10 Lessons from Writing a Book

On a casual evening in July 2019, I announced publicly that I was going to write a book. When I made the announcement, I had not written a single word or a sentence for the book. Heck, I didn’t even have a clue about the book’s title, the cover, the table of contents or the topic I was going to write about. But, the announcement was the push I needed to get me to write. Prior to that, I was just thinking too much, executing too little; gloating too much, writing too little. After the declaration, as I received emails and messages from my blog readers with their suggestions and expectations, the alarm bells started ringing. I had no choice but to write.

From that day on, it took me around six months to research, draft, edit, polish, and publish the book. The journey was an emotional roller-coaster. There were days when I relished writing pages on end. Then, there were others when I was downright miserable and did nothing other than stare at the flickering white computer screen. Fortunately, I ploughed on and finished writing it. This whole experience gave me a unique insight into the mindset necessary to execute a creative project. I wish to share my learnings here:

1. Books are the best way to package ideas

With the rise of the internet and video distribution, people projected the end of books. But I find that books are incredibly efficient in packaging ideas and reaching people, a feat that Instagram or Snapchat or YouTube may never accomplish. People forget images, but they remember stories, and stories are often told best through writing. So, if you want your ideas to reach people, write. Initially, the goal need not be as grand as writing a book. If books seem tough, begin by writing essays. If essays seem difficult, write blog posts. If blog posts feel daunting, write tweets and publish them consistently. Once you become good at any of them, scale-up. 

2. Writing a book takes more time than you assume 

Because of their very nature, creative projects don’t have a specific set of rote tasks that you can robotically tick off every day. When I started, I had no idea how the final book would shape up. At times, I came up with some new ideas to add to the content than I initially imagined. So, I added more chapters as I progressed. Other times, I didn’t like how a section panned out, which led me to strike it out entirely and start anew. This constant addition, deletion and refinement is a time-guzzler and is probably inevitable in any creative process. 

“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”— George Orwell

3. Public accountability is powerful

When you make your goals public, it becomes a dominant force in making you live up to your promise. I used this hack twice in the course of the project. First, when I announced that I was working on a book even before writing a single word. Second, when I made known the launch date of the book despite only 85% of the book being done. Committing to a deadline improved my focus and urgency, pushing me to complete the task in time. Without such external control, I would have just fiddled with the text endlessly and obsessed over minor details with no marginal benefit.

4. Don’t edit while you write 

As Hemingway once put it, “The first draft of anything is shit.” Finish the first draft quickly, no matter how awful it reads. Why? Because it acts as a basic outline which makes the writing process so much simpler as you can now rewrite every sentence for clarity and coherence. Think of this blogpost itself. The one you are reading is a far cry from the one I began with. Having the words in your brain is no good. You have to get them out on screen or paper for you to improve them. So, as you start ideating on a book or a blog post, focus on quantity rather than quality. Just let the words out on paper and edit later. Good writing is rewriting.

5. Doing is the best form of learning

No matter how much you read about the process of writing a book (like this article), it cannot possibly account for what you will go through when you write a book. I realised that the most reliable way to learn a skill is to practice it. This principle applies to other pursuits, too. If you want to learn to program, pick a project and code; if you want to learn public speaking, start speaking at college and family gatherings; if you’re going to improve your writing, write blog posts and publish. Start, get stuck, solve, improve, and iterate. Learning happens through deliberate practice, not passive reading. 

6. You have to fight resistance

In the book The War of Art, the author describes the word resistance as an invisible force that stands between us and our goals. In other words, it’s the static friction we all confront before we begin. It stops poets from writing poems, authors from writing prose and musicians from making music. This force was a scourge I had to fight every day. On days when I didn’t want to write, I made it a point to write anyway. I wrote crappy paragraphs and crappy pages until they became less crappy. At first, I thought that with time, it would go away. It did not. With time, I just became better at overcoming it. I knew that starting is the most challenging part, so I would always try to reduce the initial static friction as much as possible. I wrote the book on an app called Scrivener. It has a nice UI that indexes all the chapters and lets you jump to any section and start writing. Every day, I would just go through the index and pick the chapter I felt like writing on. The point is to do everything to reduce the friction between you and that initial step.

7. Most ideas come to you after you begin writing 

Two years of blogging taught me this critical lesson. Our brains are so impulsive, jumping from thought to thought that sustained thinking is possible only when we let it out on paper and elaborate on the subject. Writing is a process that lets you find out what you think. No one starts with the exact words and the final outline of an article. Most of it would have come during the process. Initially, the book was supposed to be divided into fifteen chapters. As I wrote them, I added more content taking the chapter count to 25. But finally, 22 made sense. The point is, unless I started writing, I would have never been able to refine the way the book eventually turned out. Don’t let initial lack of ideas stop you from writing. Choose a topic and write anyway. 

8. Carve your niche

When you are figuring out the topic to write on, a common mistake is to choose a topic based on how likely it is to become a bestseller. Such a benchmark is so fuzzy and daunting that, to please everyone, you will end up compromising on the quality. A better yardstick would be to write on a topic that you are utterly convinced about. While brainstorming on the subject of my book, many themes came to mind: polity, history, economy, governance, CSAT etc. But I realised such books are abundant already. So, I asked myself what is that one book I wished existed during my preparation. And, I immediately knew the answer: a book that taught me how to write good essays and answers.

9. You’ll never be happy with the final product 

As you enter the final stage of writing, you will never be fully satisfied or content with what you created. There is always scope for editing. There is always room for rewriting. There is always a margin for improvement. Towards the end, I was obsessing over minor details so much that I could have easily taken another two months and not launch the book at all. But, one day, I snapped and announced the final launch date. That taught me a critical lesson. A better metric to gauge whether the project is done is to ask yourself if the final project is 90% good. If it’s yes, then it’s time to launch it. Striving for that last 10% is just placating your ego.    

Credit: https://tumblr.austinkleon.com/post/102479069106

10. Write the book you’ll be proud of 

Director of Star Wars, George Lucas was so convinced the movie would flop that on the day it was released, he went on holiday to Hawaii instead of attending the premiere. But the film went on to become one of the highest-grossing films of all time. If we feel that a popular book or a movie or a song was destined for success, remember that it’s just hindsight bias. The point is, no one knows what takes off. Just write the book you wish to read. Write the book you’ll be proud of, no matter how your readers perceive it.

Writing a book is a miserable and tedious process. But the sense of accomplishment you feel once you finish the project is remarkable. And that’s not even the best part. On a random day when you are going about your ordinary, daily routine, you receive an email from a reader thanking you for your work. That feeling is priceless. 


Note: My book, Fundamentals of Essay and Answer Writing is a comprehensive guide that helps you write better Essays and Answers in the UPSC Mains Exam. You can get the book here.

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