Colin Dunbar

How to Start Writing a Book



I know what it’s like – you have this awesome idea, you’re uber excited, but how to start writing a book makes you hit out in a cold sweat… Maybe you’re nervous. Maybe you’re afraid. Or any other number of reasons.

So, if you’re having any of the feelings I mentioned above, feel assured you’re perfectly normal. And I know it doesn’t help a shit me saying that.

As Stephen King says, in his memoir, On Writing, “The scariest moment is always just before you start.” [1]

But it is something that can hold you back from writing your book.

Mini disclaimer: The methods mentioned here work both for non-fiction and fiction. I must tell you I’m not a fiction author (yet).

Here’s the good news…

Starting to write a book is very possibly the easiest part of the writing process.


We’re all different, so to help you get started with writing your book, I’m going to share six methods about how to start writing. Try the different methods, find the one that works best for you, or a combination of methods, and move forward with writing your book.

It can be done.

The devious “blank” page

When we’re faced with that blank page, it’s all about starting to write as quickly as possible. Getting words on paper (or screen) can get the momentum going.

Try this.

Actually write the following (you can delete it after you’re finished writing your own material).

Ok, here I am. Pen and paper in hand / at my computer. I know I have it in me to write [FILL IN THE BLANK]. I am a fireball when it comes to writing, and find it very easy to get started and keep going. Boo-ja, watch me go.

And then follow that short piece with your own writing.

As I said, give it a go, you’ve nothing to lose.

Another idea I have is to take a piece of writing (not too long) from a book, and actually write/type the words, and then continue with your own writing.

The Starting Point is the Outline

I know, some of us like to outline and some of us don’t. Let me say that using an outline can save you oodles of time and really avoid the dreaded writer’s block. If you’re not an outliner, I’d suggest giving it a try.

Although not considered actual writing, the first place you start is with the research on your book idea. With your initial research done, you can then start your outline.

First creating an outline can save you time when you actually start writing your first draft – think of it as a skeleton, and when you start your first draft you add flesh to the bones. An outline is like having prompts readily available.

Paper and Pen (or computer)

I like to use the old fashioned paper and pen; there are actually benefits to writing by hand [2][3]. This allows me to see the “whole picture”. In other words I can see all my notes on a page, and I don’t need to scroll up or down.

If you prefer, you can do it on a computer.

Creating your outline is about speed – get the ideas out of your head onto the paper (or screen). Just throw words and phrases down on the page.

Below is a part of the outline for this article.

Index cards

Index cards can work very well when outlining a book (they can even be used for an article).

The benefit of using index cards for your outline is before you start writing your first draft; you can shuffle them around easily. It’s also easy to add or remove pieces.

Another benefit of using index cards is you can add more notes on each card, as well as notes about things you might want to research (you can use a different colored pen for research notes).

Here are 3 index card outlines for a book I’ll be finishing soon.

Post-It Notes

Similar to index cards, are Post-It notes to create your outline.

I couldn’t think of a better example of using Post-It notes than Pat Flynn’s outstanding video.

The one downside of this method for me is having the space to lay out the Post-It notes (and then leave them, maybe for a week).

White Board

A benefit to using a white board for your outline is similar to using the paper and pen: you can see the whole thing in front of you. Obviously, the white board should be big enough.

If you don’t have a big enough board, you can take a photo of parts of your outline, e.g. a chapter, wipe the board and carry on with the next chapter, or part of your outline.

You can then type (or write) the text from the photos. It may feel like an extra step, but the benefits will be worth it.

Voice Recorder


This is a very popular method for outlining. You can use one of the free mindmapping programs:

Other Options

Although I haven’t used these programs to outline my books or articles, I know that many writers use them.

Bottom Line

Keep in mind that your book’s outline is not cast in stone. After your initial outline is done, you can review it, and add or change bits and pieces (one of the benefits of using index cards or Post-It notes). You can aim at getting (almost) all your ideas in your outline; it can really make the writing of your first draft easier, and likely speed up the writing process of it.

Whatever you do, don’t get stuck in “outline zone”, and never get started on the actual writing.

Something you should keep in mind is that it’s possible to add pieces as you write your first draft. Your outline should be thought of as a guide. Trying to get everything in your outline can hold you back from actually starting to write your book. That’s an ideal scenario to procrastinate. And that’s not what we want.

To get the brain waves going, use questions: What? Who? Why? When? And How?

Example questions to get you started (this is especially for non-fiction):

Start Writing the First Draft

With your outline done, it’s time to start writing the first draft of your book.

When you start writing your draft, a valuable method is that of consistency. Even if you can only write for 15 or 20 minutes a day, try your best to maintain that every day.

“Overnight success is a myth – no one wakes up and is suddenly successful without years of preparation. Success is derived from hard work, commitment, a positive mindset and clear sense of direction.” [5]

As Stephen King advises, “As with physical exercise, it would be best to set this goal low at first, to avoid discouragement.” [1] Very useful piece of advice. The first draft of your book is again, all about speed. Consider it as a brain dump. As I said earlier, you use your outline (skeleton), and your first draft is adding the flesh to the bones.

The first draft of your book is all about speed. Consider it as a brain dump.

It’s all about getting the ideas out of your head onto the paper.


Remember, Anne Lamot said, “The first draft of anything is shit.”

Don’t worry about quality at this stage.

Ignore grammar.

Don’t worry about sequence (especially for non-fiction).

You could also dictate your first draft and then transcribe your manuscript.

Your first draft is about getting your story written (non-fiction or fiction). It doesn’t matter if it looks horrible.

“If you don’t like it later on, fix it then. That’s what rewrite is all about.” – Stephen King

If, as you write, you think of something to research, put a placeholder in your manuscript, then you can return to it later and do the research. Don’t interrupt your flow by going away to do research at this stage. I use the year of my birth, plus a word or two of the thing I want to research, e.g. 1960: OUTLINE – just type it at the spot you want to add the information. Then, when you return to your manuscript, you can do a search for the placeholder.

Just write.

Ideally, you should have your first draft as an electronic copy (Word, OpenOffice, etc.) so that you can re-arrange or add content as required. Doing that on a handwritten manuscript can really turn into a mess.

With your first draft written (or typed into your word processor of choice), the easy part of writing a book is done.

Easy part?

First Draft Review

Now the first part of the real work starts.

And at this stage, it may be useful to heed King’s advice: “But it’s writing, damn it, not washing the car or putting on eyeliner. If you can take it seriously, we can do business. If you can’t or won’t, it’s time for you to close the book [On Writing] and do something else.”

You now start to turn a jumbled group of sentences and paragraphs into a readable piece of literature.

No need to rush now. Take your time. At this stage your focus should be on quality content. Even so, it’s not necessary to spend too much time on the mechanics of grammar – look at how your content reads, and how complete it is.

If you’ve written a non-fiction manuscript, this is the stage where you look at things like:

My next article will discuss the writing of a book (after the first draft).

Is There a Market for Your Book?

I left this until the end because I wanted you to first understand the amount of work involved in starting to write a book, but this is the first exercise you should do.

Before you invest the time and effort in starting to write a book, you should confirm (at the very least get a good idea) if there’s a market for such a book.

This is especially true for a non-fiction book.

It all starts with the idea.

Naturally, every book ever written starts with an idea.

“I want to write a book about……”


Do you want to write a book to sell?

Or do you want to write a book for prosperity? Maybe a family heirloom?

If you want to write a book that you want to sell, then you need buyers, and as such you should do your research.

5 Ways to Develop a Book Idea

10 Ways to Test Market Your Nonfiction Book Idea Before You Publish

Depending on what you find, you could look at angling your book from a different perspective, or zooming in on the niche. I will be covering research in depth in a future article. Subscribe to my list and don’t miss it when it’s published.

Apart from the numbers, you should also use real world information. You no doubt know the subject of your book intimately. You will probably have knowledge of where and how much in demand your book will be.

After this research, you should have a good idea whether there is a market for your book or not.

Be aware though, that these methods are not a guarantee that you will write the next bestseller.

[1] King, Stephen (2000), On Writing, Simon & Schuster, New York

[2] Are There Really Benefits to Writing Things By Hand?




Did you find this post useful? Is there something else you’re struggling with to start writing your book? Let me know in the comments below.

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