Now, young padawan, after preparing for it in the first part of this post, we’ve reached the point where you start the actual writing. Usually, it’s best not to write linearly, page after page. Instead, choose whatever most inspires you at a given moment and take it from there.
6. Write Where it Flows
As you’ve already created a basic structure for your work, pick a part where you feel you have something to say. Find a passage that inspires you or sparks a new idea. If something on page 34 is weirdly formulated, rewrite it. Pick a paragraph that needs added argumentation and build on it.
Zig and zag around your manuscript. When you find something interesting and get into a flow, write as long as you feel the text is coming out of you. When it stops, scan around the text for other parts that could trigger inspiration and carry on. As a side note, if you’re waiting for a train, put on an alarm clock some 15 minutes before you need to head out to the tracks so you’ll snap out of the writing flow.
Trust me, it’s worth it.
7. Edit, edit, edit
The writing part can take anywhere from a few days to a few months or even years, depending on how much time you can spend on your book. Once you have reached the point where your work has, as Aristotle would have it (actually, this time), a beginning, a middle part and an end, it’s time to start editing.
The golden rule of editing comes from the good old Elements of Style by Strunk and White: “Omit needless words.” I know we’ve been taught to write essays of 1200 words and theses of 50 pages, but you really don’t want to have the stuff in your book that the reader won’t read.
If your work has a particularly clever passage, strike it out.
Another good rule is KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid. Especially in the academic world, getting lost in the jungle of complicated vocabulary is easy. But even for the educated reader, it’s best to write as simply as possible. Use jargon only if you can’t express yourself using plain language.
Finally, sorry to say, but kill your darlings. If you find time and again that your work has a particularly clever passage, strike it out. Push it back to your Idea Cloud, but yank it out of your work.
A book is always a whole — not a preamble to that amazing stroke of genius on page 117. And if there is something that always steals your attention from your work as a whole, it doesn’t belong there.
It’s probably genius; that’s why you love it. But it belongs somewhere else. Maybe it will become the cornerstone of your next book.
8. Ask for Comments
Once you’ve finished at least three editing rounds, send your book out to its first readers. No matter how brilliant you are, you are only you, and with other readers, you’ll always get more insight. First, how to make your argumentation clearer and second, if there are any mistakes or bad form in your work.
When asking for comments, make sure you only send your work out to people who can give you valuable feedback. If you’re writing a thesis on modern poetry, asking your best friend, an avid Michael Crichton fan, to comment is not the best idea. And no matter how literate your mom is, she can probably offer little insight into your Ph.D. thesis on the charge particle detection challenges in large, medium and small hadron colliders. Unless, of course, she’s a nuclear physicist, like some moms are.
This is also a great time to let your manuscript incubate. As you let your first readers read and comment on your work, take some weeks or months off. Put your work somewhere you won’t accidentally bump into it and resist the urge to take a look every now and then. If a new idea pops into your head, or you realize you need to fix something, make a note in your Idea Cloud. Let it simmer. It’ll become a better stew that way.
9. Return to the Manuscript
Oh boy, this is usually one of the most fun parts of writing. Once you’ve got the comments from your readers and have given your work enough time to incubate, dig it out, make a backup copy — and dive right in.
Go through the manuscript, edit some more, add or remove content based on the comments you’ve received, fix mistakes and typos, and check and cross-check quotes and references. Finally, compile the final bibliography and appendices. (Although if you’re writing fiction, you probably won’t need a bibliography.)
Almost no one working in any creative field will ever be completely satisfied with their work once it’s finished.
Once you’ve worked on the manuscript to your satisfaction, find a nice chair. Take your manuscript, preferably print it out or use a tablet, lean back and read it from top to bottom. Mark any mistakes and typos and fix them later once you finish reading.
If you’re happy with the work, you can incubate it for a few more weeks or so. If not, go back to any of the above steps and keep on working until arriving at the point where you can read your finished work and feel satisfied with what you’ve written.
10. The Finishing Touch
Alongside the Writer’s Block, the other major stumbling block in any creative work is the Endless Editing Siren’s Call. Let’s face it — almost no one working in any creative field will ever be completely satisfied with their work once it’s finished. Even the creators of humanity’s masterpieces have tended to keep tinkering with them way beyond what was necessary. Just ask Leonardo da Vinci. Or George Lucas.
To this end, learning to employ the Finishing Touch is a good practice. Once you feel like you’ve finished your work, permit yourself to make one last edit. Change one passage. Add one quote. Remove a paragraph. Edit one argument. Do some One Single Thing you think your work still needs — and then, let it be. Like W.H. Auden once paraphrased Paul Valéry: “A poem is never finished; it is only abandoned.” Thus it is with a book too. Ultimately, you’ll need to let it go and have its own life.
Once you’ve finished your work, its meaning is no longer decided by you, as Margaret Atwood pointed out in her Masterclass. Instead, the work now belongs to its reader. They will make their own interpretations, and if you write fiction, they’ll build their own imaginary worlds. Your work will simply be the handmaiden.
Writing a book can be exhilarating, and it can be one of the best experiences you’ll have, especially if you focus on what you love, tackle Writer’s Block by hoarding enough raw material, ask for comments from people who can understand your work and sidestep the Endless Editing Cycle by adding a Finishing Touch.
Ultimately, writing a book is a lot more than just writing.
But the best bit is still the writing.
So now go, and make it big. The world can’t wait to read what you’ll write.