I Wrote a Book in 30 Days. And You Can, Too.
There is no easy street when it comes to writing, but this strategy may help you finish. From the Chronicle of Higher Education
As someone who has spent years dispensing advice about the publishing and writing process, I’ve always resisted productivity schemes for getting work done. No shortcut, app, or magical incantation will make a dissertation or manuscript appear. It takes hard, focused, intellectual energy.
In the press of other work and life obligations, writing is always the easiest to skip. One of my books took 10 years from idea to finished manuscript, with lots of painful bumps along the way. And yet, for my seventh book, I found a strategy that worked better than anything I had tried before and helped me complete a manuscript in just 30 days. As we head into summer, I offer my experience here not as a template but in the hope that readers might find all or parts of this strategy useful in drafting their own manuscripts.
Like most academics, I find few things more fun than collecting information and learning new stuff. During the research stage of my latest book project, I enjoyed every interview I conducted and every article and book I read that helped me pass from ignorant to semi-informed. Plus, the more research I did, the longer I was able to put off writing.
At some point, I knew I needed to start writing. I had tons of notes, but the thought of translating them into informative and pleasurable prose had me paralyzed. I found the solution in the book proposal I’d written for my publisher. As I’ve often pointed out, the secret to a good book proposal is to do a boatload of work before approaching a publisher. The nature of my project lent itself to a clear structure and I knew the questions I needed to answer, and as part of the book proposal, I had created a detailed chapter outline.
Based on that outline, I created a separate document for each chapter. From my notes I cut-and-pasted everything related to a particular topic into the appropriate document. That way, instead of a mass of interview and research material, I had manageable chunks. Rereading my notes gave me a sense of the project as a whole and helped me clarify my main arguments as I organized them.
Writing a book is an endurance event. After decades of producing 800- to 1,500-word essays, I knew that mandating a specific amount of daily butt-in-chair time would not result in a finished manuscript (and would probably just lead to hours of Facebook-snooping and obsessive clicking between news sites). What I needed was words on the page, and I had to pick an accomplishable goal.
With winter break looming, I made a plan: I committed to produce 2,000 words a day. It would be a stretch, but not painful. My contract required a book manuscript of 60,000 words, and I had about 30 days free from teaching. Each morning I started at 7:30 or 8 a.m. Some days I wrote until noon or 1 p.m. Other days, I was finished by 10 a.m. Once I got my 2,000 words in, I liberated myself from my computer. And that is how the work got done.
I used the passive voice there because once I committed to this program, all I had to do was follow it. I held fast to the 2,000-word rule. I never stopped one word short and went only a little longer to finish a thought. Most days I felt I could have kept going but I knew from my marathon training not to overdo it. Both in running and in writing, a steady pace prevents burnout.
Whenever I finished for the day, I knew what would come next. So I rose each morning with a sense of purpose and a clear idea of what needed to be done.
Some days, I cut-and-pasted from my notes into the text. Those words counted toward the 2,000. Some days I wrote self-indulgent tangents that I suspected — OK, I knew — would never make it to the next draft. Those words counted, too. I didn’t edit as I went. I could have spent hours playing the hokey pokey with commas, but I didn’t allow myself to tweak.
Because it was winter break, I had time, and was aided by pandemic freedom from social obligations. But even during a holiday trip, I didn’t play until I got in my 2,000 daily words. When classes started again in January, I had a complete draft of the manuscript.
I took some time away from the draft, and when I went through what I’d written, I found it easy to chop entire sections that had no point and spot things that were missing. When I wanted to confirm information, instead of returning to research mode, I simply wrote “CHECK” in the text (highlighted in yellow). After I had a complete manuscript, I would go back and fill in the blanks.
Before spring break, I printed out the whole manuscript — something I rarely do anymore — and went through it with a red pen. I cut and fussed. Then I input those changes into the on-screen version and went through the entire draft again online and cut more. I messed endlessly with the language, a task I enjoy, using Control F to find and prune overused words and weak constructions.
At this point, I’ve sent out the manuscript to a diverse bunch of folks who are doing me the big favor of being close readers. I’ll incorporate their comments before giving it to my editor who, I know, will have much to say. She may point out structural flaws or problems I can’t see (that’s why they’re called blind spots). After I do another round of revisions, she’ll send it out for formal peer review, and I’ll incorporate more feedback.
To add nuance to my clickbait headline, I didn’t really “write a book” in 30 days — I wrote what Anne Lamott famously called (in her book Bird by Bird) a “shitty first draft.” But a manuscript that needs polishing is far easier to face than a blank page. There’s more hard labor ahead to turn it into a publishable book, but I’m well on my way.
The following principles won’t work for everyone, especially those who have kids or other pressing deadlines. But you may be able to adapt them and devise your own writing regimen.
- Set a word goal. If you’re not used to churning out 2,000 words at a time, maybe commit to 500 per writing session. Or 250.
- Create a writing schedule. Maybe instead of seven days a week, you write every other day or weekend mornings. Or after the kids are in bed or before the morning dog walk. Do whatever it takes to get words on the page on a schedule that is reasonable and achievable for you. And then stick to it until you have a complete draft.
- Make an outline. Once, when helping a friend with a grant application, I suggested he create an outline. He said, “I don’t have time to do that.” I said he didn’t have time not to do it. You can count writing the outline as part of your daily goal.
- Realize that not everything will make it into the final draft. For me, what’s more important than sitting at the computer is output. No time spent writing is ever wasted — it’s how we see what we think. You just have to get something down.
- Don’t stop writing to do more research. Filling gaps is easy. Use shortcuts to remind yourself to go back to update passages or fill in missing information. For fact-checking, I use “CHECK” or “CK,” and for missing information, I use “TK” (to come) and highlight both in yellow so I don’t miss them.
- Try not to be overly ambitious. You don’t want to exhaust yourself. You’ll have plenty of energy at the start, but you need to maintain a consistent pace. This is a long haul. The difference between writers who are successful and those who languish often has to do with the ability to complete a draft, no matter how rough.
- After you’ve met your writing goal for the day, reward yourself. Take time to relax, do something fun, and remember that this is how work gets done: concerted effort and then time to rest, which is just as important.
Experienced marathoners learn to create a training program that works for them, often basing it on what others recommend and sometimes trying new things. This is how I wrote a book in 30 days. I hope some part of it may be useful to you.