If you research what the basic rules for writers are, you’ll read about proper punctuation, proper use of adverbs and adjectives, sentence and paragraph length, and so on. While these mechanical writing rules are all valid and must be observed, I’ve chosen to focus today on the behavioral rules of writing instead.
On the surface, the job of the writer is to create helpful content that readers will consume and enjoy. But the true job of a writer is much deeper than that. Stephen King put it very eloquently when he said: “The job of a writer is to transfer the ideas inside your head into the heads of your readers.”
Let’s explore this further. People like to compartmentalize things in order to make sense of the world, so we create labels – you’re a writer and I am a reader. As a writer you’ll decide what you’re going to write about, and as the reader I’ll decide what to read. But when you think about it, while labels may make for a nice intellectual construct, they’re not very useful for describing human connection. If anything, they’re more about separating than unifying.
At its core, writing fulfills the much deeper need to learn from each other, to enrich each other’s lives and to be of service to others.
So, let’s now focus on the type of “human” rules for writers that’ll help you create a nonfiction book for your business or career that strikes a deep bond with your readers.
Rule #1: Write Every Day
This is the cardinal rule of successful writers, whether they have 5 books to their name or 50.
Developing writing mastery is no different from developing mastery in a musical instrument. Very few professional musicians people born with a gift – the vast majority are people that worked really hard at it, practicing every single day.
You have to create a daily writing routine that’s independent from your work life and your family life. If you’re running your own business and want to write a book to establish yourself as an expert in your field, create a two-hour writing block 6 days a week where you’ll be able to write without interruption. Enlist the help of your family and/or staff to make this possible: no phone calls and no one walking in on you.
Rule #2: Write Honestly and Authentically
Now you’re ready to begin your journey. Here’s my advice: it’s critical that you learn to communicate in writing in the same way that you communicate directly with your clients. In all your interactions, you must have a foundation of honesty and authenticity; otherwise you wouldn’t be able to stay in business, right?
Let me re-frame it this way: writing your book is really an extension of your business. You’ll be communicating in a different medium and to a much larger audience, but your goal remains the same – you have to be transparent and you have to be yourself at all times.
Readers can sense dishonesty and a lack of authenticity from a mile away. It won’t take long for them to sense that something is “off” with the author.
On the other hand, when authors use their authentic voice and aren’t afraid to be themselves, warts and all, the reading experience becomes refreshing and the connection with the reader becomes much deeper.
You can’t really connect with someone who’s trying to be someone else – this is what the second rule for writers is about.
Rule #3: Don’t Hold Anything Back When You Write
As an extension to Rule #2, once you’ve decided to write a book to support and grow your business or career, you have to go “all in.” Don’t try to protect your ideas from theft by just offering a teaser of your knowledge.
To write truly successful nonfiction, you have to be able to bare your soul on the page. Don’t hold back any information that could be of help to your readers.
The more you give they more you’ll get in return. Your book’s word of mouth marketing will be stronger, you’ll attract more readers, you’ll get better reviews, and in the end, more doors will open for you.
Authenticity in your writing is a great selling tool. But if you combine it with the generosity and selflessness from rule for writers #3 you’ve now created a game changer.
Rule #4: Do Your Writing off The Grid
We’ve already established in Rule #1 that you’re not to be interrupted when you sit down to write. Now, those are external interruptions. Equally critical, however, are internal interruptions.
Having so much technology packed into your laptop or tablet, it’s tempting to regularly switch away from our writing app whenever we hear the ding of a notification – perhaps an email you’ve been waiting for, a new post that caught your eye, an incoming text, etc.
All of these distractions, even if you don’t act on them immediately, disrupt your creative flow – the direct link between your mind and your typing fingers. You need to learn to treasure this connection because it’s from this state of creative thinking that your best writing ideas will come.
My suggestion is to go “off the grid,” on your device, and what I mean by that depends on your writing tools. If you’re using a native app like Word, which doesn’t need to be connected to the Internet in order to operate, then turn Wi-Fi off for the entire duration of your two-hour writing block. This will stop all notifications from popping up.
If you’re using an online writing app like Google Docs, then mute the sound on your computer instead. In either case also set your smartphone to “do not disturb.” If there’s an emergency that requires your presence, just make sure people know where you are.
Rule #5: Focus Just on the Text In Front of You
When you work on a project as complex and multi-faceted as writing a book, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. So when you’re sitting down to write, you need to put the blinders on and focus exclusively on only what you’re writing about at that moment.
You can’t be thinking about the other 200 pages you still need to write and you can’t be thinking about whether the chapter you wrote yesterday needs more work.
Now, this will take some discipline and you’ll have to go through a bit of a learning curve. But you can’t write well and have distracting thoughts at the same time. Worrying about a past or future event will take you out of a state of presence and your writing will suffer as a result. Why?
Because creativity requires a state of presence in order to achieve flow. And this flow of thoughts and ideas from your mind down to your fingertips gets blocked if you’re focusing on the past or the future.
Rule #6: Don’t Write to Exhaustion
Never exceed your two-hour writing limit. If you push yourself to write until you’re creatively spent, say for 3 or 4 hours straight, you’ll begin to resent the act of writing because you’ll be setting an impossible expectation for the future.
It’s much more effective to write for two hours and leave behind a ton of ideas to write about another time. Just capture these ideas on a notepad in bullet form and use them as a seed for inspiration the next day.
Also, you don’t need to worry about ever running out of ideas, because as a nonfiction author writing about your professional life experience, you’re not creating an entire new premise from scratch like a fiction author. You’re simply downloading information you’re already familiar with from your brain onto the written page.
Rule #7: Whenever You Write, Always Go With the Flow
Finally, your book needs to be written with a sense of “flow.” Everything you write must flow because readers don’t sense “writing” – they sense flow. Author Elmore Leonard once said: “If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.”
If all readers “see” is just the writing, they won’t feel a connection with you. If you use words that aren’t essential to the text, words that don’t add anything to your message, then remove them.
How do you know if you’ve written a non-essential word? Here’s a simple test: if the passage retains its full meaning after removing that word, then it’s not needed.
Also, don’t be afraid to cut out writing that took a lot of effort to create but that doesn’t feel right. Usually things that are hard to write tend to go against the flow. On the other hand, things that are easy to write, where your fingers seem to be moving on their own, tend to flow naturally.
From experience, I can tell you that trying to rewrite something that clearly doesn’t fit the narrative will hardly ever make it fit. If it’s proven hard to write, it’ll prove hard to rewrite – you can’t fit a square peg in a round hole.
Bonus Rule: Don’t worry about quality – at least at first
I’ll leave you with a bonus rule for writers that works wonders, especially for first-time authors. Now, what I’m going to say next is definitely going to sound counter intuitive: to produce a quality book you can’t focus on quality while you’re writing it!
The reason is that when you sit down to write you’re working from a stream of consciousness. You may already know what you’re going to be writing about – today’s section will be about the X, Y and Z lessons you learned working with one of your clients – what you don’t know is what you’re going to actually write.
Your goal in this initial writing stage is to establish a direct and unfiltered connection between your brain and your fingertips so that you can capture this “torrent” of information on the printed page. You goal isn’t to give it shape yet.
So if you’re thinking, “I need to write something with quality,” then that’s a sure-fire way to turn off your creative tap. You’re now letting your critical thinking get in the way of your creativity and your writing will become stale.
Leave the quality control for the multiple rewrites you’ll be doing after you’re done with the initial creative phase. When you switch hats and become your own editor, your critical thinking will step in to give your creative writing the shape and the quality it needs to pass muster with your readers.
Practice these seven rules for writers plus the bonus rule every time you sit down to write your book and you’ll be pleasantly surprised with your end product!
All the best!
If you enjoyed this article and are in the process of writing a nonfiction book, be sure to check out my free nonfiction success guide, drawn from years of experience editing books for bestselling authors (including a New York Times bestseller) and ghostwriting for CEOs and politicians. Simply click here to get instant access.
Leave me a comment below if you have any questions or a specific need that I can help you address – I operate an author services firm that specializes in helping entrepreneurs, professionals and business owners who want to publish books as a calling card for prospects, to establish their status as an expert or to generate additional leads for their businesses.
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Bennett R. Coles is an award-winning author of six books published through Harper Collins (New York) and Titan Publishing Group (London). He is also the publisher at Promontory Press, editor for multiple bestselling authors (including a NY Times bestseller), ghostwriter for CEOs and politicians and the founder of Cascadia Author Services, a boutique full-service firm that specializes in premium author services specifically designed for busy professionals. Our end-to-end services include writer coaching, ghostwriting, editing, proofing, cover design, book layout, eBook production, marketing, printing and distribution.