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by Mike Essex on 23rd November 2012
The need for long content has never been greater. Digital book sales have never been higher and there’s more places than ever to promote them. Alongside this the Internet has freed writers from the shackles of tight word counts for print and grown the market for long form investigative journalism, how to articles and detailed whitepapers. If you have ever wanted to write or want to take the leap to longer form content then there has never been a better time than right now.
When I completed my Top 100 Challenge in August I decided to write my first ever fiction novel. 85,000 words and three drafts later I’m almost done and now seems like the perfect time to run through the (often tough) lessons I’ve learnt over the last three months.
I’ll also be drawing on my experiences on my first two non-fiction books and curating the ten Koozai digital marketing whitepapers. So whether you want to write 35 pages or 350, there will be a mixture of tips for all sorts of content styles.
Ask yourself some hard questions:
The good news is anyone can write and if you follow the model set out by NaNoWriMo you could even have a first draft written in a month. However it’s worth asking yourself these questions before you start:
Tackling these questions will help you determine if you are ready and also if there is a market for the content. If the answer to any of the above questions is “no” then you’ve got a problem and need to solve that before you can move forwards. If you get a “yes” to everything then congratulations you are ready to write!
Write Short Content First:
If you are not a very experienced writer then it’s vital you write short pieces of content such as blog posts or short stories before you commit to a long writing project. Everything you write will help you practice and refine your style. I’d been writing for six years before I attempted my first book years ago and even now I look back on my early work and hate it.
I’m not suggesting you have to wait six years but at least write about your topic or in your genre several times before you write a long piece. You’ll be able to prove you are knowledgeable enough to write something long and it also gives you the opportunity to build up a following first. Fifty Shades of Grey was so successful because the author, E L James, wrote early drafts around the web and shared them. This helped grow a fan base for the book and allowed her to find the right writing style before publishing the final version.
What is the goal / plot?:
Your entire piece of content should be formed around one single, simple to understand concept that can be summed up in the shortest amount of words possible.
And so on….
For my newest book (currently nicknamed “Tethered”) I started with a what if;
“What would happened if everyone is born with a twin that they are psychically linked to and whose emotions they feel?”
Then I kept expanding the idea outwards until it was enough to fill a book. This is another great way to get started and it means when you are finished and you are telling people about the content you can do it quickly and they can see the concept easily.
Plan everything out:
From your really quick and simple idea you can then expand the concept out. First of all consider the medium you are writing and the expected length. If it’s a book then you’ll be writing around 250 words per page (so a 300 page book would be 75,000 words). For a whitepaper you may only need 25 pages and can use large images too so there’s even less words. All of this will help you plan how much content you need and how you’ll fill it.
Next you’ll need to plan everything out. For my fiction book I wrote a four page plot summary initially and then wrote character profiles (this is a great guide on how to write them) that would guide the story.
For my non-fiction books the flow was equally important as I had to establish beginner’s level information and then build on that whilst also giving away enough useful stuff at the start to keep people reading to get to the gems at the end. The goal is not to give everything away up front – the same as fiction you don’t want all your spoilers in one go – and drop enough gems every chapter to make people read them all.
When you have finished the draft tell someone about it and walk them through the story you want to tell or the details you want to impart. Make sure it is someone you trust who is a typical reader. You don’t have to make every change they suggest but at the very least this will help you – for example if they say “I’ve already read that type of thing before” then you may need a more unique hook.
Now it’s time to write? Are you feeling ready?
Have a regular schedule or timeslot:
If possible you should try and write something every day or at the very least read back your previous day’s content. There’s a great post here that explains how to write 5,000 words a day which means you’ll have that 85,000 word book done in 17 days. Personally that’s a bit optimistic to fit around a day job and I found my own writing levels were around the 1,500 words / 1 hour a day level and it took me three months with edits so that’s probably a more realistic level.
For our Whitepapers we take around two full days (16 hours or writing) so it’s certainly possible to write long meaty content in a shorter time frame. If you are writing a long blog post or piece of journalism you may have an even tighter deadline so that will dictate some of the time you need (more on deadlines later).
In my case I found public transport was my friend. I have a 30 minute commute every day which leads to one hour of potential writing time. Suddenly without doing anything differently I found I had an hour to write. So if you can fit writing in to your day to day life you are on to a winner. Also on that note if you’d have an awful day and are exhausted then go to bed instead of trying to stay up and write another 1,000 words. You’ll feel better the next day and will write something a lot better too. If you miss a day your ideas will not dry up.
Write slower and write better:
The other problem I have with saying “today I’m going to write 5,000 words” is that in reality, writing isn’t like that. Sometimes you’ll be writing a section in non-fiction that you are really familiar on, or you might be writing character dialogue in fiction that just flows. Those days are awesome and you’ll nail your word count but not every day will be like that.
Eventually you’ll get to a point and you’ll have to write something that requires a lot of thought. In these cases you will not feel like a writing machine. In fact you’ll probably feel like an awful writer but that’s ok. In my new book I had to describe a burnt out shopping centre and it took days for me to get the description right. It would have been lazy writing to just say it was burnt down, instead I had to look at reference photos of burnt buildings and go in to a good level of detail on what had happened and how it looked and made the characters feel. Had I vowed to write a set number of words that night I’d either have been up very late or just written some filler content so I could move on. So ban the word count and take your time.
Expect everything to change:
Unless you are a psychic or very good at planning then you will start writing and will need to make changes. That’s ok. It’s natural. It’s healthy. It’ll make your book better. You are trying to turn a few pages of notes in to hundreds of pages of content it’s only natural that some of the things you write at the start will either a) take you down a different path or b) contradict things you want to say later.
Sometimes the art of writing simply leads you down a different path than you expected and your brain comes up with opportunities in story or content that you could never have anticipated. As long as everything you write feels logical and natural to what preceded it then your content will still stand tall and you shouldn’t be afraid to navigate down these paths.
In a great talk by Vincent Franklin at Quiet Room he explained how Romeo and Juliet’s plot works because everything that happens is a logical step due to what happened before. The story is really just a sequence of mis-understandings but it works because they happen in a logical way:
Using this structure and not being afraid to change the content for more logical outcomes is a fantastic approach. Even if you are not telling a fiction story this approach can still work (and no you don’t have to start with “once upon a time”).
Research everything and stay consistent
This is especially relevant if you are writing non-fiction. If you want to write a whitepaper or long blog post on a topic everything in it has to be accurate and you have to either put a publication date on it or keep it up to date. Even a tiny bit of bad information can sour the entire piece of content and if people start spreading around your errors – or putting them in reviews it can taint your downloads/ sales. That’s why we made a 2nd edition of our Local SEO whitepaper the second we spotted it was out of date.
Even in fiction it’s important to not just make up “hokey science” or macguffins that make no logical sense in the story. Science fiction is fine as long as it works in the story and is inconsistent. E.g. in my case there is no real science of twins being psychically linked so I have to establish rules and keep them consistent throughout. I can’t half way through the book decide new rules for this link between twins unless I go back and edit everything.
Expect deadlines to change:
Your writing is going well but you realise you need to write 100 more pages and you only have a week before the deadline you set. What do you do? Do you rush the final 100 pages to reach the deadline or do you push the live date back?
Unless you have the publisher from hell then push the date back. Don’t ruin your content at the last minute by rushing the ending. Even in non-fiction you can’t suddenly stop writing without covering all the bases of your topic in enough depth. Hopefully the plan you made at the start will allow you the time you need but you may find you need more pages to explain the topic and therefore you have to allow for this. Unless you are making a print book at a set length or need to stick to a set number of words then give your content the right number of pages it needs.
Sure it’ll take more time and you’ll get frustrated that your content isn’t out yet (I know I am!) but I’d rather the content was great than knowing I’d rushed something out. Plus if as a reader I read your content for hundreds of pages and you rush the ending then I will hate you.
Take a detox week:
When I’d written the final page of my first draft I did nothing with the book for a week. I got caught up on Homeland, played a bit of Xbox, got out of the house and networked and just generally tried to relax. After writing for months you’ll be thankful for the break and it means you’ll come back to your content fresh after that. It’s vital the next time you read your content you do it as a reader.
I appreciate this may not be relevant if you are writing an epic blog post and need it out the same week but even if you take a little time – like one night – to distance yourself from the work then you’ll do a much better job of assessing it objectively later. Then read the whole thing and read it slowly, you can’t afford to skim.
Ask a friend and allocate roles:
If you have the luxury of having an in-house proof reader then have them read everything – as well as you checking it. If you don’t have this then ask a friend for their opinions. Don’t send out your content to everyone who asks though as you never know if someone will rip you off (seriously this happens so be careful and send it people you trust).
My friend Sii suggested that I give each reader a different role and that worked great. So here’s what I went for:
Wave One (after I’d written half of the book):
Wave Two (the entire book)
Wave Three (the entire book, all prior suggestions made)
The first wave is really important as it’s a quick spot check to see if you are on the right lines. It’s also a great time for your readers to tell you what they like and don’t like. Sam really liked one of the characters that I only planned to have a small role so I beefed up how often they appeared and it created a stronger finale that I never would had had without investing time in that character. So if you like the ending, thank Sam.
Wave two is the same but with a big focus on spotting typos. There will be a lot of them and you just need to fix them as quick as you can and move on. Don’t beat yourself up. There will be a load of typos so just be glad they’ve been spotted before you go live.
In wave three if you find everyone is coming back with critical plot issues then you will probably need to do another wave after that until you get it right. Oh and you don’t have to make every single change but likewise don’t be stubborn; if a few people say something needs changing it probably does.
By the time I have all this feedback I’ll be on around draft number four or five and then will be ready to launch. Whilst it does take a long time to get feedback it’s very worth it. It’s also good to split up roles as the people who are looking for typos won’t be reading the book like typical readers so you need some people who will go with the flow and who can tell you how everything reads as well.
Grow a thick skin:
Two weeks ago I was pretty much ready to launch the book. I’d read everything and had fixed most of the typos. Then I had a frank chat with my wife who had proofed the book and she found some critical issues that I hadn’t thought about. We looked at other books and found that although the story was good in mine it wasn’t at the same level as most successful books. I’d missed a lot of description that to her, as a reader, was critical for her enjoyment.
For example I didn’t spend much time saying what characters looked like or what locations looked like. I obviously knew what they looked like, which is probably why I didn’t add it in but as a reader she needed that information. When she told me, I was gutted. It meant weeks of rewrites and edits and having to read everything again but it will mean a better experience for the reader and that is more important than my feelings as an author. It’s not about me, it’s about you.
The best rule of thumb is that your first draft is not your final draft. You might be anticipating just fixing a few typos and making it live but there’s a lot to think about. Proofing and tweaking can take just as long as writing so be sure to factor this in to your time.
Writing a book has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done and I’d recommend it to anyone but it’s also a long journey and can be incredibly tough at times. The rewards are fantastic if you get it right and I would love to hear stories from new authors or even people who have done it hundreds of times below.
As for me I’m just about to finish my latest draft and am still hoping to release “tethered” in December. I’ll also be writing a blog post in the New Year that tackles the next part of the puzzle: Marketing your content.
Good luck and please share your experiences on writing below: