Plan to write. Write to learn.

Drawing: Robin Hutton

You’ll change your mind about the content of your book as you’re writing it. But writing is an inefficient way to learn. You should start by meticulously planning, not writing, and you should reserve time for rewriting, too.

There’s an efficient process that smart writers use and it looks like this: plan/write/revise/polish. I’ll explain.

Writing is the best way to learn.

When you write a chapter, you’ll learn a lot. Because writing is not just fulfilling your idea of what you should write — it is a form of problem-solving. As you solve problems, your brain discovers new insights about your ideas — insights you would never have except for the challenge of explaining them in the form of text.

As you write the chapter, you will not just learn more about the topic of the chapter. You’ll learn more about the whole book. You’ll rethink what you wrote before in light of the new ideas you unearth.

Writing is learning, but writing is expensive.

Once writers realize that writing is learning, they want all their learning to come from writing. This is a mistake. Writing is a time-consuming way to learn.

If you start writing without planning, you’ll just write yourself into a corner. You’ll create duplicative, contradictory, poorly structured, ill-thought-out prose. This will damage your confidence. Worse, you won’t learn much, because you’ll have to start all over to create a decent draft. Sucky drafts are an inefficient way to learn.

And if you’re writing chapter 3 and in the process figure out that chapter 2 should be different, the temptation is to go back and rewrite chapter 2. That’s fine, but what happens when you write chapter 4 and have yet another insight about chapter 2? Now you have to rewrite chapter 2 again.

So yes, writing is learning. But if that’s the only learning tool you have, you’re going to have to waste an awful lot of time figuring out what your book really should be.

A better way to write

Writers who don’t understand how writing creates learning have a process that looks like this:


That is exhausting and demoralizing. Worse yet, it doesn’t give an optimal result, since the end product is dictated by the deadline, not by quality. It’s the least efficient way to write.

Smart writers take advantage of the learning that comes from writing. They use a different process. To write a book:

  1. Work on and polish the main idea until it shines.
  2. Create a detailed table of contents and plan your book around it.
  3. Write Chapter 1 to scare the crap out of the reader.
  4. Plan out the next chapter you want to write (it might be Chapter 2, it might not) with a fat outline.
  5. Write the chapter. Learn while you are writing. Make note of what you learn that affects other chapters.
  6. Repeat the planning and drafting steps for all the other chapters. Do not rewrite anything you already wrote . . . yet.
  7. When all the chapters are drafted, go back and rewrite from start to finish based on what you learned.
  8. Finally polish the whole thing before turning it in.

What this means for planning your writing time

Once you understand how ideating, planning, writing, and rewriting all contribute to learning, you change the way you allocate your time.

You must set aside at least 20% of your writing time for ideating and planning.

You must set aside another 25% or so for rewriting, once the first draft is done.

And you must set aside about 5% for polishing at the end.

That leaves 50% of the time for actually creating the first draft. But you’ll be very efficient in that 50%.

It also affects how you think about deadlines.

If the manuscript is due on June 1, you’ll want your first draft to be complete by about April 15. It’s tempting but ill-advised to imagine that the first-draft deadline for a June 1 manuscript is May 23. But you can’t rewrite a book in a week.

Plan for planning and plan for rewriting. That maximizes quality and minimizes waste and heartache. It’s how smart writers write.

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  1. Thank you for this, Josh! It’s helpful as I put my thoughts down on paper and think it is taking me a long time.

  2. Thanks Josh! I am a first time author, and my first book is set to be published in three months. I wish I would have know this process 2 years ago when I began. I learned the hard way. My next book will be more efficient.