73 things you can do right now to move your nonfiction book forward

“I’m stuck,” I hear you say. “How am I supposed to write a book? It’s such a big project.”


Every big project is just a series of smaller tasks. And no matter what’s going on with your book, there are tasks to do. You can make time for these. And they will move your nonfiction book forward.

Here’s are some bite-size tasks you can work on to advance your nonfiction book, listed roughly in the order you ought to do them. Find a task on this list that you haven’t done, block off half an hour or an hour, and then do it. Then do the next one. Just keep going and you’ll have a book at the other end.

(Note: items with an * in this list are for books with a publisher; tasks with a + are for self-published books.)

  1. Brainstorm the idea. Get a few smart friends together, in person or in a virtual meeting. Bat the idea around until it comes clearly into view. Repeat if necessary.
  2. Determine the audience. Who are you trying to help?
  3. Describe how you will change them. After reading my book, the audience will ______. Complete the sentence. How will you move them?
  4. Determine how you will benefit. How will the book help you succeed? Write it down. Then you will know what kind of book to write.
  5. Figure out your writing team. Will you have coauthors? How will you work together? Figure it out. Collaboration takes planning.
  6. Brainstorm a title. Set up a meeting; talk about the book with friends. What words stands out? Use wordhippo as a thesaurus and Amazon.com to see if the title is taken.
  7. Draft a subtitle. Write a promise about what the book will do in ten words or less. Refine it during the title brainstorm.
  8. Write the flap copy. Write the marketing copy — before you write the book. This text becomes the promise you need to live up to as you write.
  9. Scare the crap out of your audience. If they don’t read your book, what will they miss out on — or what will come back to bite them? That’s the core of your first chapter.
  10. Make a virtual workspace. I use Google Drive. You may prefer Dropbox. But you need a space to work in, accessible from anywhere, that’s easily shareable and automatically backed up.
  11. List your main ideas. You already figured out a big idea. What are the subsidiary ideas? How do they relate to the big idea and each other? This informs your book’s structure.
  12. Sketch an iconic graphic. Can you draw a picture that explains your main idea? Rough it out; get feedback. Post it where you can see it as you’re writing.
  13. Figure out the table of contents. The first few chapters explain. The next few describe and recommend. The last few show how to go further. Don’t start writing until you’ve done this.
  14. Get your management’s buy-in. If you work for a company, things will go much better if they’re supporting you.
  15. Write the first two pages. Start with a story or a bold statement. This sets the tone for everything that follows.
  16. Check out competing books. What else is out there? How will your book do better or be different. Write two sentences on positioning against each. (This goes in your proposal*.)
  17. Decide on a publishing model. Traditional publishers are impactful but hard to convince and slow; hybrid publishers cost money but are more responsive; self-publishing is fast and cheap but makes less of an impact. Which suits you best?
  18. Get an agent.* If you’re pursuing traditional publishers, an agent is a big help. Get recommendations from friends who’ve published.
  19. Write a sample chapter. Not chapter one. Pick the one you have the best material on and write it.
  20. Take stock of your promotional assets. What will help you promote your book: social media, company resources, media contacts, or a publicist? You need to know this before you write a proposal*.
  21. Assemble a proposal*. Your proposal should include the opening, audience, differentiation, detailed table of contents, and author promotional platform. Get the agent to shop it; then, hopefully, you’ll have an offer or two to peruse. Here’s an example of one proposal that sold.
  22. Find an editor. Who can keep you honest and give you feedback? If they work for your company, great. If not, you may have to hire one. (Publishers’ editors often can’t put in the time you need to help you create a great book.)
  23. Find a data source. What data do you have — or do you have access to — that will make your content more convincing? Get permission to use it; find a data analysis resource if you can.
  24. Consider a survey. Consumer (or audience) surveys can deliver valuable data. Do you have the skills to create one? Where will your sample come from? Figure it out.
  25. List your potential interview targets. Whose stories will you tell? Write a list in a Google Sheet. Use your personal contacts, clients, recommendations from others, and Web research to beef up the list. In what chapters do they belong?
  26. Research interview targets’ contact info. You can get to them through email, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, or through PR at their companies. For each contact, document the best contact info you’ve found.
  27. Write an interview pitch letter. Draft an email or LinkedIn message that will convince interview targets to talk with you.
  28. Send out five interview pitches. Craft each one carefully; make it personal and explain why it will benefit the target to speak with you.
  29. Send out five more interview pitches. You can craft five in 45 minutes. Send some more.
  30. Follow up on the pitches you sent. No response? Come back again. It’s a good thing you’re tracking them all in a Google Sheet.
  31. Send out five more. Don’t send a mass email. Craft each one.
  32. Send out five more. Now you’re getting good at this. Don’t forget to follow up.
  33. Do the research for a chapter. Chapters need insights. Scour the Web. Talk to your colleagues. Put everything in a file for the chapter.
  34. Organize the chapter content. Create a fat outline. Figure out heads and subheads. Put that file in the right order, but don’t worry about writing yet.
  35. Figure out where and when you write best. What time of day suits you? Where won’t you be interrupted? Create a place and space for writing.
  36. Post a picture of someone in your audience. Find and print out a photo of someone in your audience: a coder, a marketer, or a CEO for example. Pick someone you actually know. Then put their picture up next to your monitor in your writing spot and ponder it as you write.
  37. Block off writing time. Make a promise to yourself. Put it in your schedule. Treat writing time as sacred.
  38. Write a chapter draft. You have all the raw materials and the place and time to write. Now do it. Work on the parts you understand best, then come back to the hard parts.
  39. Refine the draft. Go back to the start of the chapter and revise, based on what you learned while writing it.
  40. Ask your editor or coauthor to review the chapter. The spend some time together on what worked and what didn’t. Develop a plan to make it better in the next draft.
  41. Do another chapter. Repeat steps 33-40.
  42. Do another chapter.
  43. Do another chapter.
  44. Do another chapter. Now you’re on a roll.
  45. Do another chapter.
  46. Do another chapter.
  47. Do another chapter.
  48. Brainstorm the future. Get smart people together and discuss: what is the likely future that your book portends? Take notes. Then assemble their ideas into the final chapter.
  49. Rethink the organization. Now that you have a draft, is everything in the right order? If everything in the right place? Consider reorganizing content — once it’s written, it’s easier than you might think.
  50. Work on a cover design. If you’re self-publishing, you need an artist to work with; if you have a publisher, they’ll supply the artist. But expect a few rounds of back and forth until you get an image that works for you.
  51. Revise. Rewrite chapters based on feedback and the knowledge that came from reviewing the first draft.
  52. Make things consistent. As you get to the end, resist the temptation to make major changes. Instead, focus on terminological consistency, tone, and perfection.
  53. Make some graphics. Unless you’re artistically talented, hire a graphic designer. Make a few diagrams and charts that illustrate your best ideas. And polish that big idea sketch from step 12.
  54. Write the endnotes. Yes, they’re a big deal. You need sources for the facts you cite. You did keep track of where things came from, didn’t you? Here’s one way to tame them.
  55. Verify facts. Send excerpts to the people you interviewed and ensure you have the facts straight. Give them three weeks to respond. And persist until you get a response. Don’t skip this step or you’ll publish falsehoods and make your interviewees into enemies.
  56. Get a copy editor+. Turn your manuscript over to them. Identify and fix the mistakes they point out, but don’t make changes that do violence to your meaning. (If you have a publisher, they supply the copy editor, but you still need to address that person’s comments.)
  57. Get the pages laid out+. Your publisher will do this; if you’re self-publishing, hire someone to do it. Don’t skimp: badly laid out pages make you look like an amateur. You wouldn’t give a lecture in torn jeans, would you?
  58. Review page proofs. Look for gaps, awkward breaks, and placement of graphics. It’s your book. Reviewing this is your job. This is also where you catch and fix the last few flaws (very few, if you did the rest of the steps right).
  59. Solicit blurbs. Make a list of people you know and people whose influence will impress (regrettably, these lists often have a limited overlap). Then send out personal notes and ask for cover quotes.
  60. Write the flap copy. That’s right: draft it yourself. Then work with the publisher’s team to make it work well.
  61. Work with the publisher’s marketing team*. What’s your plan? How will they help? What ideas will you work on together?
  62. Hire a publicist. This is optional. But if you want the maximum possible impact, you’ll have to pay an expert — even if your publisher has a marketing team.
  63. Revamp your Web site. You are an author now. Your site should reflect it. Use it to promote the book and field inquiries from readers.
  64. Develop a content plan. Will you create infographics, blog posts, podcasts, or videos? How will you deploy and share them? Figure it out now, before your book publishes.
  65. Line up speeches. Every free speech is an opportunity to get your ideas out there. Every paid speech is an opportunity for books sales.
  66. Write and place articles. What publications does your audience read? Reach out and suggest bylined articles or excerpts.
  67. Reach out to promotional partners. Find bloggers and podcasters who might feature you. Write personal notes about how your new book ideas relate to their typical coverage space.
  68. Don’t forget the thank-you books. You’ll want to send signed copies to everyone you interviewed and those who helped you. You’ll need to collect their addresses. And you may want shipping help.
  69. Boost Amazon reviews. Reach out to friends — offer a free book in exchange for their posting an Amazon review. And if you see a post on social media praising the book, suggest they post a review on Amazon.
  70. Newsjack. Scour the news for opportunities to relate current events to your book. When you see one, write a blog post, LinkedIn post, Medium post, or video commentary. Then promote it on social media. This is how you get press mentions and television appearances.
  71. Get help from your company. Will your PR people help? Will your sales staff? Your CEO? Figure out who your allies are and tap into their promotional prowess.
  72. Launch. Enjoy the spotlight. Do the interviews. Monitor social media and respond to mentions. You’re an author!
  73. Start on the sequel. Go back to step 1 . . . .

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