Preparation Not Procrastination
There’s a delicate balance in the stage that comes before the writing.
On the one hand, there are things you can do to prepare. On the other, preparing to write often gets in the way of starting to write.
Getting ready can become a form of procrastination in itself, and it fools us so well because we genuinely do feel productive. The guilt of not writing can be ignored by telling ourselves,
I’ll write so much more quickly because of all this preparation!
Will you, though?
Practical Ways to Get Ready to Write
The process can become an end in itself — collecting notebooks, organising your desk, or reading just one more book or article…
To help you get over this, to make your preparation practical and succinct, and to get you ready to actually write your book, we have 12 steps — no more, no fewer — that you can (and should) take before you start to write.
This first stage is planning. This is where you conceptualise your ideas, and set your boundaries.
1. Decide your topic
This must come first. I know it seems so obvious, but I meet writers who struggle because they have too many ideas or are working on multiple projects at once.
Sound familiar? Then pick a topic. Because, otherwise, you could be spending weeks on research that has no relevance whatsoever to your book.
If you’re struggling with this step, then we have an 8-step checklist on what to ask before you start your non-fiction book.
Find that intersection of what lights you up, where you have expert knowledge, and what your audience wants, or needs to read more about. If you can check off all three, you’re on the right track.
2. Work out your timeframe
Writing without a deadline means the task seems (and often is) endless. Do yourself a favour and become your own commissioning editor. Set a definite deadline and interim milestones; you can always negotiate later.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s one month or one year ahead — you know best what’s realistic for you, just make sure you have clear outcomes and dates set for each stage of your work, and keep yourself accountable.
3. Create your content plan
Create an outline for each section, chapter, and subchapter of your book.
This might even be more important than working out your timeframe because it will give you an indication of exactly what needs to be done — and therefore how much time you will need.
I like to set a deadline first though, to make it seem more real. You can always adjust your timeline but it can be motivating to imagine that book launch party before you start.
Adapt your content to fit your timeframe, not vice versa.
4. Limit your research
Notice I’m not saying plan your research. Research is one of those tasks that can stretch and stretch. And then stretch some more.
You need to put boundaries around it otherwise you will never finish. Now that you have your content plan ready, you know exactly what you need for each part of the book and, hence, where to stop.
Keep the scope of any research you do as narrow as possible. You want to be effective, but you don’t want to go further and further down the research rabbit hole.
Know when enough is enough (that could be in terms of time, or in terms of information gathered) and then repeat after me,
The research is done; it’s time to write.
The second stage is gathering all your resources into one place so that you don’t waste precious writing time searching for them.
1. Collect your research
Bring all your research materials together and organise them within close reach of your writing space.
Go to the library and borrow the books you need. Download articles you want to read or reference, and print them off; even going as far as to separate out the sections you want from the ones you don’t.
Put your hard copy research into one accessible place — a ring-binder or a file box is great — you want the papers at your fingertips when the research stage begins. And pull online references into software like Evernote, or into the research folder of your Scrivener file.
2. Choose a writing software
Writing software is essential if you want the process of writing your book to be as easy and painless as possible.
Word (or any word processor) doesn’t cope with big files the way we writers need it to, and you won’t be able to see the separate parts of your book when you want to cross-reference or look at your research separately to your draft.
Buy or download your preferred writing software before you start to write, and spend a couple of weeks (or hours if that’s all you have) getting to know your way around. I’m a fan of Scrivener, but we’ve also reviewed other options so you can pick the one that’s best for you.
Starting a book isn’t the best time to be filling your brain with learning a new software, so it’s better to stick with the familiar or easy to use if you can.
3. Acquire other writing tools
Do you like to plan on pen and paper? Maybe you want to highlight important blocks of text in your research? Or record your ideas in a special notepad?
Whatever you use, make sure you have everything you need before you start, because a ‘quick trip’ down to the stationary store, fun as it is to browse the pens, is a good way to lose a few hours of writing time.
Supplies don’t have to be boring.
This phase can also be about stocking up on your favourite energising tea, or buying new running shoes for your exercise routine, or stocking up your digital music downloads to create inspiring playlists.
4. Gather your support
Things are about to get a bit intense in your life, so make sure you have the support of those around you.
If you haven’t done it already, tell your close friends, co-workers, family, and especially your partner or housemates that you are about to embark on the adventure that is writing a book.
It’s time limited — so let them know that as well — but that you would appreciate their understanding for the writing period while it lasts.
If you’re lucky (and don’t be afraid to ask for this) you might have a partner who will be happy to cook dinner and clear up for the next few weeks to give you some uninterrupted writing time.
Don’t take this for granted, and make sure you compensate by spending some quality time with him or her at the weekend, or have some together time at least one night of the week. You need the break as well!
The final stage before you start to write is to organise those nitty-gritty aspects of your life that can’t be put on hold while you’re immersed in your book.
1. Clear your calendar
Make sure you don’t have any deadlines or events coming up during this period.
If you have work projects, get ahead and finish them! Even if this means declining invitations to present at conferences, or doing all the work months beforehand, make sure it’s out of the way and does not distract you as you write.
I have a client who frequently gets asked to do small speaking events. As we went through the process of clearing her calendar, we simply designed a reply that she could give as those invitations roll in.
Thanks so much for approaching me! I’m writing my next book at the moment but I’d love to be able to schedule something after January [insert your own timeframe]. Do you think this would work for you?
Because she’s prepared she doesn’t even need to think about each invitation as it comes and if one does come in that she’s fired up about, then she still has the flexibility to say yes. What she’s finding is that 99% of people are more than happy to schedule a few months ahead — which is a double win because she’s created a ready-made book launch tour.
For personal events such as weddings or important parties, prepare in advance – choose outfits, accommodation, and book the time-off now, so don’t find yourself stressed, doing it the week before.
2. Deal with the inevitable life issues
Life doesn’t stop while you’re writing your book. Yes, it would be easier if you could lock yourself away from the world, but that’s not the reality for most of us. Prepare and pause by releasing yourself, as much as you can, from your day to day responsibilities.
Let your partner know that you need extra support around the house, or hire a cleaner. Organise with friends for them to do the school pickups and sports’ days, and promise to return the favour when they’re busy (or maybe stock up a few favours in advance?)
Take a break from your voluntary or peripheral commitments — the PTA, the various committees, the book club. Yes, you still need diversions, but rationalise them.
Even go as far as planning, cooking and freezing a stock of evening meals for the next few weeks. Or make it easy and order some healthy ready-meals or snacks — there are so many great services and you’re sure to find a local one. Last thing you want is to be stuck with hard food decisions at the end of a big writing day.
Be strong in your need for zero distractions, and don’t feel guilty – other people are OK with picking up the slack every now and then. And if they’re not, then are they the sort of people you want in your life anyway?
3. Organise your space
If you’re not sure which will be best for you (and for what stage of your writing), have a look at our guide to the best writing environment to get some inspiration and advice.
4. Create a writing schedule
Writing is one of the tasks we tell ourselves we can always do later, so keep a firm grip on your expectations and timeframes.
Schedule the days you want to write, and schedule specific slots in your calendar so that you actually do spend that time writing.
Are you a morning, or a night writer? How much time each day should be spent on research? How long will each chapter take you? How long is the book going to be? Think about your responses to these questions so you can manage your schedule for optimum productivity.
Don’t worry too much about your word count. As you get into the writing you’ll learn how many words you tend to write in the slots you’ve allocated. You can then add more time (or take some time off!) if you find yourself ahead or behind target.
And take it seriously! Treat your writing schedule just like you would a day at the office. You wouldn’t just not go to a meeting, or ditch your presentation, would you? So don’t do it with your writing.
Did We Miss Anything?
If you’re an experienced writer, you’ve probably developed your own routine by now. You know what works and what doesn’t (for you) and how you like to get yourself ready to write.
Is there anything you’d add? Or anything that you’re don’t do from this list? Let us know over on Facebook.
Finally, remember, you can do all the preparation you want, but what’s most important of all is that you actually start to write.
It doesn’t have to be perfect because there is plenty of time for polishing your work later. But you have to start.
That, after all, is what a writer does.
Do you have a favourite step in your preparation routine? Or one that trips you up and becomes another way of procrastinating (another notebook anyone?!) Let us know on social media…