Getting Started on Writing That Book You’ve Been Thinking About

Getting Started on Writing That Book You’ve Been Thinking About
  • Sarah A. Sutherland

  • April 9, 2023

Over the years I’ve spoken with many people who believe they “have a book in them” or an idea for a book. But to take liberties paraphrasing Stephen Fry’s protagonist in The Hippopotamus: books aren’t made up of ideas, they’re made up of words.

So how do you string those words together at scale?

Firstly, I’d like to encourage you to reconsider. Writing a book is difficult, and it means spending pretty much all your spare time for a year or so working, and the remuneration is almost never good. Almost everyone I’ve spoken with gets more return doing what they regularly do than they do writing a book. It also takes a large amount of up front work before getting started: I wrote for publication on related topics for about ten years before I wrote my first book. You may not need to wait this long, but starting with an article or a blog is likely more achievable. I wrote about that in a prior column.

If I can’t dissuade you, then you should start thinking about topics for the book. The topic should be large enough to support something the length of a book. It should also be sufficiently focused to be contained within a book. This can be achieved by strategically choosing to give a more summary or in depth coverage of a topic — consider Brian A. Pavlac’s A Concise Survey of Western Civilization: Supremacies and Diversities throughout History and Henry Petroski’s The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance to get an idea of what I mean. Carry around a notebook and write down any thoughts you have, as it’s impossible to remember them all.

Picking a topic is one of the most important parts of writing a book. When picking the topic for my first book, Legal Data and Information in Practice, it was partly in response to questions I was getting from the community. I knew there were people who wanted to learn more about legal data so they could start working with it, but who didn’t know where to start. My goal was to pick the topic that people would be most confident I could write, that there was a market for, and that I believed people would invest in publishing.

Different topics lend themselves to different modes of publication: some books are well suited to reach a wide audience and some are more niche. If you want a traditional commercial publisher to pick up your book you need to consider the potential market size and other business considerations. If you want to reach more people, open publishing may be a better route. While if your topic is very niche self publishing may be your best choice.

To give you an example of this process: I wanted to write a book with an international audience on a niche topic. When I looked at legal publishing, I found that most legal publishers are understandably focused on single jurisdictions. This is also often true of association publishers like the American Bar Association. I knew that there aren’t many people looking for this topic in general legal research sites like CanLII, so if I published in a legal specific publisher it was likely my book wouldn’t reach the audience I wanted.

Commercial academic and professional monograph publishers in contrast have global distribution networks, and that was the best fit for this particular book. My writing was also established enough that I believed this was feasible. This decision will affect the topic and approach as much as the topic affects the decision. If I were writing something like a general text on contract law in Canada, my decision would have been different, as I would have likely valued audience size higher and chosen an open publishing model instead.

When you have an idea you like, I suggest sitting down and writing a rough table of contents. To my mind if you can’t do this, it signifies that something is wrong. Maybe you don’t know enough, or maybe the topic doesn’t lend itself to a narrative arrangement. Figure out what the problem is, and be ready to reconsider your topic, learn more, write on the topic in other formats, or walk away.

The next step is to do some more serious thinking about considerations like specifics of audience, length, and why you are the right person to write this particular book. I’d suggest doing this as a book proposal, as it’s a formal document that includes many of the issues you should consider before you start writing. There are many guides to writing a book proposal. I found this one to be useful: How to Write a Book Proposal, by Jody Rein and Michael Larsen.

Your book proposal should include a detailed table of contents that will show that you’ve thought through your topic thoroughly and give others enough to give you detailed feedback. Don’t become too attached to the table of contents you sketched out too early. Take time to consider different ways that your book could be structured. For example Legal Data and Information in Practice has a fairly straightforward structure that goes from introduction to a progression from detail to big picture and conclusion. However, as I was writing it, I wished that I had considered other structures such as reversing the progression from big picture to detail, as it felt like that might have conveyed the importance of the subject at the beginning and given more background for why the detail matters. But the proposal had already been approved, and it was difficult to make decisions at that point. I might still have ended up with the same structure, but I regretted not taking more time at the beginning when changes would have been easier.

Once you have a completed book proposal you can start moving forward with finding a publisher or writing. If you find it difficult to write the book proposal, I suspect that it is a good indication that you would struggle to write the book and reconsider if it is for you.

** This column was written while procrastinating on the writing of a book proposal. Make of that what you will.

This post was originally published on Slaw on April 6, 2023.