I was trained as an architect and have always worked for architectural design firms. I love thinking about buildings and spaces and how people behave in them. When I’m at a party and the person I am talking to learns this, they invariably tell me, “I’ve always wanted to be an architect!” At this point, the conversation turns to a discussion about some major drama they had building their house, or to references to George Costanza from Seinfeld (who posed as an architect) or Mike Brady, the architect father of six from The Brady Bunch. The thing about being an architect though, is that there is a pretty high barrier to entry. You need to go to school for several years, even if you start late in life, and you have to practice for several more before you get your license. The pay is not always the best, but I always recommend it to people who have a passion for design – we will always need buildings!
That said, about five years ago I discovered a new passion – for writing. You might be surprised, but the writing process is strikingly similar to the architectural design process. There is a goal, something you are trying to communicate, and there is a structure and an art to it. There is also a finished product that you can offer to the world, and if done well, makes it a better place. After writing a couple of books, many articles and countless blog posts, I am starting to feel a little more comfortable calling myself a writer.
Now when I’m at parties, I get questions about how I got into writing, and specifically writing books. The great thing about writing, as opposed to practicing architecture, is that the barrier to entry is relatively low. Anyone with pen and paper (or a laptop and the ability to type) can give it a go. So for all of you I haven’t met at a party yet, but are interested in becoming a published author, here is my best advice:
- If you want to be a writer, you have to write. I know this sound trite, and I used to hate it when writers would tell me that, but it’s totally true. Just like any practice, you have to keep doing it to improve your craft and your efficiency. Think Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours. When I first started writing, it would take me a long time to think of an idea, then process it in my brain, then write something, then read it, then rewrite it, then read it again. But with practice, your brain starts to streamline the editing process in your head, so that you are more efficient getting your thoughts down on paper clearly the first time. Writing quickly might not be your goal at first, but if you have a looming deadline, efficiency is very helpful, believe me. The other interesting thing that happens when you force yourself to write, even if you are just writing a response to an article someone else wrote, is that you find your voice. What I mean by that is that by writing a lot, you not only discover your unique writing style, but you also find that you have something to say – you get clarity on your ideas. When I first started out, I tried to set aside time on my calendar to write once or twice a week. I had to work my way up to writing every day.
- Create an audience and a platform. I find it is very helpful to have an audience for my writing. Even if it’s just for one lone person in Zimbabwe, I’m more motivated to make sure what I write is clear and communicating something meaningful if I know someone out there is reading it. We live in a day and age that allows us to create blogs and host our own platforms, and I totally believe in this format to get started writing. My first book, The Green Workplace, was a blog long before it was a book. Some people say this format is out of style, that blogs are too long and that everyone should be tweeting or posting photos to Instagram. I suppose that is true, but if you want to call yourself a writer, you have to be able to punch out more than 140 characters at a time. Sorry. You owe your readers more than that. Now if you want to get into social media as well (and I highly encourage that you do so eventually) don’t let it distract you from writing in longer form. My blog and website, LeighStringer.com is hosted on WordPress, but I’ve successfully used Blogger and Typepad too. The key is to find a format and interface you feel comfortable with. All in all, blogging way easier and cheaper than using a printing press.
- Understand what you’re up against. If you’ve ever written a book or been around friends or family members who have written books, you know it is no small feat. Besides the requirement for having a complete obsession for the topic you are writing about, it requires tireless research, actual writing (not just thinking about it) and marketing. I have only written non-fiction and trade books, and can speak to what that process is like. I have not written academic books or fiction and I have complete admiration for those who do – and that process is a little different. For all of you closet writers out there who are thinking about writing a non-fiction general interest book, here is the process. Hopefully it takes some of the mystery out of it and will encourage you to give it a shot!
- Have something you want to write about that is specific, and a story you can uniquely tell. It’s best if you have written about the topic before (see tips 1 and 2 above) so that you have a sense of what you are going to say.
- Talk to an agent and brainstorm your idea with them. I found an agent through a friend who had written a book already. Another great way to find an agent would be to find a book written on a topic similar to what you are interested in writing about, and read the acknowledgements section. Most authors thank their agents and call them out by name because they are so incredibly helpful. You do not have to use an agent, but I found using one to be priceless. These folks are professionals and incredible fonts of knowledge when it comes to the ever changing landscape of the publishing industry. With just a brief phone call, a good agent can tell you if your book idea is “marketable” or not and can save you loads of time.
- Write a proposal. The proposal is what you use to market your book to publishing companies. Even if you self-publish, I recommend creating this document. It is typically around 40-50 pages long (typed, double spaced) and includes a title, book overview, table of contents, sample chapter, comparison of your book to other similar books on the market, your inspiration to write it, the target audience, a list of ways you will be marketing the book, why you, and no one else on the planet are the right person to write the book and your bio. Every bit of this proposal will be used by you, your publisher, Amazon and others again and again. I find that this is the big hurdle that separates the talkers from the doers. In my mind, if you can get through writing this document, you’ve got what it takes to actually follow through and write an entire book.
- Publish or self-publish. I am a fan of using publishers, but you will find that there are many successful writers who publish on their own. I’ll let you do the research on that… the topic is widely debated and plenty of good information out there for you to weigh your options. If you choose the publishing route, you or your agent will be shopping your book around, pitching it to different publishers. When I pitched my first book, it was picked up by a publisher pretty quickly. When I pitched my second book, my agent sent it to 20 publishers and I got 20 rejections… and some really good feedback. Based on their feedback I rewrote my book proposal with a different audience in mind, and pretty quickly after my agent’s second round of pitching, it was picked up.
- Write your book. Once you have a contract in hand, the real fun begins, which means engaging in research, writing like a crazy person and not seeing your family for long stretches of time. I wrote my first book on a topic I knew a lot about, and had some experience to draw from. It took me nine months. For my second book, with some stops and starts and a lot more research, writing took about 18 months. The amount of time required to write varies greatly based on how experienced the writer is, how knowledgeable they are on the subject matter, whether they have a full time job or not, etc. I tried writing my first book with a full time job, making time to write on weekends and nights. It just about killed me. For my second book, I cut back on my work-week hours to write. Not everyone has that luxury, but I found it was a sacrifice I was willing to make for my sanity.
- Market your book – the home stretch. This is the phase I’m in right now with The Healthy Workplace. I’m updating my author website (this one), lining up speaking opportunities (hey, let me know if you’re interested!), collecting endorsements, sharing little bits of content, building a network, generally trying to build buzz. For most authors, the burden of marketing your book falls on you. I actually like this part of the process because I finally am liberated from my laptop, and I can get out there and discuss all the awesome things I discovered during research. Not everyone is an enthusiastic about it as I am. In any case, if you make it this far, you can pat yourself on the back. I’ve enjoyed Tim Grahl’s book Your First 1,000 Copies for good, practical advice at this stage.
- Talk to other authors. Please don’t take just my word for it. I have learned (and continue to learn) an enormous amount from authors who have been through the process of writing books. It seems it’s a very a different experience for everyone. I remember all of author-given advice I hear and value it the most, just like parents of twins pay close attention to the advice of other parents of twins (no one else can really understand what it’s like… am I right?)
- Go for it. So at the end of the day, would I recommend writing a book? You bet I would. Nothing beats it for really digging deep into a topic and owning a subject matter. It’s a long road, and it requires the patience of Job at times, but it’s like seeing a building you designed come to life. You can see evidence of your work and its impact. Put your voice out there. Even if you don’t have time, energy or patience for a book, get starting writing blogs or articles and finding your voice. You’ll be surprised that you have something to say, and we will all be the better for it.
Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.
– Barbara Kingsolver