As I mentioned last week, I’m currently working on my next book, a collection of Scripture-inspired prayers that apply to various life circumstances (prayers for deliverance from anxiety, for hope in the midst of suffering, etc.). It’s been a delight and a challenge to write these prayers. I’m deep enough into the editing process now that I’ve read most of them half a dozen times, and they’re becoming more and more precious to me with each re-read.
Though writing my cookbooks felt different from writing this book in many ways, there are quite a few similarities. In the past few weeks, as I’ve reflected on these similarities and how they’ve showed up along the way with all three books, I’ve discovered that maybe I finally have a “writing process.”
Quote marks are necessary there because I’m far from a pro when it comes to talking about the art of writing. I’ve learned most of what I know from practice, a few good classes, and reading a lot.
I’m no writing expert. Far from it. But in the past few years I’ve discovered what works for me and that feels like a small thing that I should acknowledge and celebrate.
So, non-expert that I am, here’s how I write books:
I start with a title.
This is what writing pros say NOT to do. And I do it. Go figure. Landing on a title (even if it’s just a working title that changes later) before I even write the first sentence of the book is enormously helpful for me. It boils down the entire scope of the book into one phrase. I usually write a subtitle too.
The title/subtitle combo gives me a clear direction of where I’m headed with the book, and I like that. I also just like naming things. (Confession: I actually have names for books that I’ll never write—novels, biographies, even a children’s book. I also have a name for the bakery that I’ll never open and names—first and middle—for the children I may or may not have. So yes, I like naming things.)
Next I write a chapter outline.
This is unglamorous and boring, but it’s necessary. The chapter outline serves as my road map for writing. I refer to it often and definitely make adjustments along the way. Assigning the book a title is the daydreamy part, like musing about taking a hiking trip in the Scottish Highlands. Writing the chapter outline is the grunt work, like researching the trip logistics, comparing prices, and scouring the web for the cheapest flights to Scotland. Not always fun, but necessary if you really want to go.
Then I write.
This is the secret to how I write books: I get myself to my desk and I write. I show up and do it. How does a runner get great at running? He runs. How does a painter become a master? He paints. When we watch the Olympics and see an incredible athletic achievement happen in under a minute, what we’re really seeing is the outcome of thousands and thousands of hours of practice—injury-laden, early morning, late night, fatigue-filled hard work.
The only way I’ll ever get any better as a writer is if I write. And the only way to finish a book is to write it. Obvious but very true.
I typically won’t write unless I know have at least two hours straight to sit down and work. Any less than that and I struggle to make progress. I also try not to let more than two days pass without some sort of involvement in the book. It doesn’t always have to look like writing—often it’s researching or editing—but staying in the project daily (or almost daily) really helps me maintain momentum.
I edit as I write.
Here I go breaking rules again. Every writing pro I’ve heard says to never edit as you write. “Get it all out there, write the whole book, then go back and edit.” In all honesty this sounds like a form of torture to me. I prefer to edit as I write, restructuring sentences (or scrapping them altogether) and word-smithing as I see fit. Once a chapter is done, I go back through it and get it how I want it for the most part before moving on. There will be additional edits later, but I need to feel good about it before I proceed.
Once I heard an interview with Kate Morton—one of my favorite fiction authors—about her writing process. She confessed to editing as she writes. She won’t type a line of the next chapter until the she has the preceding one just how she wants it. I clapped aloud in my kitchen when I heard this. If it works for Kate, it works for me.
I edit after I write.
After the bulk of the book is written, I go back through the whole thing and edit again. This time I typically edit a hard copy of the book. It’s amazing what I catch when I’m reading the words on paper and not on a screen. This is often the stage where I give the manuscript to a few trusted people and ask for their input. With their help I work on everything from typos to sentence structures to completely re-writing parts if needed.
When that’s all done, I always go through the book a time or two more for final proofing to catch any remaining typos or grammatical errors. (And I still miss them sometimes! To my knowledge, at least one of my books has a minor error that’s hopefully so small no one has noticed…but I have and it makes me cringe.)
I save the best parts for last.
As I reader, I often most enjoy reading the introduction to a book (if present) and the acknowledgements. There’s something more personal about these sections and they often have a different flavor than the content of the book itself. These are my favorite parts to write, so I save them for last. It’s strange because the introduction is the first thing a person will read when they open the book, but it’s the last thing I write. I kind of like that.
So that’s my highly unofficial writing process. It has highs and lows, but mostly I love it. When I’ve finished writing a book, I know I’ve done it right if it feels like a kind companion that I know well but with whom I am ready to part ways.
The next step is releasing it out into the world, and that—for me—is hands down the most relieving and terrifying part of the process. Relieving because it’s done, terrifying because now people are actually going to read it (which has been the point all along but still always scares me).
If you want to stay in the know about when my new book will be available, make sure you’re on my email list and you’ll be the first to know!