Writing a book is difficult.
Writing your first book is even harder.
It took me a really long time to submit my first book (and a lot of heartache, imposter syndrome and extra delays with my publisher). The second book was a comparable breeze – I knew what it took, I knew what was a waste of time, and I knew I needed help (much earlier). Those insights led to a faster second book to the publisher AND a book that was much better-received, better-selling, and better-written.
In the Fall of 2016 I committed to take a group of undergrads through the experience of writing their first books. I wanted to help them avoid the first-book mistakes I made, but didn’t know if they were common or not. After all, an N of 1 (i.e., me) doesn't a pattern make…so I decided to figure out if my hunch was more than a hunch. Over the course of a few months, I began interviewing published authors and focused on authors who had written a second book.
"What did you do differently on the second one?" I'd ask.
It was as if I'd given the author the cathartic opportunity to unleash a tirade against their-first-time author self. "Oh, let me tell you all the dumb stuff I did…"
Since then, I've spoken to many, many authors about their second books (and actually coached a dozen on theirs). After each of these discussions I began writing down what a second-time author did differently than most first-timers. My goal was to teach and coach my authors to write first books by writing AS IF it was their second book. Some of the tactics were simple (and fairly obvious) while others were surprises to me.
With this series, I'll begin to share the lessons multi-book authors shared about what they did differently on their second book, and how to take those lessons as a first-time author to write your first book like it’s your second book.
To begin, I'll share one of the biggest learnings from my own book writing experiences (and something echoed by many, many others).
TLDR: First-time authors fixate on trying to change their writing work style to how they "think" authors write. Second-time authors build structure around their existing writing work style.
Assumption: To Write a Book, You Must Write Every Day
“I try to get six pages a day.”Stephen King
“I write every morning.”Ernest Hemingway
In his interview with author Allen Gannett, best-selling author Daniel Pink says his approach is to start his morning with a goal to write 750 to 1,000 words and doesn't let himself do anything until he finishes (no matter how long it takes).
Reality: There are Actually Three 'Writing Work Styles' for Book Authors
“But I just can’t write every day."
That's one of the most common refrains I hear from potential or struggling authors.
Neither could I. I remember feeling disheartened because I had heard famous authors like Stephen King, Ernest
Hemingway and Daniel Pink all say that to write a book just write every. single. day.
For some people, that's great. But for me it just didn't work.
As I was working on my first book and balancing a full-time, intense job, I found myself anxious and at times beat myself up when I couldn't write regularly (and routinely).
So I stopped trying. This single decision was huge for me.
Ah, those people are Habit Writers
What do Hemingway, King and Pink all have in common? Writing is (or was) their full-time job.
For those of us where writing a first book is a priority but not our only priority, daily writing may not be an option or may not work. For me it was actually both.
Having worked with hundreds of authors (and interviewed hundreds more), I've come to learn this writing work style is called “habit writing” – it's the person who establishes a routine to write daily or very regularly. BUT, having worked with hundreds of authors, only about 30-35% of people are habit writers.
The Three Writing Work Styles of Authors
In my experience, I've found three common writing work styles for people working on books or other substantive writing:
- Habit Writing. Writing daily or very regularly.
- Episodic Writing. Writing in intense, focused periods where you create much more content during those more sporadic episodes.
- Deadline Writing. Writing driven by deadlines (this is similar to episodic writing, but usually it's more intense and more focused around delivering to an external party on a deadline).
Me? I write sporadically. Two nights ago I crushed 3,500 words, but had written nothing in the prior two weeks. It was an ‘easy’ 3,500 because I was inspired. I call writers like me “episodic writers” who write in more intense, focused episodes. When the spirit strikes, we’ll write a bunch, but if it’s not striking then I ‘ain’t writing.’
And when the spirit strikes for episodic writers, don't quit once you've hit a particular number of pages or words – keep going until you 'finish' that episode. There are times when I'll stay up very late if I'm in 'the zone' and others where I'll cancel meetings and calls because I've hit the zone.
The last type of writer I commonly see is a deadline writer (which, admittedly, is also sometimes me). These writers are driven by deadlines and need the feeling of a deadline to create inspiration. And it works wonders for some people – I’ve seen some incredible first drafts written during an intense week-long writing session just before a deadline.
Lean Into Your Style
First off, don't beat yourself up because you can't or don't write like someone else. It nearly torpedoed my first book because I got in my head that I was failing because I wasn't writing every day. Our brains and bodies are wired differently.
Second, you've usually got pretty good clues as to your writing work style from your past experiences. How did you do term papers in high school, college or grad school? If that was your writing work style then, it's probably still your writing work style.
Third, based on your preferred work style, find ways to create a framework to succeed based on your style:
- Habit writers should use their calendar to block off time, find writing partners and treat writing like the gym. Finish what you want to do for the day and move on.
- Episodic writers should create flexibility in their schedules and lives to embrace these episodes – be comfortable with a groggy next day, be okay with cancelling on people when you're in the zone, and use tricks like turning off the internet or taking a nice long bus ride when you're hitting the zone.
- Deadline writers should find ways to create deadlines – whether real or self-determined. Often this means finding a partner or an editor or a beta reader and committing to dates for them. One of my authors convinced one of the scariest professors she knew to be her advisor. She committed to a schedule of sending him draft content every 3 weeks and, like clockwork, during the days leading up to each deadline she'd find her inspiration to meet the deadline.
Don't be afraid to jump around a bit and try other methods too – maybe your habit becomes a weekly writing session on the calendar, or maybe you impose deadlines to up your word count.
Remember, if you’re writing something substantive, don’t beat yourself up if you aren’t a habit writer. Plenty of very successful authors write their books in spurts, sprints and driven by deadlines.
Once you know your writing work style, own it and use it to your advantage.
But remember, second-time authors don't try to change their writing work style – they own their style and build a strategy and plan around it.