they are at the time of impulsively writing them. Always allow time to come back and read something from a distance.
  4. And run all quirky one-liners that you hope to include in your author’s bio (do you “always enjoy a good latté”?) past a close friend; they don’t age well.

The Mad Professor by Mark FrauenfelderMark Frauenfelder
Author of The Mad Professor and Rule the Web

  1. Use Scrivener to write your book. Awesome organizing tool as well as word processor.
  2. If you have the feeling an interview isn’t yielding much, get off the phone as soon as you can. On the other hand, when you strike interview gold, keep it going as long as you can.
  3. Don’t forget to write the book that you want to read.

The Poisoner's Handbook by Deborah BlumDeborah Blum
Author of The Poisoner’s Handbook and Ghost Hunters

  1. here are a few things that i’ve learned or that people have told me along the way. i’ve written five books. the first two (monkey wars, sex on the brain) were issue books. the best advice i got when writing an issue book was to write the first chapter LAST.  this isn’t absolute, but it’s in the research and writing of later chapters that you often figure out what your primary points will be and how best to frame them.
  2. the best advice i got in writing narrative non-fiction was to get my hero in trouble and keep him there. this was with my first narrative book, love at goon park. my editor suggested that as the over all arc — how is harry harlow ever going to persuade the scientific community that love matters? — and within that to have him confront an obstacle in every chapter. i’m a little looser with that now, not an obstacle in EVERY chapter, but it’s still a great way to think about structure. for instance, in poisoner’s handbook, every chapter is a poison. so my heroes must confront arsenic in one chapter and thallium in another…
  3. i usually try to have a single sentence that describes the primary message of the book. this turns out to be really useful when your editor asks you for the one sentence the sales force can use to persuade book sellers to buy your book. but, again, it’s also a useful organizing principle. so with monkey wars, the primary sentence (not brilliant for sales, but still) was “animal research is really about us.” number one species on the planet, can do whatever we want to other species. and i used that to frame every chapter around a decision that a researcher was making in his use of non-human primates, from brain surgeries to testing on endangered species.
  4. i let my first draft suck. kind of the anne lamott advice on “shitty first drafts.” to me my first draft is just an attempt to start unfolding the flow and logic of the story. if i get stuck, i just put xxx in the draft (for figure this out later.) with one of my books (sex on the brain) i did this so often that i had literal nightmares about it, that people were coming up to me and asking me if i had adopted an avant garde writing style.
  5. i’m obsessive about the research. i organize and cross-list and file from the very beginning. i make notes of key points, issues, and themes. the amount of research one does for a proposal is very different from the amount of research one does for a whole book. so i keep track of all these key moments in a way that lets me recognize patterns that i didn’t see earlier. and also so that when i’m later actually writing, i know where to find everything. writers waste a lot of time looking for that study that they filed, well, somewhere.
  6. i recognize that today’s book author isn’t done even after the manuscript is accepted. publishers expect us to be part of the marketing of the book and the sooner that starts the better. i used to tell people that i wanted to be the j.d. salinger of science writing and just stay home and let the royalties wash over me. but that’s mostly in the moments when i’m just overwhelmed. the new public version of a science writer is actually pretty fascinating.

Sleeping It Off in Rapid City, by August KleinzahlerAugust Kleinzahler
Author of Sleeping It Off in Rapid City and Cutty, One Rock

  1. I find it helpful sometimes — and still to my surprise — trying to explain to someone what it is I’m trying to write about, usually someone bright but in a different intellectual zone, and not a writer. Or, likewise, in a letter or email to such a person.
  2. When my self-disgust reaches critical mass I seem to be ready to go.
  3. I tend to discover the structure, a structure, after diving in the deep end and swallowing water awhile, until I stop swallowing water, make my way to the surface and figure out how far it is toward shore or the side of the pool, and what mixture of treading water and the Australian crawl, given my limitations/aptitudes, might get me safely home.

My Start-Up Life by Ben CasnochaBen Casnocha
Entrepreneur and author of My Start-Up Life

  1. Shitty first drafts. Anne Lamott nailed it! But with books, it seems to be more like “shitty 20th drafts.” So shitty, for so long.
  2. Develop a very serious plan for dealing with internet distractions. I use an app called Self-Control on my Mac.
  3. Develop a very, very, very serious plan for dealing with internet distractions.

The Mindfulness Revolution by Barry Boyce Barry Boyce

Author/editor of The Mindfulness Revolution and In the Face of Fear

  1. You’re better off than you think, because you’ve done this before, just not in as large a format. Almost every technique and skill you’ve used to structure and tell a story at feature length scales to book length. So, let go of the excess anxiety about never having done this before.
  2. Planning. Planning. Planning. It’s a campaign. I used some project management tools in the end to put some order into the vastness. That’s the thing about the bigger scale. It requires more management to support the creativity. Cultivate a good relationship with your editor from the beginning. He/she is going to be your task master at some point. That’s going to go so much better if he/she is also your friend, colleague, supporter, and fan. The campaign of writing a book can get so lonely sometimes, you need a good attaboy just to remind yourself of why you’re doing it and that you’re not the crazy loser who needs to get out more.
  3. As Trungpa Rinpoche said (I paraphrase): enjoy refreshing activities from time to time. If you’re planning and scheduling well, you can find opportunities regularly to breathe more fresh air into your life and replenish yourself, because “the work fills the available space” is nowhere more true than on a book project. Watch out for self-indulgent and cheap substitutes for actually taking an honest to god break, of whatever duration.

The White Hand Society by Peter ConnersPeter Conners
Author of Growing Up Dead: The Hallucinated Confessions of a Teenage Deadhead and White Hand Society: The Psychedelic Partnership of Timothy Leary & Allen Ginsberg

  1. When I’m writing a book I only read other books that somehow inform my book. If it doesn’t serve my process — no matter how much I want to read it — I don’t. I suspect there are a lot of people who will give the opposite opinion (take a break from reading about your subject matter, etc.), but I’m not one of them. This is your time to be completely and justifiably obsessed. So go ahead — bask in the madness.
  2. Non-fiction shouldn’t mean poorly written. Writing is writing and art always counts. Make your book beautiful to read and you’re more likely to communicate your messages to your reader.
  3. Don’t focus on the promotional aspects of social media. Just share your passion for the subject matter as it filters through your writing process. The promotion aspect will be an organic extension of your passion.

Long Time Gone by David CrosbyDavid Crosby
Singer-songwriter, founding member of the Byrds and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, author of Long Time Gone and Since Then

  1. Cathartic effect.
  2. Love of the well-turned phrase.
  3. Set specific times to work.

When the Time Comes by Paula SpanPaula Span
Author of When the Time Comes

  1. You already know what you need to know to do this.  The fact is, my 60,000-plus-word book was pretty much like writing 8 to 10 long-form pieces.  I didn’t do it differently, in terms of research or writing or rewriting.  My existing skills were perfectly adequate to the task; yours will be too.  It took me 2.5 years but then, I was teaching and freelancing at the same time; had I focused solely on the book, it probably would’ve taken 18 months.  So you will make your deadline, even if your book is longer and more complex.
  2. Unhelpful, right?  But maybe not.  Bottom line, this is not some whole different sphere for which you are ill-prepared.  For better or worse, whether you use some nifty software to organize your material or you use a whole bunch of yellow legal pads and photocopies in hanging files (like me — so retro), this is familiar territory and you are an old hand.  So get to it.

Aspergirls by Rudy SimoneRudy Simone
Author of Aspergirls: Empowering Women with Asperger Syndrome and Asperger’s On the Job

  1. I had the easiest time of my life writing my three Asperger books. I just ran like Secretariat once I got going. But, I did learn that questionnaires make good research tools. I had three levels of questionnaires, each expanding on the one before it, so I didn’t have to individually interview each person. I did that by email or phone if and when it was warranted. By the time I wrote Aspergirls I had it streamlined: The questionnaires were posted on my site, the first one visible to the public so anyone could use it, then the 2nd and third were on hidden pages that I gave my participants the URL to. The data was compiled and I received email alerts whenever there was a new entry. So while I was researching certain elements of my book, the questionnaires and the people who used them were doing a lot of the legwork. Being that I’m fairly uneducated, I think I did a pretty good job with it.

Short by John SchwartzJohn Schwartz
Author of Short: Walking Tall When You’re Not Tall at All

  1. Advice from a Newsweek editor I worked with in the ’80s, Nancy Cooper. Roughly my age, but so much smarter and more worldly and sophisticated. I was worried about writing the opening story of the nation section. And she sent me a note that read: ”You just start working and you keep working til it’s done. That’s all there is to it; no mystery.”

Happiness is an Inside Job by Sylvia BoorsteinSylvia Boorstein
Author of Happiness is An Inside Job and It’s Easier Than You Think

When I settle into writing, i.e. proposal signed, accepted, etc., I…

  1. Do not open email until 5PM on any weekday or other day when i expect to be writing much of the day.
  2. Do not read other people’s work on the same subject. That might be hard for you, since you are collecting research data, but I say very little about what other people have said or thought. They’ve already said or thought it.
  3. I am VERY selective about having other people read it as I go along other than my editor, and that only when I have enough written to feel secure that I have found my voice.
  4. When I do not like how what I’m writing is sounding, I quit. I leave the computer. I do something else, like cook soup. I “hear” what I am about to type before I type it and if it is not sounding like me naturally talking, I know i am not clear or balanced enough to go on.
  5. I do not write from the beginning to the end. I write in the order that particular parts take form in my mind and I enjoy mulling them over… I mull and mull and imagine I am explaining them to someone and then I write them down. I have the order in mind, so I write whatever part is bubbling energetically in my mind, print it out (always) and begin a stack on THE BOOK on a corner of my desk into which I can add pieces (in their proper order) as they get written and so I have a visible proof at all times that something is happening.
  6. I take the due date for the first draft EXTREMEly seriously., like everything depends on that day. it makes the project energetically alive for me, like a James Bond five-minutes-and-fifty-two-seconds until the whole world blows up movie and even if the draft is finished a week early I push the SEND button just after 12AM on the day it is due. Theatrical, I know, but I learned it from a friend of mine whom I admire as being a fine writer who prides himself on doing that.

Nameless Book by AnonymousAnonymous
Author of notable books on science and psychology

What I wish I didn’t know now that I didn’t know then:

  1. How hard writing a book would be  on my body — two major illnesses and two surgeries in two years, a health record unprecedented in my life, and unrepeated in the two years since. No idea what to do differently, other than maybe make sure I have good health insurance. (But you shoulda seen me revising my last draft as they wheeled me into the OR for an appendectomy.)
  2. How important and valuable the final reward would be. Not the money, but (in my case) the promised trip to a very special place. Wish I had put the photo of my destination on my screensaver long before I did, as it worked like an extra force of gravity pulling me to the end. The trip also gave me a coda to write into the book, just an extra added benefit.
  3. How inept publishers are at selling books, even books that, as in my case, they have a significant financial stake in and that they profess to love. Once they get rejected by Today and Terry Gross and once the Sunday Times passes (or, as in my case, assigns a  review and then never runs it), they’ve exhausted their playbook. Solution: what you’re already doing, which is to build your brand among your intended audience.

Playing in the Band by David GansDavid Gans
Musician, radio producer, and author of Playing in the Band and Conversations with the Dead

  1. The most striking thing about my book processes was that no one at the publisher did any editing at all.  No fact checking, no line editing.

Lincoln's Melancholy by Josh ShenkJosh Shenk
Author of Lincoln’s Melancholy

  1. Get through a draft as quickly as possible. Hard to know the shape of the thing until you have a draft. Literally, when I wrote the last page of my first draft of Lincoln’s Melancholy I thought, Oh, shit, now I get the shape of this. But I had wasted years, literally years, writing and re-writing the first third to first half. The old writer’s rule applies: Have the courage to write badly.
  2. Find ways to break it into chunks and set concrete deadlines with friends/agent/editor. I’m sending my agent material every week now. The shit is super rough, but at least I’ve got *something* on page. Also consider a writer’s group. When I asked Bruce Feiler for this advice at the start of Lincoln’s Melancholy, he said: “emotional management.” I told him, yeah, but I really want practical advice, etc. etc., and he repeated the phrase. Writing a book is a crushingly lonely experience in ways that no one who hasn’t been through it can really imagine.
  3. What’s the idea/argument in a sentence or two? You shouldn’t have this necessarily at the start but will want to by the time the book is done.
  4. Apply to MacDowell, Yaddo, Blue Mountain Center, Headlands — a few other good residencies, including one in Cali I can’t remember now. Four to eight weeks of you, quiet, among other artists, with people feeding you on schedule can do wonders.

Bring Me the Rhinoceros by John TarrantJohn Tarrant
Author of Bring Me The Rhinoceros & Other Zen Koans That Will Save Your Life, and The Light Inside the Dark: Zen, Soul & the Spiritual Life

Here’s a triplet of things that may apply only to me.

  1. Ideas don’t come from anywhere identifiable, so I’ve come to trust that they will be given. This is along the lines of not whipping the donkey.
  2. The process of lining the book up, giving it a bedside manner, asking “Is this what it is about? But what is it really about?” was a plunge. I had to explain the work to myself in more and more elementary language. I came to enjoy doing this. It helped when I realized that the discovery process was part of the writing and I didn’t have to be through it already.
  3. There is always period when I wrestle alone with my own process and at the same time I like collaboration. So I’ve learned what kind of editing works for me. A good editor is an impersonal force who says things like, “You could ditch the first half of your first chapter and start with what comes next,” and immediately I know if the edit is true or not. So I learned to be confident about sharing my work when it is not fully formed, learned that the process is robust and will look after itself.

How We Decide by Jonah LehrerJonah Lehrer
Author of How We Decide and Proust Was a Neuroscientist

  1. My one piece of advice is to insist that your editor be brutal — there should be red pen on every page. At least in my experience, the book only gets decent during this phase, as all the darlings and digressions get killed. It’s such an important process, and yet too many editors are too meek (or overworked) and too many writers resist their edits. A good editor is a great thing.

The Panic Virus by Seth Mnookin
Seth Mnookin

Author of The Panic Virus and Feeding the Monster

  1. If you’re a Mac guy, I whole-heartedly, full-throatedly recommend using Scrivener. I think you can get a free 30-day trial, so it’s at least worth checking out. Especially with this last book, it totally saved me from having hundreds of (virtual) stacks of thousands of (virtual) scraps of paper.
  2. For me, it was vitally important that all non-book related reading be as mindless as possible. I binged on mysteries…Rex Stout and Donald Westlake/Richard Stark in particular.
  3. I tried, not always successfully, to start each day with some discrete goal I wanted to accomplish: write 200 words, or get through a certain amount of research, or conduct two interviews, or whatever. If I set out to spend a day “writing,” that would be so overwhelming I’d end up just farting around online all day instead of starting the climb the mountain.
  4. Finally: assume your book is going to completely tank commercially. That’ll help you remember that you’re not writing this for the purpose of writing a best-seller (at least I assume you’re not), but because it’s something that you care passionately about and excites you intellectually and because you hope to be able to share your thoughts and observations and conclusions with a group of people you respect and want to discourse with. Everything else is gravy. At the end of the day, what’s important is producing something you believe in…not producing something that’ll catch people’s eyes at B&N.

Superbug by Maryn McKenna

Maryn McKenna
Author of Superbug and Beating Back the Devil

  1. Find an organizational scheme for your notes and materials; keep up with it (if you are transcribing sound files or notebooks, don’t let yourself fall behind); and be faithful to it: Don’t obsess over an apparently better scheme that someone else has.  At some point during your work, someone will release what looks like a brilliant piece of software that will solve all your problems. Resist the urge to try it out, whatever it is, unless 1) it is endorsed by people whose working methods you already know to be like your own and 2) you know you can implement it quickly and easily without a lot of backfilling. Reworking organizational schemes is incredibly seductive and a massive timesuck. (I use DevonThink, OmniOutliner and Filemaker Pro. David Dobbs apparently has a quite different flow. We hope to do a workshop on this at NASW.)
  2. Don’t wait too long to start writing, especially if your book incorporates descriptive or narrative elements. Write at least a quick sketch of the sensory and emotional elements that stick with you as you come back from field reporting.
  3. You’re going to spend a lot of time in your head. Take care of your physical self too. Be just as committed to that as you are to getting your writing done every day. If you don’t care about your health, think your vanity — there’s an author video and a lot of public appearances in your future.
  4. Bonus tip: Be good to your spouse/partner and protect time for them. They’re in this with you, but unlike you, they didn’t choose it.

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235 Responses to Practical Tips on Writing a Book from 23 Brilliant Authors

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  5. Jan Yager says:

    I’m working on the 3rd edition of my book, EFFECTIVE BUSINESS AND NONFICTION WRITING, and stumbled on this blog, the 23 “brilliant authors” sharing their sage advice about writing a book, and the 227 responses to it. Excellent job, Steve in presenting this material. I’m up to publishing my 37th book — new editions don’t count as new books by the way which is probably why so many authors wisely prefer to just write a new book! — and each and every book is still a challenge (and why and how it evolved is its own story).
    Bravo to your father for reading to you at such an early age and setting in motion the love of books and writing. Good luck with your book!I look forward to reading about that next part of the process — publishing and publicizing it. The longer I’m at this wonderful thing we call writing a book, the more I feel that writing and promoting are totally different skills. Fortunately there’s still “word of mouth” as the most magical option of all!

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  6. e-papierosy says:

    Really looking forward to reading your autism book, and while I know all too well that initial panic/terror at the onset of the writing process — I also know you’ll produce an amazing piece of work.

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  7. Jenny Neu says:

    This information I found very intriguing and, quite frankly, very helpful towards learning more to get my writing endeavors underway. I LOVE the nature of writing, and have been doing it for many, many, many years, just not in a book format. I am slowly getting my feet wet with writing a book, and hopefully more in the future. Thank you for sparking a fire in my heart for a passion I have always found to be ever-present in my heart. Steve — thank you for showing your passion to help others in the same area of work you most enjoy. Hopefully we cross paths in the future.

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  9. Cynthia Weickenand says:

    I am writing my first book on creating a living, purposeful life during and after living in ‘the system’ (Foster homes, girl’s homes, etc) This information is invaluable, thank you for sharing!

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  10. Ooma Telo says:

    Very helpful advice. It felt so great to read what non-fiction writers say. So often all the advice I read is about fiction. I am going to go check out Schrivener right now. Thank you.

    Webmaster of OomaTelo

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  11. I ran across this on Sunday and i told my father about this. Do you happen to have more tips on this?

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  12. Thank you! I love the tips. I have taken several writing classes in college, knowing the pressure to produce an article, poem or short story to be reviewed by a publisher within time constraints, but I don’t know what it is like to be under contract to write a book. I find inspiration in my current struggle to earn money on the internet by thinking about my family “How I Love Them”, putting 100% of my concentration into the job at hand.
    Webmaster of Bounty Hunter Tracker IV Metal Detector

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  13. Prem Rao says:

    Steve, thank you for putting together such a comprehensive collection of thoughts on writing. It is very useful for anyone interested in writing, novice or expert.

    My observations on writing: Don’t expect monetary rewards but write because you enjoy writing. The joy of writing and creating some thing which others will enjoy, is reward in itself. There is no short cut to writing success. Reading about the experience of others makes you more savvy, but at the end of the day, they can’t write for you. Take what works for you because you and your experiences are unique.

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  14. bonzoi says:

    Wow i am really glad to know about these tips… thanks!

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  21. thank you so much for a very insightful post.over the past two years I have been fighting the strong urge in me to write the books on my mind most probably due to the fear of failing along the way,but now I seriously think it’s time I made the leap.if every writer experiences the same challenges that scare me so much as well,then I guess it’s a risk I am willing to take too!

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  23. Cynthia Horney says:

    Hello everyone, my name is Cynthia Horney, I am a freshmen attending Durant High School. I have a ton of ideas of my own for a book i would like to write. I was wondering if i could get any tips or notes, or possibly any opinions on what people mostly like to ready. I would love to hear back from any of you.

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    • Gaidreon says:

      My advice would to get your first draft done. It is really hard to improve on anything when you don’t have a basic structure to work with. It’s like building a house. It’s really hard to specialize the patio when you don’t have all the house there. Once you have a draft done, it is so much easier to work with.

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    • Rob says:

      Proofread everything. Offer to proofread for friends when they have assignments due. Proof your own work, even simple text messages. Every tiny thing you proof helps you look with a critical eye towards writing. Talk to your teachers about your papers that you’re working on. They have a ton of knowledge that isn’t tapped into during the course of regurgitating standard curriculum. The biggest thing is to actually write. Especially without letting the internet distract you… Oh. Wait. Sorry. Gotta go.

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  24. This was enormous fun to read — especially when the authors contradicted each other! It just goes to show that what works for me might not work for you, and vice versa. I had the same “oh crap, how do I leap from article-length work to book-length work?” moment, and I have all the empathy in the world for you right now.

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  25. Janice Lesley says:

    Fantastic compilation of passionate, honest and helpful information. Inspiring !
    Thank you for sharing Steve :)

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  26. Elaine says:

    Brilliantly useful piece. Thank you to all the writers!

    With reference to distractions – I have written a trilogy and find ye olde paper and pen a fantastic way to ensure you are not distracted by modern technology. You can jump on the PC when you have to type up your novel or edit, then distractions won’t be quite so damaging!

    Good luck to one and all.

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  30. Madeline says:

    OH MY GOD just what I was searching for.Thanks to the writer for taking his valuable time on this one.

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  31. Rupert says:

    Wonderful tips here…. I liked the advice by Barry Boyce. Indeed planning and scheduling is the most important thing. I’m sure aspiring writers can gain many things from here. Thanks for this post.

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  33. In November, I delivered a presentation on self-publishing to the Women in Publishing Society in Hong Kong. The 22-minute presentation is on YouTube (http://youtu.be/42MVMIhwccw), and may be helpful if you’re thinking of self-publishing.

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  35. Grace says:

    I liked what David said, “Make it great, no matter how long it takes.” For me, it takes great effort and even time to create a great book. i just came across a video that shows how to write a book. The tips are great and it’s a lot funny too. http://marieforleo.com/2011/03/erotic-fiction-writer/

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  37. Tim Rylatt says:

    Great suggestions here. I’ve just finalised my first full length book, and agree wholeheartedly with many of the above comments… several new thoughts too as a result of reading this that will serve me well on book 2! Thanks. Tim

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  38. Emery Shafer says:

    I simply wanted to thank you once more for the amazing web page you have made here. It can be full of ideas for those who are definitely interested in that subject, in particular this very post. Your all so sweet as well as thoughtful of others plus reading your site posts is a great delight in my experience. And that of a generous gift! Ben and I are going to have fun making use of your ideas in what we should instead do in the near future. Our listing is a mile long and simply put tips are going to be put to good use.

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  39. Chelsea Maharaj says:

    INCREDIBLE!!! the only thing is i need stories about young ppl which need to be sent to my email address which is my.realitylife@hotmail.com because i want to write a book also……. please email me thanks

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  40. Rahmah says:

    I’m 13 years old and i am very imaginative so everyday stories are going through my head. I told my mom one of them and she was impressed and told me that i should write it down and publish it. I am currently writing the story and you people have given me great advice but i’m still a little hesitant because i have never heard of a 13 year old writing a book. Have you come across a book written by a teenager? I would really like to know because it would help boost up my self esteem a lot. Thank you for your time.

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    • Grant says:

      I believe the Eragon series was written by a teenager – you’ll want to check for yourself, but I’m pretty sure I’m right. (Or at least started when the author was a teenager.)

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      • sarah says:

        check out Nick McDonell who wrote “Twelve” his hot debut. He was 18

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    • sarah says:

      The Bronte sisters…

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    • Mindi says:

      S.E. Hinton wrote The Outsiders as a teenager.

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    • Martha Høgset Olsen says:

      Hi Rahmah

      I have no clue why the idea about grown-ups being more talented, skilled or intelligent than teenagers, or kids, still goes poisoning around.

      The average teenager is not less, he or she just haven’t got around to experience this and that yet.

      My impression is that when you learn something, you also might unlearn something else (-> become more adapted). Young people have a freshness and objectivity one rarely find among grown-ups. Praise your own imaginativity, even (or especially) when you can’t “attach” it to anything already existing.

      Enjoy your writing, and good luck :)

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    • francoise says:

      Dear Rahmah

      Go for it ,fear is your worst enemy,just believe ,trust you can do it ,and it will happen age does not matter ,passion does ,just keep working everyday even a little , and do not listen to anybody with negative attitude …look forward to read your books .all the best . in which part of the world are you?
      Francoise

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  41. George says:

    Why does everyone say, “buy a different computer and never have it connected to the internet?” Is this because hackers can steal the book? Or is it to prevent distractions when writing? I am an excellent writer when it comes to news articles and essays. I am learning how to put a book together to get into that field of work. So since I am new to book writing, was wandering if it is a widespread problem of hackers or spyware programs stealing books that you are writing and have saved on a pc. Also is microsoft works a decent program to start with, or should i buy a professional writing software program.

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  45. Eyros Alba says:

    The first thing a book writer should learn to do is writing in the basic form of a feature article: the Three Point Five Paragraph Paper, 3.5 paper, or the Five-paragraph Essay.

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    • Donna Alexander says:

      When you say 3-5. Do you mean there need to be 3-5 sentences in each paragraph.?How many paragraphs should there be in each chapter?

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  46. J. Boy says:

    I find this article extrememly helpful and motivating. It makes me want to move from a stalled position (AKA RUT) to that of a true storyteller.

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  48. Very interesting post. I’ve been thinking about writing my own book but I’m just not sure a book on plastic surgery would be interesting enough unless it was confessions and funny stories of celebrity clients, which I won’t do. There are some very useful tips here. Most importantly, they come from people successful within the industry, not just hearsay and theory.

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  49. Aw, this was a very nice post. In idea I would like to put in writing like this moreover – taking time and actual effort to make a very good article… but what can I say… I procrastinate alot and not at all seem to get one thing done.

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  50. patrick Sendagala says:

    Inspiring material. I like the collection. I hope to carry on well with my first book coming not too long.

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  54. Kim Heubner says:

    Extremely encouraging. Have been mulling over my writing for so long and now, knowing published authors have experienced the same situations, I feel energised to get finished. Thanks

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  59. Dreana says:

    This has been so refreshing! I’m working on a book now andit is scary. It is lonely. And I often feel like I have no freakin clue what I’m doing. I’m a student presently also, as well as a single parent. So writing everyday is just not happening for me. But alot of the information I learned here did much to let me know that my process is OK. There were certain things that I read here that I was doing unconsciously or felt led to do for whatever reason and didn’t know that it was something that I SHOULD be doing. The confirmation was much needed. What I’m working on is something i believe in and am passionate about and if it doeesn’t make its way to B&N I think I can live with that. I’m not the greatest writer by any standards but i do have something to say. Thanks for the encouragement!!

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  65. Albert travis says:

    Well I like this post becasue It help me in gaining quality information. At the library, I know I have only so much time, at home I feel like I have time to waste on the internet. Also, I see why many famous writers wrote their first best sellers at cafés or libraries.

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  66. AlexP says:

    I particularly enjoyed Cory Doctorow’s tips, which are so true. You have to write in order to get better at it, and that means writing when you don’t feel like it or even when life gets in your way. Very inspiring. Thanks for the share.

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  67. Si says:

    A very inspiring read, thanks.
    Although I do not write books, probably never will to be honest, I do have to write more and more web content and articles.
    To see that others get similar blocks, blanks, dead-spots and empty headed times is great, that is my worst time, when I can not find the raws seeds of the material to develop into the body of the article or content.

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  72. Hey, Steve.
    Long time (30 years?), no see.
    Congrats on the book deal and a great article.
    It takes a whole lot of medicine to write a book, and these tips come in handy. Good luck with yours.

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  75. Mike Alexander says:

    For avoiding internet distractions etc. – and also for being able to knock out a few paragraphs anywhere with no boot-up time – consider an Alphasmart. Not everyone likes the small display size, but the keyboard’s great, there’s zero boot delay and it lasts forever on a couple of batteries. For my money, the best distraction-free drafting tool out there.

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  76. Suzanne says:

    Hey, this is a great collection. Thank you! And I think every writer — and probably every person ever embarking on an type of major project — has wondered the same thing you have in the night: if “I’ll have the skills, discipline, and inner resources to pull it off.” I bet you do.

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  77. Bob Rini says:

    This looks like great collection of advice–I just scanned it, but I’ll read every word later on. Right now I should be writing!

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  84. I wrote three published books on different cities in Germany. EverNote was invaluable for me to organize my research so I recommend you try it (it’s free if you do have mainly text to organize, if you need more space it costs a reasonable 45 USD p.a). It runs on PC and Mac and additionaly stores (and syncs) data via the web (which saves you the trouble to think of backups – the program has never failed me since 2005 and I use it excessively for everything I want to keep on my fingertips). I wrote the books with WriteMonkey (which is a great distraction less editor for windows) and organized the books with Excel (which was a pain in the a…) – I wish I had had Scrivener then – which I use for my current two book projects, a historical novel on the Thirty Years’ War and a book on Internet Marketing with Social Media. Good luck for your project. And remember: It always helps to break everything down into small parts.

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  90. Carmen Dell''Aversano says:

    As a longtime connoisseur of The Geek Syndrome (both the article and the condition) I am thrilled to learn that you are writing a book about the wonders of neurodiversity. Is there a way to keep up with your work and to be notified when it is actually published? I would love to be among your first readers!

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  91. Dana Allen says:

    That was chocked full of excellent advice and useful tips! I am especially encouraged by hearing about the author’s self doubt. I am comforted knowing this is normal.

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  92. Todd Gold says:

    Helpful, inspiring, daunting, lots of good tips.

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  93. Param Kumar says:

    A Brilliant compilation!!!! Thanx a lot, a lot and a lot….Sure your tips will help me write my book. Hope my dreams of writing a book will come true.

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  95. Ramesh says:

    I loved reading the compilation. I feel I’m ready to go …..I call it (not the book) Starting All Over Again, as I ditched my first attempt a year ago.
    Wish me luck. And, thanks for the tips.

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  96. Dana Lee says:

    Steve, thank you, thank you, THANK YOU. I’m in the middle of my first novel (but not my first book, I’ve written a textbook before this) and this blog is a treasure trove of advice. Good news from your blog is that I’ve discovered I’m actually on the right track, mostly. Because I’m a PC guy, I’ve found that Freemind (open source) is a great mind-mapping tool. I’ve used it for the novel’s overall flow, and to keep my hundreds of separate field notes in order, as to where they belong in the big picture.
    Thanks again for a wonderful contribution to the writing community! And good luck to all authors reading this!

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  98. I don’t really have much to add to the other gushing comments, so I’ll just gush privately and thank you out loud for the terrific tips! I’m a project juggler – usually 3-4 mss going at a time – and for the first time in my life, I’ve stalled out. I think an organizational overhaul might help, and I’ll try the Pomodoro Technique, as well as storyboarding. Thanks for the effort and for your thoughtful, eloquent piece on writing.

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  100. Joe Clark says:

    I think you should contact me for a countervailing opinion on neurodiversity, at least as it involves design and accessibility.

    If you had a legitimate published E-mail address and didn’t pretend Twitter worked as a means of communication, I would use that.

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    • Steve Silberman says:

      Why the hostility, Joe? My email address is listed on my home page, which is easily Googlable.

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  106. LadySera says:

    I actually saw this link and came to read the advice because I’m a writer. There are definitely some tips that I can use. Great article.

    I just wanted to let you know that I recently figured out that I have Asperger’s (at almost 30) and as I have been reading up on it you’ve been referenced many times. I will definitely be looking forward to your book. I hope that you include some info on women too as most of what I’ve read about women has been memoirs. They are good but I’d also like to read about more of the science of it.

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    • tony pitts says:

      ladysera
      I would love to hear about your progress. My son was diagnosed with aspergers and he’s in his third year of college. I would enjoy sharing some of my experiences with him as well as learn of some of your success and failures.

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  107. Steve — what a nice collection of info. I find the two (ok 3) hardest parts of writing are (1) to STOP researching, (2) to keep the momentum going after the shi**y first draft, and (3) making the time. You know, that means not surfing over to all those great things I want to read …. but then I would have missed this. Thanks for the worthy diversion!

    I am posting a link to this on my blog; sure hope that’s OK with you. Cheers~ D.

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  113. Colleen says:

    Oh, you will definitely pull it off. Enjoy the process. We’ll enjoy the book.

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  114. Pingback: Totally worth reading article on writing. (Refs Autism/Asperger) @ The Paepae

  115. Martin Edic says:

    Outline very thoroughly and then fill it in. When you get jammed, take a walk- your subconscious will resolve the issue. I once procrastinated on a book contract and had to do a 70,000 word book in thirty days. It can be done and it’s a decent book. Of course if you look at my site you’ll find that I don’t do 70,000 word books anymore and actually believe that nearly any non-fiction subject can be covered in one tenth of that- we were writing those 70,000 words to fit a physical format made for book store displays. It was an arbitrary amount that has no relevance these days as ebooks surpass print…

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  118. Stephen S. Power says:

    Two, now five practical things that haven’t been mentioned:

    1. If your book is going to use anything that requires permission, such as photos, get those permissions now, not after you’ve turned in the ms. They can take forever to acquire. And get World rights even if your publisher only has North American rights; your agent will thank you when they sell the UK and translations rights because then those publishers won’t have to acquire the permissions themselves. And make sure the electronic rights you get match what Penguin is planning to do with the ebook.

    1a. Don’t even think of using song lyrics. They cost a fortunate, and the permissions are so convoluted they’ll just make you hate the song. And, no, you can’t just use one line. Check out Anne Tyler’s “Breathing Lessons”: she had to get permission for one line from the Dead’s “Golden Road.” Although admittedly it might be cool to use a line from a Dead song just to be in contact with Ice 9.

    2. In a similar vein, do your notes along the way, and do them according to the style your publisher wants them in. Like permissions, they take forever and leaving them until the end is liking adding two miles onto a marathon. And changing the style after you’ve done them is like adding two more. While eating a chocolate cake.

    3. If you know what you want to write in a passage, but don’t yet have the exact fact or reference you need or haven’t done all the research that the passage will take, just put in brackets indicating generally what will go there and move on to the rest of the chapter. In other words, don’t let some inchoate detail derail a chapter. You can always go back and fill it in. For instance, it’s not well known but an early draft of “Moby-Dick” reads: “Call me [something or other]. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely…”

    4. After the one with your editor, the second most important relationship you can have in publishing is with your editor’s assistant. S/he’s the one who will likely guide you through the production process and be tasked with answering questions along the way, such as “Where’s my check?” and “Really, there’s a huge guy putting my car on a flatbed; can you FedEx me that check?” And don’t forget the assistant in your acknowledgments either.

    5. Re Anonymous on marketing, unfortunately, that can be the case, and there’s no way your book fits the Today show demograhic. So set up an excerpt in Wired now; the sales staff will love to sell the book in with that point on their tip sheet. Also do many more things like this post, which gets the word out about your book. They’ll be a nice break from cranking out 500-1000 words a day if only because it’s all the respondents who are cranking out the 500-1000 words.

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  119. The wonderful Rachel Holtzman is also my editor. You don’t have to worry about those who say editors don’t edit. Rachel does. Congratulations! And really, Scrivener, Freedom, and the Pomodoro technique when blocked have all proven enormously helpful to me and my first book.

    -h

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  120. Thank you so much for this list. I have been struggling for years with a novel, and another novel, and now a preliminary MEd project, and these tips are hugely useful – especially those about using Scrivener; I’ve downloaded a trial and it’s already making me feel like at least one of my manuscripts is manageable!

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  122. andy holloman says:

    great stuff..thanks!

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  123. andy holloman says:

    …loved this material, very surprised re: how some concepts and suggestions were repeated by several writers, loved the way that so many writers were compiled together….. this is great stuff

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  127. I loved your post and the tips are so inspiring–thank you for sharing them.

    Please look into the positive impact that the Feingold Diet can have on kids who are incorrectly diagnosed as being on the spectrum or ADD. My youngest was struggling to focus in first grade and I feared that school was going to become a huge obstacle. A teacher made me aware of the Feingold diet and following it has made all the difference in the world in her scholastic performance. As well, it has managed her asthma.

    Good luck on your book.

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  131. Steve, you already have a demonstrated ability to write excellent prose in magazines and online. The average chapter in a book should be 2500-3500 words. Much shorter and it’s too brief for typical page layouts, much longer and you can lose people who jump in midstream.

    So think of your book as a task of writing 35 such stories. Then you can winnow them down.

    All you need is the overarching vision of where the book will go, but for me, that often comes after I wrote half the stories.

    Best wishes
    John

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    • Steve Silberman says:

      Thank you John — that’s so inspiring! I really appreciate it.

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  133. gregdowney says:

    Just came across this, Steve, and am really happy about it. I’ve felt in a bit of a writing slump, hemmed in by my academic job and very unhappy about it. I’ve had a book brewing for a few years that I need to get out, and the sad fact is that, after the teaching, helping students try to get their theses out is so draining of my own ability to write.
    There’s so many bits of advice here that rang like gospel for me that I’m going to have to come back to this post at regular intervals. I love the idea of a writing computer and am looking for a whole slew of software that your contributors recommend (including the program that immobilizes your internet connection for defined periods!). I wrote my first book in cafes in Rhode Island specifically because I had no wireless at the time, no one knew me in RI, and students and others couldn’t find me there, unlike my office. And it was embarrassing to sit there in a public place with a laptop and not do some sort of typing.
    But I’m also hearing the advice I give my students when they complain that their theses are not writing themselves: put your fingers on the keyboard. Just put them there and don’t move your fingers away or do something else or decide that some minor task has to be done first. And keep them there when things don’t immediately happen. Eventually, all the stuff you have stored and mulled will start to come out. So you write the parts that want to be written first and leave the hard bits — the hard bits may never need to be written.
    There is greatness and boldness in just beginning. But perhaps the hardest part is to stay with it when the beginning isn’t smooth or easy.
    Muito obrigado for the post, which I’ll be back to again.

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    • Chase Polan says:

      I just read your post and can totally empathize with the drain that you are feeling. I worked in education for almost 10 years and found it very hard to actualize my own potential while I was helping others with theirs. Sometimes quitting is not an option. Anyway, good luck! I just wanted you to know you’re not alone.

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  134. Carol McQuire says:

    OH this is so brilliant! Thank you, thank you, thank you! Carol McQuire

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  136. Steve,
    I’m just sick and tired of everyone saying how great this article it. Your readers are whining more than a baby with a heat rash. So what if it’s great – isn’t it time for a review like this one: “Ho-hum. It’s good.” But so are steaks on the grill and summer tomatoes, but you don’t hear me praising them to high heaven.
    I’ve written 5 books, published them myself and have some advice for people like me who just need some information on putting their book together. You know – graphics, what to put on the cover, how to figure out line length. All the crap publishers have to do that authors don’t really think about. Here’s what I’ve learned: http://www.publish-my-book.info/ I’ll write more when I feel like it. Kidding aside, nice job, Steve. Jeffrey Dobkin

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  138. Matt Carey says:

    Steve,

    this may be covered somewhere above: don’t just take care of yourself. Take care of your family. A project that can consume all time–even when you are away from the keyboard–may consume all your effort. Make time to hang with your spouse. Make time for other important people. Shut down the project from your mind and focus on you, them and other things.

    Keep in mind, the only “book” I have ever written was a dissertation. I knew that the number of readers wouldn’t go far beyond the committee and a number of researchers who were following my work. I didn’t go through draft after draft like you are going to do. But I knew people who fixated on their dissertations (and other projects) to the point of doing harm to their lives.

    I know someone whose manager requires life balance objectives be written into yearly goals. You wouldn’t be where you are if you didn’t have skills balancing life and work. I’ve also seen how you enjoy this work, so that is a big plus.

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    • Steve Silberman says:

      Thanks so much, Matt — as usual, you are very wise and humane. I really appreciate it.

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      • This is excellent advice, but I think bracing yourself and your family for your inner self-centered asshole to emerge is a kindness. It’s an obsessive endeavor you are embarking on–at some points more obsessive than others. There will be times when you are wearing your asshat so hard you will think it’s on your head, but it’s not. So yeah, be the best person you can be, but also give loved ones a heads up about the bigger-than-feature consumptiveness that is bound to ensue at some point.

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  141. Thank you all so very much for all these tips, especially you , Steve, as they have fired me up again to get stuck in again. I am writing my first book (non-fiction) and knowing such eminent writers go through some of the ups and downs I am experiencing is a huge help – so encouraging to be able to place my feet into their footsteps. So once my day job is finished today …..

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  142. Thank you for a fabulous treasure trove of writing ideas. Writing a book, especially the first one or the first one of a new genre is challenging to say the least. I have written five books (psychology, personality and prescriptive). However, now I have decided I “must” write a murder mystery and I am stalled, distressed and unnerved. Though I have the background (cold case squad, police academy, psychology) I don’t have narrative writing experience.

    When writing my book, The Manipulative Man, I discovered that a good editor is absolutely essential. Paula tenaciously demanded (bullied) rewrites that helped create a professional, yet exceptionally user-friendly book for women or men in (or-shudder- thinking about getting in) relationships with highly manipulative people. I recommend finding a knowledgeable, talented, merciless editor.
    It worked for me.

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  144. Katrina Masterson says:

    Great article! Thank you so much for compiling and sharing this wonderful advice…and for making us believe we can really do this. Even though I’m writing a memoir, I can use most of the advice. I truly appreciate your article and will share it on LinkedIn. Best wishes to you.

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  146. Fantastic advise and thanks for collating such valuable tips from established authors. I’m tagging this as a fav and will be back.

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  149. sonali sengupta says:

    An excellent and informative article on writing a book. I just want to add that many of us want to tell a story, based on our experiences and findings. We all want to figure out the most engrossing way of telling a story. What strikes me is that sometimes catchy phrases, and compelling one liners take the place of detailed and fine writing with in-depth content. My point of view is that along with compelling story telling, it is the meaningful (the term may be subjective), in-depth content, research and analysis that matters, in-order to leave a lasting impact on readers. There is also an audience for simple, easy to understand, racy bestsellers. No offence meant to those. But masterpieces are products of intense and deep thought.

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  151. well …

    step one: start hiring Dan Brown :-)

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  156. Excellent collection of advice! Thank you all—including many of my favorite science writers. I took notes!

    I write books for tweens/teen, and I echo the advice about reducing your entire concept into a simpler, shorter truth (works for fiction and nonfiction). After reading some how-to books on screenwriting, I’ve been practicing movie taglines and loglines as an exercise. As soon as that pearl shines, the project becomes much more focused, fun, and flowing. But, it rarely happens at the beginning. I usually end up knee deep or so before I “get it.”

    My other struggle has been to rediscover the joy in writing, after several decades of writing to a publisher’s specs. Letting my inner voice come through loudly and discovering all the new toys (multimedia, transmedia, digital storytelling, interactivity, games as stories/stories as games) have finally turned the office back into a playground after a two-year drought.

    Another way I found my mojo has been to talk about my topic online and with friends—sharing what I find fascinating, puzzling, challenging, etc. The enthusiasm rises instantly. The risk, of course, is being “that” person at a party. ;-)

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  161. Mike Dash says:

    I write history, and like you I went from being a journalist to writing books. I was surprised by how different the disciplines were.

    Much of the advice I would have given you has already been given by someone else. Especially the tip about having a second computer that is not connected to the internet, and ideally a second computer that is in a room that is not connected to the internet, which is in a building that is not connected to the internet. A hut in the garden works, if you have a hut and a garden. Or hire the cheapest bare one-room office you can find and equip it with one table, one chair, one computer, one mug and one kettle.

    Other than that, here are five lessons that I have learned from hard experience that I think apply generally to most writers:

    1. The big difference between journalism and a book is pacing. If you’re a competent journalist, you never go too badly wrong with pacing, even when you’re writing a long feature – and there’s essentially no such thing as pacing to worry about when you’re writing a news story or a short feature. So you tend not to think about it too much.

    When I’m writing a book, I don’t think about much else. What this means is: you can transfer over your existing writing chops, but you have to consciously develop a whole new skill, which is recognising when your book is moving too slowly or too fast, or is accumulating so much background that it’s getting in the way of your story.

    In my experience, this is is a problem that emerges only on the page, as you write. You won’t necessarily spot it in your proposal or even in a sample chapter or three. In fact the only way to spot it is to read what you have written as a reader. In practice what this means is making sure that you build a pause into whatever schedule you are working to. Write a chapter, leave it – ideally for at least a couple of days, better for a week – then go back to it and read it straight through as if it was something written by another writer that you are picking up for the first time. Lots of problems emerge this way; address them immediately, because fixing the pacing of an entire book once it’s finished is a horrible, soul-destroying task. You may have to read more than the chapter you’ve finished, too – you need to check how it plugs into what came before it.

    2. I have another tip to help you get started in the morning. For each new book I write, I pick a book by someone else that I love for the quality of its writing, and I keep it on my desk. When I’m ready to start each morning, I read three or four pages of it. I find this works as a warm-up for my writing muscles. It gets you in the flow.

    It probably helps if the book covers roughly the same field that you’re writing on. When I wrote a book about police corruption, I had Bryan Burrough’s Public Enemies on my desk. It helped a lot.

    3. I wholeheartedly agree that you need to know where you’re going before you start. Aside from anything else, it helps tremendously with the pacing (see point 1). So, odd as it may sound, I usually begin each book by writing the epilogue. Once I know where I need to get to, I find it much easier to work out how to get there.

    This is perfectly practical when you’re writing narrative non fiction, but actually I can’t see why it wouldn’t work for fiction too, although I’ve read plenty of fiction writers who say that one of their chief pleasures is realising their plot is about to take a wholly unanticipated turn.

    4. You will find yourself struggling to shoehorn in a favourite story, piece of information, or anecdote. You will find yourself realising that it doesn’t really fit, but you will love it so much that you keep it in the book anyway. And if you are honest with yourself, when it comes to doing the revises, you will find yourself admitting that it doesn’t work and that it has to come out.

    With experience, you will learn to spot these dangerous interlopers, and recognise that you will save yourself a heap of trouble by excluding them from the get-go.

    Of course, this is just another take on Faulkner’s “Kill all your darlings,” but I hadn’t heard that quote until after I’d made precisely this mistake at least two or three times.

    5. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Pretty much every narrative history I’ve read starts with a prologue consisting of an exciting incident from the middle of the story. After that it goes back to the beginning of the story. And after using that trick four times in a row, I got fed up with it and decided to try something different: just starting my next book at the beginning.

    It didn’t work. Or at least, it worked perfectly well, but what I ended up with was a lot of customer reviews on Amazon complaining about how long the story took to get going.

    So there’s a reason why writers write the way they so, and it’s a bad idea to try to overturn conventions for the sake of it.

    Good luck.

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  163. Manu Oquendo says:

    I had a very good time going through the tips & comments. Thanks for the effort and care.
    It sums up to “passion” for what you are doing. Non professional book writing is essentially an exercise in passionate communication, internal and external.
    I run a small editing company. Practically no staff and a good network of quality help. From professional reading to editing to design and printing. I’ve learned the hard way that between the original draft and the book at the store there are certain key skills as important as the writer’s and very different. Use them and pay them. It is hard, highly skilled and very important work.

    I also write occassionally but only if I feel the emotionally committed. Indeed, it does drain all your energy and is no good for your health.
    Again, congratulations

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  164. Danny Bloom says:

    Steve, throw away all the advice and just listen to your inner beat. The book will come out just as you want it to. But one thing you need to consider, too, mate: Could Reading On Screens Be Inferior To Reading On Paper?
    Maybe.

    This is my personal POV, danny Bloom,
    Tufts 1971, researcher in Taiwan. but you might want to hear about it.

    See, Steve, there is a big issue that the tech biz and society has so far not faced up to,
    according to some neuroscientists who study the brain differences
    between reading on paper surfaces — think newspapers, magazines,
    book! — and reading off the glass screens of Nooks, Kindles and
    iPads. What leading experts in the field such as Anne Mangen in Norway
    and
    Maryanne Wolf at Tufts University say is that the fundamental
    differences between paper-reading and screen-reading might be so huge
    as to light up different regions of
    the reading brain and that these differences need to be studied more,
    especially with (f)MRi and PET brain scan research.

    It’s my personal hunch as an amateur neuroscientist, based on a
    lifetime of reading on paper and just a few years of reading off
    screens, that reading on paper surfaces
    is vastly superior for three important things: the brain’s processing
    of the text being read, the brain’s memory of the information and
    critical analysis of the inforrmation.

    I’m not talking here about the fun of flipping pages or the smell of
    paper or even the distractions of the screen’s hot links and sexy
    pictures — or that movie you’re watching on the side window while
    reading this blog. No, I’m saying that I believe, and that science will
    one day prove, that reading on paper is superior, brain-wise, to
    reading in a pixelated or
    E Ink world.

    At the heart of all my argument here, there is a
    luftmensch trying not only to understand reading, but also figure out
    the nuts and bolts that make up the human experience.

    Of course, I need to find out the real neural differences in brain
    chemistry regarding paper-reading and screen-reading.

    I find that, and I find the Nobel Prize.

    Gary Small at UCLA knows what I am talking about, Steve. In a Los
    Angeles Times interview last year, Dr Small was asked about this very
    issue and
    if he felt that screen-reading might replace paper-reading in the
    future. The UCLA maverick said that more studies need to be done on
    all this, but added: “The technology train has already left the
    station and there is no coming back.”

    I once asked book industry maven Mike Shatzkin about my rather
    eccentric views on all this, and he told me
    in an ensuing email: “You may very well be right about the differences
    between paper-reading and screen-reading, in trerms of
    brain chemistry, but just
    as nobody in the past heeded the calls that radiation and cancer might
    impact cellphone use, do you think makers of device readers will
    listen to you or
    even care if you are right?”

    I think Mike is right. Nobody’s going to listen to me, and what’s even
    worse, nobody cares. So goodbye, paper-reading; hello screen-reading,…..
    come what may! But I plan to read your book on paper, Steve, if that is okay. It sticks in my craw better –and deeper– that way…..

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  166. Tosh says:

    I wrote two books about technology and sound (both published by Peach Pit to essentially non-existent sales) and can back up one thing said here a few times. Nothing I have experienced is anywhere near as solitary an experience as writing 85,000 words. It’s makes the amount of solitary needed to finish the 2500 word magazine feature look like going to a movie alone. Once. Anyone intending to do such a thing has to have an uncommon tolerance for being alone. Note, I didn’t say lonely, because being alone and being lonely are different things, but they often feel rather similar. Especially after 40,000 words and you realize you’re not quite half done. Good luck to everyone who plans on shouldering the task.

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  167. David Gans says:

    I have to clarify: on my first book, “Playing in the Band,” I did have an editor actively involved. That was Bob Miller, who has since risen to great heights in the publishing world. Later book projects were not vetted much, if at all.

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  171. Lots of helpful — and interesting advice — here.

    I’m now writing my third book and using Zotero (www.zotero.org) to organize my research. Zotero is a free extension for the Firefox browser, and I cannot imagine writing without it.

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  175. Shawna says:

    Great great post. Thanks!

    And I am a Scrivener ‘liker’ also. Fits the way I write so much better. Not to mention being able to have the research right there! Terrific.

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  176. Dan Ferber says:

    This post is a service to writers everywhere. Thank you. I wrote my first book recently after years of magazine pieces and went through my own phase of wrenching can-I-really-write-a-book self-doubt. It passed, sort of, when I got too busy and immersed in the research and writing to think about it anymore. Then I somehow emerged on the other side. I’m sure you’ll write a terrific book, and I look forward to reading it.

    On Scrivener–I tried it and can see why a lot of writers like it, but I eventually ditched it. I used Devonthink instead to keep the research organized and recommend it highly for any research-intensive proejct. Devonthink does have a learning curve, but it’s one that’s worth climbing.

    I also use a Mac program called Freedom that shuts down Internet access for as long as you tell it–an hour, two hours, whatever. I am weak willed when it comes to the Internet, and this program did the job for me. And, I second Maryn on taking good care of your physical self. It will keep you healthy, sane and energized. Good luck!

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  179. What a terrific service to other writers. Many thanks for your generosity in posting. My key advice: Put everything in a searchable database, tagged to a chapter, message, or subject. Make finding anything/everything easy.

    At least for nonfiction, I find that writing every day doesn’t work for me. Finding, filtering, and arranging information into an argument comes first. When it’s all arranged, and you have an outline, call up just the relevant stuff for each chapter with a keyword search. You can ignore the mountain of material you have for other chapters. Writing each chapter is then more like writing an article.

    I write about my book-development process at http://www.stairwaytoearth.com.

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  180. Dan Wallace says:

    Cory Doctorow: “Stop in the middle of a sentence, leaving a rough edge for you to start from the next day — that way, you can write three or five words without being “creative” and before you know it, you’re writing.”

    Curses, I thought that was my super-secret trick!

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  181. greg critser says:

    Carl Zimmer has it dead-on.
    get out of the house!
    Greg Critser

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  182. Bob Angell says:

    Thank you for the keen insight into those who have been published. The main thread through all of these was to write, write and write daily? Believe Tom Clancy said the same thing – just start writing. Great advice and good luck on the book.

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    • Even though I am a published author already, thanks for a thoughtful and pithy offering in this post! Wow, you are a rare literate and intellectual writer! I’m going to subscribe and follow you. Keep it up, please!

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  185. Fawn Fitter says:

    This was enormous fun to read — especially when the authors contradicted each other! It just goes to show that what works for me might not work for you, and vice versa. I had the same “oh crap, how do I leap from article-length work to book-length work?” moment, and I have all the empathy in the world for you right now.

    For what it’s worth, what calmed me down when nothing else did was to remember that I already had a detailed outline to follow and that all (“all”) I needed to do was expand on it, in chunks of a few hundred words at a time, in whatever order made the most sense to me that day.

    Also, get up and walk around for a few minutes every hour. Your neck, back, hands, and butt will thank you.

    Now get to work! I need something to read!

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  188. Thank you so much for sharing this. I’ve been working on a book for much longer than I feel I should and the advice from these authors is truly inspiring. I’ve saved it to my “motivation” file so I can go back and read it whenever I need a bit of encouragement.

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  189. Neil B says:

    Is it 22 or 23? Heh, why did you add that extra author? Maybe to have fun with “The 23 Mystery”?

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    • Steve Silberman says:

      When I first published this, I idiotically left off one author’s advice, but fixed it minutes later. Sorry about that!

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      • Neil B says:

        Heh, well thanks Steve for adding that author. BTW the “23 mystery” is cute, look it up. (Especially since right now I see “23 Responses to Practical Tips on Writing a Book from 23 Brilliant Authors”! Also, cool to see science writers like Jennifer Ouellette weighing in. I’m a science blogger too (see name link) specializing in wrangling over fundamental questions like “the quantum measurement paradox.”

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  191. artlife says:

    although i love to write, it is not my life’s work, but i am fascinated to read these pieces of advice

    as a visual artist (another solitary and creative process,) i can relate

    forwarded to my daughter, who really writes

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  193. great advice. working on my fourth book I am using the software writeflow. unlike scrivener it allows you to link from your manuscript to particular positions in a pdf and vice versa which is extremly useful if your sources are long pdfs of scientific papers or books. this means that you can always jump from your text to the source and back. you can also extract quotes from your sources and tag them and import any website into the writeflow database on one click (with safari). Two drawbacks though: only mac and still in development. e. g. the outliner and other functions are not yet implemented.

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  194. Mick Vagg says:

    Thanks for putting this advice out there ! As someone who is circling around their first proposal having accumulated enough experience in my field and a couple of solid contacts pushing me to have a go at it, seeing a couple of my favourite non-fiction writers handing out tips is really inspiring. I am sure I’ll come back here a few more times to re-read while I’m getting underway.

    Thanks again Steve

    PS Glad I have already started learning Scrivener !

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  195. Dear Steve,

    Thanks so much for this!

    Regarding Scrivener, I have heard lots of people rave about it, but I found it a bit cumbersome when I tried using it–too many options, and I felt I needed a screen the size of my office wall.

    I would be VERY interested to hear your reflections about using it when you start to do so. And, do you plan to write more posts about your process like this?

    Best wishes,

    Jonathan
    @JonathanMenon

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    • Steve Silberman says:

      Thanks! I should probably focus on the process. :)

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  196. Scott Huler says:

    Hi Steve

    Your story — and the advice you received — is so generous that though we’ve only met briefly at a Scio or two, I thought you wouldn’t mind if I included words I’ve had framed on my desk since I was working on my very first book. They’re less instructive than sort of affirmational. Anyhow they work for me. Good luck!

    “Relax. You are doing fine. You would like to be further ahead, but that’s natural. Make lists, think, and react. Follow your instincts and let what’s happening come to you. It will work and you will be happy. HAVE FUN for two reasons: so the readers will share your joy and so that YOU will have fun. Observe, ask questions, and branch out in all directions. What’s under the far rocks is usually good to know. Eat enough, and take care of yourself. Call friends. BE HAPPY!”

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  197. Very cool Steve. I’m gonna link to this on cuke.
    Take care.

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  198. PalMD says:

    Thanks Steve and all the respondents. This is inspiring rather than intimidating. I often have terrifying thoughts of writing a book—other work usually crowds out the nightmare, but it’s good to have this info, and I must say that all the science writers I’ve ever dealt with were, like these, incredibly generous with their advice.

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  199. Alice Stelzer says:

    Very helpful advice. It felt so great to read what non-fiction writers say. So often all the advice I read is about fiction. I am going to go check out Schrivener right now. Thank you.

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  200. Maureen Ogle says:

    Love all this advice and I’m sure you noted how, well, diverse it was. (“Don’t read anything not connected to the topic.” “Pig out on mysteries at night when you’re tired.”)

    I’m just finishing my fourth non-fiction book, so here’s my advice:

    1. Amen to all the above about the need for organization. Obsessive, manic organization.

    2. Back up every draft of every chapter in Dropbox or somewhere, anywhere, other than your hard drive/flash drive.

    3. Buy a second computer. DO NOT CONNECT IT TO THE INTERNET. DO. NOT. Write on that machine.

    3. Don’t panic if you’re not “writing every day.” You can’t write every day, not if you ALSO want to do the research on which the prose will be based. Research takes a lot of time and it’s tiring and it’s the necessary precursor to writing.

    4. Give yourself a break. There will be days when what you most WANT to do is lie on the sofa staring at the ceiling. Do so. Because that’s your brain telling you that it needs some serious time to do some serious, deep work. And when it’s done its work, it’ll tell you that it’s time to go “back to work.” Because YOU working and your BRAIN working are two different things.

    5. Finally, and most important: A book is a collection of chapters. A chapter consists of paragraphs. And paragraphs are collections of sentences. You write a book ONE. SENTENCE. AT. A. TIME. Really. You do. You’re not sitting down to write “a book.” You’re sitting down to write first one sentence, then another, and then another.

    Good luck. See you on the other side!

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    • Jill Baptist says:

      “Buy a second computer. DO NOT CONNECT IT TO THE INTERNET. DO. NOT. Write on that machine.”

      I just got a new computer to replace an older model, and I was going to decommission ‘the workhorse’ for parts. Not anymore. I’m now going to set up a second system specifically for working on my book without the distractions of the internet. Thank you for this fantastic piece of advice!

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    • Matt Carey says:

      “3. Buy a second computer. DO NOT CONNECT IT TO THE INTERNET. DO. NOT. Write on that machine.”

      I second this in terms of work in general. Sometimes it’s good to shut down connection to the rest of the world and concentrate on the task at hand.

      If you need to go with a second computer, do it. If you can power down the network and work, so much the better.

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      • Angela says:

        I agree, I get a lot done when I take my daughters laptop to the library and I do not connect to the internet. At the library, I know I have only so much time, at home I feel like I have time to waste on the internet. Also, I see why many famous writers wrote their first best sellers at cafe’s or libraries.

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  201. Marcus Speh says:

    Very interesting thread – some good takeaways, thank you! I would like to recommend a combo of DevonThink (database for research of all kinds) and Ulysses for writers of fiction or non-fiction instead of having one tool do both (but not quite as well).

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  202. Steve Silberman says:

    And another after deadline, from one of my science-writing heroes, David Dobbs (@david_dobbs on Twitter):

    Never give away your secrets.

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  203. Steve Silberman says:

    One more after deadline from the superb science writer Brian Switek (@laelaps on Twitter). Thanks Brian!

    1: Treat writing like it’s your job. This sounds so simple as to be stupid, but hear me out. When I started composing Written in Stone – when doubts about my ability to actually write a book constantly pinballed around in my head – just showing up to work on the manuscript was a struggle. Conducting more research and reading a few more articles were excuses to avoid making myself feel stupid by writing something I didn’t like. But that’s just part of the process. A book is a marathon. Simply showing up every day to work on it – whether you like what you produce or not – is essential training that will fine-tune the unique writing abilities necessary for long-form storytelling.

    2: Learn from good storytellers. I wish that I had spent more time doing this when I was writing my first book. Reading papers, talking to scientists, and immersing yourself in the book’s topic is all essential to writing a science book, but what does any of that add up to without a solid narrative to keep the reader moving towards that “Wow, I had no idea…” moment? Different writers will have different preferences, of course. (My own sources of inspiration at the moment: This American Life, Radiolab, Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell, and A Primate’s Memoir by Robert Sapolsky.)

    3: Learn to love the fail. I can’t claim credit for this one – it’s something I once heard Stephen Colbert say during a taping of his show, but I felt that it applied to the book-writing process. Typing out a crisp and beautifully-descriptive sentence, paragraph, or chapter feels great, just as it is extremely frustrating when the words don’t seem to come out right. Yet those aggravating moments are among the most instructive – where you can gauge where the story is going and why the prose just is not clicking. In order to write something that feels right, sometimes a writer has to find out what doesn’t work first.

    Bonus rule: When an excellent writer like Steve Silberman asks you to contribute a few words of advice about books to appear alongside the collective wisdom from some of your favorite authors, do it right away. Otherwise you might forget about it and feel extremely foolish later on.

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  204. Tons of great advice here, Steve. Lots of it can apply to other endeavors as well, like the new learning curve I’m currently bashing my head against with digital music.

    I like the idea of the questionaire- it’s a great tool to help get people talking.

    I wish you all the best in this endeavor. You write your book, I’ll learn how to make crazy music on these computers. We can compare notes sometime. Just don’t forget: the journey is as important as the destination.

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  205. Jane says:

    Great collection of tips!

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  206. Incredibly useful advice. Just downloaded Scrivener for my own next book. :) Because it’s gonna be tough to organize/keep track of all the threads for that one.

    Really looking forward to reading your autism book, and while I know all too well that initial panic/terror at the onset of the writing process — I also know you’ll produce an amazing piece of work.

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