Three steps to start writing your nonfiction book

Did you try to start writing your book on page 1 of chapter 1? Wondering why you’ve got reams of repetitive material that doesn’t fit together? Of course you’re stuck. You started out without a plan!

If you are going on a trip, you don’t start by just walking out the front door and seeing where you end up. You start by (1) deciding where you are going, (2) figuring out how you are going to get there, and (3) figuring out what you will do once you are there.

Writing books is similar. You need to plan where you are going before you start typing stuff.

Take these three essential steps to get your book on the right path

Here’s how effective authors get started on creating books that matter, in three steps:

  1. Develop the idea.
  2. Create a detailed table of contents that is also an action plan.
  3. Write a sample chapter (not chapter 1).

Here’s how do each step:

1 Idea development

What is idea development?

Idea development is the process of taking a vague concept and developing it into a solid foundation for a piece of writing.

How do you do that? Do a ROAM analysis: Readers, Objective, Action, iMpression. That is, who is your audience, what will they know after they read your book, what will they do differently, and what will they think of you?

Your idea also has to be differentiated. What makes your book different from all the other books on the subject? Is it a new idea, a new twist on existing idea, more practical, more forward looking, funnier; how will it stand out?

And you need to come up with a title and subtitle that capture that uniqueness.

When I work with authors on book ideas, we do a 90-minute brainstorm and generate a title, subtitle, and a one-page treatment about what’s in the book.

It’s best to write the treatment as if it were the flap copy — selling copy — for the not-yet-written book. It explains what makes the book great. Then you need to write the book to live up to those promises.

The treatment becomes your North Star — now you know what direction you’re headed and what your book is really about.

2 Detailed table of contents

What will be in your book?

You know what’s in Chapter 1: text that scares the crap out the reader and shows them why they’re missing out if they don’t follow the idea you’ve described.

The chapters that follow typically develop that idea in more detail, explain the elements of the idea, and show how the idea works in practice.

Before you write, make a table of contents: a list of those chapters, including the order they’ll go in. Make it in a spreadsheet, one line per chapter. Then use the other columns to document:

  • What’s the main idea of the chapter?
  • What question will this chapter answer?
  • What frameworks, ideas, or diagrams will the chapter concentrate on?
  • What case studies or stories will be in the chapter?
  • What research backs up the information in the chapter?
  • Will the chapter include graphics, and if so, what will they illustrate?

Sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it.

Well, you need to do that work before you write the chapter anyway. So why not do it now, for all the chapters at once?

It’s a great way to answer questions like “Where does the Walmart case study go?” and “Where do I explain the underlying technologies for this idea?”

You can write chapters without doing this first. But it will be a lot less wasteful if you plan them first. And writing them won’t be nearly as painful if you start with a plan.

3 Sample chapter

What’s next after you develop the idea and write the table of contents?

Write chapter 3. Or chapter 7. Or Chapter 2. Any chapter other than Chapter 1.


Because Chapter 1 is going to be easy to write later, based on what you created in the idea development session. Chapter 1 is unique. But all the other chapters are likely to be structurally similar to each other, because writers tend to use the same structure in each chapter. So if you can figure out how to write Chapter 3 (or 7, or 2, or whatever), you will have created a template for the the other chapters.

Which chapter should you write? Whichever one is easiest. It’s hard enough figuring out how the ideas, examples, and research will fit together. Make it easier by picking the chapter that has the best ideas, examples, and research already available. Pick the one you’re the most excited about. That will motivate you to finish the chapter, creating a template for all the other chapters.

Then what?

It’s counterintuitive to do things this way, because you won’t have started typing the book from beginning to end. But once you start this way and get the planning done, that sequential typing will become much easier.

If you’re creating a book proposal to pitch the book to potential publishers and agents, you’ve already got a bunch of the work done, since the proposal needs a title, idea development, differentiation, detailed table of contents, and sample chapter.

If you’re self-publishing or hybrid publishing, you’ve done the necessary planning to make writing far more efficient — and to make sure you know how the writing you’re doing will all fit together.

And you’re much less likely to hit writer’s block if you’ve planned ahead of time.

Don’t set out on a trip without a plan. And don’t start writing a book without a developed idea, table of contents, and sample chapter.

Now you know how to start. Get going!

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  1. This is the best argument for and description of book planning I’ve ever read. I have explained all of this to authors a thousand times – but probably never quite so clearly! Great advice, Josh.

  2. I always find it best to let the sample chapter choose you. That is, one organically starts developing and you’re naturally drawn to it. In other words, don’t force yourself to choose Chapter X.