This is it: The secret to writing a reasonably coherent book quickly. First you create the book writing structure.

Then you fill it with content.

Then, and only then, do you fill in holes in your research.

How to Write a Book

I’m always seeking metaphors to help me understand processes. My metaphor for my BookProgram™ process is building a house. First, you create engineering drawings, and perhaps a 3D model. You work out all the structural challenges, design issues, orientation on the lot, size considerations, internal traffic, etc., in the design phase (more commonly in the computer today than on paper, but both processes serve the same purpose). Then you clear the lot, dig foundations, pour foundations, and begin constructing the building.

If you start by ordering a few bags of concrete, a backhoe, maybe some rebar, a stack of two-by-fours—it’s sounding silly already, isn’t it? How much would you order of anything? Where would you tell the backhoe guy to start digging? It makes no sense.

First you get the plans done; then you put the crew to work on construction.

It’s the same with a book. First you create the structure; then you write.

Without a clearly defined structure to organize your ideas and thoughts, writing a good book and writing quickly become far more difficult.

(You may have noticed that I assiduously avoid the term “outline.” That’s because it is tainted. Many Americans, and some people of other nationalities, were traumatized by an outlining experience around the fifth grade. I don’t want to evoke that fear and loathing. But I admit it—the BookProgram™ is a two-level outline. There.)

I have found that most people who have tried or thought about writing a book have some notion of a need to consider structure. But they don’t know how, or when. They think about outlining, and start to turn green. So they go back to “just writing.”

The BookProgram™ approach is simply to create the table of contents first. Then to go one level deeper, and create sub-chapters for each chapter in the table of contents.

Believe it or not, this is parallel to a fairly detailed house design. If you have your table of contents and sub-chapters, you will not wind up running a stairway through a support column, or having the front door bang against your neighbor’s fence when it’s opened. Your bathrooms will be near the bedrooms, and your kitchen near the dining area.

Now you begin to fill in the content—you begin to write. (But don’t do it yet—I’m still explaining.)

Book Structure

What is structure in a book? It is:

  1. Order
  2. Pacing
  3. Granularity

1. Order

In keeping the promise I made to the reader in the title of the book, what do I need to say first? What next? What should be kept for last? Some things have a natural order of precedence—you have to know this before I can explain that other thing. Some may be arbitrary, or intuitive. Here’s where you decide: when you write the table of contents.

But remember: Your reader needs to be taken by the hand and led through the complexities of your topic. You probably know a great deal about it, and you may have forgotten how little a reader may actually understand. If you start with a set of assumptions about your reader that are incorrect, you will lose them quickly. We’ll talk more about this.

2. Pacing

Given that the 12 main topics I want to address in this book map to my 12 chapters, how much do I want to put in a single chapter? Again, some areas have natural or organic boundaries; others require intuitive or creative subdivision.

Check out competing books in your topic. How thick are they? How many chapters do they have? What topics do they cover? That way you will know if you are doing something different from what your readers expect, in terms of pacing and content, or something similar. Neither is right; you simply need to know so that you can make an informed decision about what you should choose to do.

3. Granularity

Granularity provides the structure that helps you decide at what level to address the reader.

In my book about writing a book, shall I compare the merits of different word-processing programs? Of fountain pens and pencils? Or shall I offer a “view from 40,000 feet,” flying over a huge landscape of my topic at a great height, offering tremendous perspective? You pick. You’re the author.

Once these aspects of the structure are understood, and the table of contents and sub-chapters are complete, you are ready to start filling things in.

Creating  Your Book Content

Content is why the reader picked up your book. She wants the information you have for her—the stuff that tells her the “why,” the “how,” the “who,” the “when,” and everything else she wanted to know when she was attracted to the title of your book.

You are the author, and authors, by definition, have authority. So it is very important that you shoulder this responsibility eagerly.

To be able to deliver the content that you know the reader wants and needs, your structure must prepare places for it. That is why I want you to focus on your book’s structure before adding any content. When the structure is right, the content just flows out from you, and that makes the actual writing process a lot easier and more fun.

Why Structure is Important

The biggest and strongest reason to work this way is that it works. If you follow the BookProgram™ method, it carries you from the beginning to the end of the book-writing process and tells you just what you need to do at each juncture. You are never at a loss.

Once you decide to write a book, if you are not sure exactly what to write about, the method gives you ideas: You have questions to ask yourself; places to look for inspiration; techniques to surface what is in your mind.

When you know what you are going to write about, you create your structure.

Then you sit down and start writing.

This is an excerpt from How To Write A Book by Joel Orr.

Which strategies help you to write better? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

For more writing tips, check out these resources: