Advice for First-time Book Writers

by Dianne Van Dien

Writing a book can seem a herculean and overwhelming task. Gaining perspectives from those who have successfully navigated the book-writing process was the premise behind all the questions in the survey I sent to University of Utah Press authors, and their answers have served as the heart of this blog series. I can’t thank the authors enough for all the insights they’ve shared!

As the series comes to a close, we’ll look at some answers authors gave to the question: Do you have any advice for first-time book writers? Whether you’re in the midst of writing a book or planning to start one, you’ll find inspiration from these tips for putting words on the page and bringing your book to completion.

Click on the book cover to learn more about a book or author.

Cover image for Stories FInd You, Places Know. Aerial view of flat, green landscape with some lakes.

Holly Cusack-McVeigh, Stories Find You, Places Know

“First, let perfection go! Just get words to the page and then center your energy on the editing process. I also would encourage first-time writers to expand their interests and explore new genres. To become a better writer, I needed to become a better reader. My most important advice to a first-time book writers is advice that was given to me by other authors—touch your work every day! This advice has truly transformed the writing process for me. I now love to write and can’t imagine going a day without time for writing. Writing is a mysterious process. No two paths are the same—find and follow your own path.”

Book cover of the Spiral Jetty

Hikmet Sidney Loe, The Spiral Jetty Encyclo

“All advice you’ll receive is good advice. That doesn’t mean it’s good for you or for your book; it may be good because it’s something that won’t work, and you’ve been given the opportunity to think through why. The book takes as long to write and complete as it needs to—my first book was published twenty-two years after I first began research on my topic. It went through a lot of revisions, yet I always kept in mind that I had a unique idea to share, which kept me going.”

Book cover with image of frank J. Cannon on a background image of capitol building.

Val Holley, Frank J. Cannon

“For those in my field—history and biography—I would simply say, there are so many fascinating characters and events waiting to be explored that you should identify something that excites you and get to work!”

Book cover of people on horses with a rock formation in the background

Jerry Spangler, The Crimson Cowboys

“Don’t believe it just because your grandma says you are a great writer. Writing is a craft. It takes work, a willingness to accept criticism, and lots of practice. I have been writing in one capacity or another for more than forty years. I have so much more to learn.”

Cover image for Sex & Death on the Western Emigrant Trail. Crow on a post with gray background

Donald K. Grayson, Sex and Death on the Western Emigrant Trail

“Read a lot before you try. Read so much that you gain an intuitive understanding of what good writing really is. Love what you want to write about. Write because you love to write and to communicate with others. Don’t think you’ll get rich and famous. If you want to write nonfiction, know everything you can possibly know about your subject. Have someone you trust read and critique what you have written, and don’t be defensive about negative comments. As I have long told my students, our friends already know how stupid we are. Our goal is to prevent others from finding out.”

Book cover of three koi fish, white, orange, and yellow orange, in a dark pond

Joanne Jacobson, Every Last Breath

“Finding the focus and discipline to make a book—and the ability to recognize when the writing one is doing is really “book-size”—seems to me different for everyone. Confidence in one’s own vision is essential to hold on to—but being willing to question vision and to hear deeply what others have to say about it seem to me equally essential. Finding a writing colleague who shares a regularly scheduled commitment to meaningfully critique and support one’s writing can also make a huge difference in hanging in there and doing one’s best work over the long-haul path of a book. Finally, I would also urge anyone undertaking a book to think carefully about why they’re doing this work and about what will make it feel worth having done, and to be sure to have a realistic sense of what they hope for.”

Book cover with a close up photo of a Prairie Dog standing upright in a grassy background

Theodore Manno, The Utah Prairie Dog

“Treat writing like a professional job, something that you do with regularity even if you do not really feel like doing so. Writing often takes place in day-to-day chunks or bursts, not cramming for 12–15 hours straight before a deadline. Take a step back from manuscripts for a few weeks after drafts or peer reviews are completed. Then come back to what you wrote with fresh eyes. Get input from others, but do not revise immediately after receiving their comments—take some time and think about how to proceed after a reviewer’s input, and decipher what you can use from their criticism and what you can’t. Do not be afraid to overhaul, rewrite, and cut what you have written.

Most importantly, do not be afraid of rejection from publishers, do not overreact to rejections, and do not despair over criticisms from peer reviews. Use these experiences as motivation and an opportunity to improve, not an excuse to discontinue your work. I wish I kept some of the rejection letters I received from submitted articles and books! Just keep writing, keep submitting, keep building, and keep getting better.”

Book cover of stormy waters with foggy weather and low visibility

Jennifer Sinor, Ordinary Trauma

“In my work, I try to take the same kind of love and care to every sentence—knowing that each sentence—the syntax, the diction—must resonate on two levels. It needs to further the story and then point toward the deeper subject. Especially in a compressed form like flash, a writer doesn’t have space for excess. Every detail, every verb, every semi-colon must carry twice its weight; no line can simply sit prettily on the page. In terms of actual practice, I read every sentence out loud, every sentence of anything that I write. When I read aloud, I listen for places that I stumble and then pursue fluidity. I never send anything out that has not been read by my writing group. But more importantly, I revise radically based on what they say—never believing for a second that they just don’t understand. If you want to get something across to your readers, then you must trust your readers. Finally, I believe firmly that one of the best things you can do with your work is to put it away for a while. We are apt to feel our early drafts are either brilliant or garbage. They are never either. Time allows us to see that”

Book cover is photo of Alberta Henry sitting in pew at church looked back and smiling

Colleen Whitley, Feed My Sheep

“Read a range of books in the area in which you intend to publish. Get a feel for the market.”

“Get to know your subject well, so that you can spot where new pieces of information should go.”

Book cover of red fish with the nose of a face representing the fin of the red fish; another fish faces the opposite direction along the bottom

Pei-Lin Yu, Rivers, Fish, and the People

“Plan for about three times as much effort as for a peer reviewed article. An edited volume is a little like a military campaign, and delays, changes in terrain, and other contingencies mean you will be adjusting strategy constantly. Try to ensure it will be accessible and affordable, think about your target market very carefully, and work with the press very closely.”

Book cover is of a haystack but abstract with yellow background and brown and tan textured lines.

Patrick Q. Mason, Directions for Mormon Studies in the Twenty-First Century

“If creating an edited volume, you’ve got to stay on top of the whole process, including all the authors. You can’t let deadlines slip (too much). And you have to be willing to not only nudge but push, including doing some heavy rewriting where necessary. Junior academics in particular need to weigh carefully whether it’s worth expending the time and energy to create an edited volume. Generally, they don’t make as much of an impact as a monograph, and aren’t counted the same by tenure and promotion committees (if you have a full-time academic job). It is a huge investment of time and energy, especially to do it right. At the same time, it can be very rewarding, and can help you make important interventions that might be difficult to do otherwise. It can also help create and nurture an academic community that will benefit you for many years.”

Cover image for Utah's Air Quality Issues. A car tailpipe spewing smoke.

Hal Crimmel, Utah’s Air Quality Issues

“Be persistent. Work steadily. Balance idealism and perfectionism with compromise. Get plenty of sleep. Exercise. Get some down time for all-around balance but also to sharpen perspective.”

Book cover with dark sky with visible stars in the background and an outline of an arched rock formation

Frederick Swanson, Wonders of Sand and Stone

“If I have any advice for a first-time writer, it is to get your work out into the world in any form you can. Post online. Join a writing circle and cultivate honest critiques of your work. Put your everyday thoughts down, without editing, then return to them later. Try polishing a piece beyond what you think is possible. Read great writing. Take on a project that lasts years. Enjoy the process. And have fun!”

This article is part of a series called “What Does It Take to Make a Book?”

See previous posts:

Lessons Learned: Authors Share What Writing a Book Taught Them

Enjoying the Book-Writing Process

Writing the Edited Volume

Revising a Book Manuscript

On Writing Schedules, Routines, and Daily Goals

How Do Writers Make Time to Write?

Books Take Time

What Does it Take to Make a Book?

Dianne Van Dien began working for the University of Utah Press (UUP) in 2010 as a graduate fellow while earning a MS in Environmental Humanities. Later she shifted to her current role as UUP’s freelance marketing associate. She lives in rural Missouri, from where she also writes and edits for the Missouri Department of Conservation.

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