Self-Publishing Primer: Part 8 – How do I write my book?

You will find links to the other posts in the series at Self-Publishing Primer.

Advice on writing your book would fill volumes, but I will give you a few tips and some good resources to get you started.

As a freelance editor, I do sample edits for prospective clients. Frequently, I point out some major areas the writers can work on themselves to improve their writing before they work with me or any other editor to make it even better.

Here is the advice I most often give first-time writers:

  • Read other books in your genre to see what is already on the market and what you can offer that is different. You can also learn about writing from reading other books, as described in the book Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them.
  • Read books about the craft of writing, such as Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott or Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg.
  • Write your book about some thing or some one. That may sound ridiculous, but many writers don’t really know what their book is about. Or maybe the writer knows, but no one else can tell. I read the first chapter of what the writer said was a tribute to his father. A dozen or more characters were introduced – none of them the father – and they were all treated as equally important. I couldn’t identify with any one character – remember character starts (at least phonetically) with the word “care.” If readers care about your characters, they are more likely to want to read the rest of the story. If you are writing a self-help, advice, or how-to book, make it clear whether your book is about how to help your disabled child learn better or about how schools should teach disabled children.
  • Open your book with a hook – something to grab the reader’s attention and compel them to keep reading. Most writers, especially fiction writers, start their story too soon, with lots of back story that doesn’t engage the reader. Writers are often told to write their book, then discard the first dozen or so pages to start the book at the real beginning. Readers don’t need to know your character’s life history in the first chapter. Start the story with action and weave the back story in. Even in nonfiction books, you need a hook – it may be a promise of how the book will help readers, a question to get them thinking, an unusual twist on common knowledge, something that will garner interest immediately and keep the reader wanting to learn more.
  • Whenever possible, write in active rather than passive voice. In active voice, someone does something; in passive voice something is done. “Write in active voice” is active; “your book should be written in active voice” is passive. Learn more at Active and Passive Voice at Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab and in the Grammar Handbook at the Center for Writing Studies of the University of Illinois.
  • Write your book for readability, not to impress people with your vocabulary. Of course, if you are writing a technical book for a professional audience, you will use industry jargon and the level of writing appropriate for the subject and the audience. But if you are writing for the general public, check the readability (you can do this in Word through the grammar check function) and try for around the eighth grade level. Peter Bowerman suggests Seven Steps to a More Readable Book from his book The Well-Fed Self-Publisher: How to Turn One Book into a Full-Time Living.
  • Pay attention to grammar, spelling, and punctuation. If you need help with these items, you can find help at the Guide to Grammar and Writing from the Capital Community College Foundation or in a book such as Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style Illustrated.
  • Join a local or online writers group, attend seminars and workshops, and network with other writers. offers a list of national, local and online writers groups.
  • Take advantage of the many excellent resources for writers online. You’ll find links to several Web sites for writers on my Resources for Writers page. You can also do a search for “writing + the genre of your book” for information about specific kinds of writing: memoirs, fiction, how-to, historical, etc.

If you’ve decided that self-publishing is for you, the next post will discuss how to set up your publishing company.

[tags]publishing, self-publishing, writing[/tags]

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