No cabin needed: How to write a book in 3 months while living your normal life

IMG_0272Writing a book seems like a big, intimidating project. But the truth is that it is a project like any other. There are ways to be efficient and get it done fast.

That is what Dorie Clark has discovered. Dorie is the author of several personal branding books, including Reinventing You, and Stand Out: How to Find Your Breakthrough Idea and Build a Following Around It. She is currently working on a new one on monetizing ideas. I read her newsletter frequently (it is one of the few I do -- you can sign up here; that link gives you access to a free 42-page workbook on becoming a thought leader). She told me recently that she has a method for writing a book in 3 months. So I had to learn exactly how she pulls that off. She was kind enough to answer my questions from Buenos Aires.

Laura: How many books have you written in this write-in-3-months zone?

Dorie: I have written both my books, Reinventing You and Stand Out, in a three-month time period. I am currently working on my third book, and am in the midst of doing the same.

Laura When you say write a book in 3 months -- that does not mean idea to published version, right?

Dorie: Alas, no – though if you were self-publishing, it could work. Because my books are traditionally published, it takes between 18-24 months for them to be released (you can see the obvious possibilities for disruption). When I say "write a book in three months," that includes doing research/reporting for the book, and then writing a good first draft. Of the remaining 15-21 months, that time is spent waiting for editors to review it, actually doing revisions (only one month), and then 9+ months of waiting for it to be released while you tee up marketing efforts.

Laura: Do you work from an outline? Or just start reporting?

Dorie: If you want to work quickly, it is important to start from a fairly detailed outline. That way, it is easy to identify who you want to speak with, what questions you want to ask them, and where (roughly) those answers will fit into the overall shape of the book. It is fine to have a very general idea and then start talking to people ("I want to write a book about the arts scene in Buenos Aires"), but it will take you a lot longer because you will need to discover along the way who is essential to speak with and what the thesis of your book is actually going to be. You may also need to do some interviews multiple times, because you may have missed asking about what later turns out to be a critical subject area.

For Stand Out, for instance, I made a list early on of top thought leaders I thought would be interesting to interview. I then created a list of questions I would want to ask them – usually enough for a one-hour interview – and starting emailing requests ASAP, because it can sometimes take a while to get on the schedule of a prominent person. I also developed a sense of where their insights would fit in the book (for instance, it made logical sense to discuss how to come up with innovative ideas before talking about how to spread those ideas, so depending on where I wanted to focus my questions with each person, it helped me gauge where their ideas would fit).

Laura: What would a day look like during this? Like how many work hours/day -- do you nix the travel, or work around that?

Dorie: It is more difficult, but not impossible, to travel during this intensive writing period. What has always worked for me is striking the balance of spending enough time writing so that I can get into a rhythm, but not so much that my brain gets overloaded and the quality declines. For me, the right amount is approximately 4 hours of writing at a time, 3-4 days per week. That can fit in easily with other work obligations; I just concentrated my meetings in the morning and wrote in the afternoon, or vice versa – or spent a Saturday morning at a cafe working on the book.

My process is to always do as much reporting/research as possible upfront, so I know what I am working with. That way, it is much easier to arrange the material and play with new ways to express it. The interviews typically take about a month to conduct (enough time to get on schedules). During the month of January, I conducted just under 40 interviews for my new book; I will have a handful more in March, once I return from traveling, but fewer than a half-dozen – just the ones that were difficult to get booked during the initial push. I now have hundreds of pages of transcripts I am working with, so I am well supplied with material.

Once I have done the interviews, I go back through and re-read the transcript and highlight key parts – the ones I know I will want to use. Then the next step is moving the highlighted pieces into their respective sections or chapters – this anecdote is about professional speaking, so it should be in Chapter 5, and this one is about podcasting, so it should be in Chapter 8, for instance.

Laura: Do you set daily goals? Weekly/monthly?

Dorie: The only official outcome goal was the deadline to the publisher, but I set process goals: I would book at least three, and sometimes four, four-hour blocks per week for uninterrupted writing. That might sound tricky to accomplish, but I did not cut back on my consulting or teaching work in any way when I was writing my books. The idea that you need to go off to a cabin for solitude is a myth. I was able to incorporate this into my regular schedule, simply by being disciplined about condensing my meetings or other obligations rather than spreading them throughout the day.

With that kind of focus, I was able to produce at least 2500 words per writing session, and sometimes up to 4000 or so. When an average business book is 50-60,000 words, you can write a good first draft very quickly.

Laura: How do you keep yourself on track?

Dorie: I book the time into my schedule in advance and make it sacrosanct. Of course, if a true emergency arises, it is not the end of the world to postpone a writing session. But I will never sandwich a phone call into the middle of a four-hour writing block. That kills your momentum and disrupts your flow. If you are writing a blog post, an hour will suffice. But for me, when I am writing a much longer and more involved project like a book, it is important to have more substantial blocks of time because you are not only working on the section in front of you; you also need to understand how it fits with the sections before and after it, and ensure they flow together seamlessly, and that takes concentration.

Laura: Any advice for any other authors looking to replicate this?

I think too many writers have blown the book-writing process out of proportion and assume because it feels important and significant, it has to take a lot of time. Of course you need to give it the proper care and effort, but I think it warps our perspective a little bit when we hear about books that take a decade to write. Maybe for certain artists, that is a necessary part of their process.

But it does not have to be that way. I was at an event recently and a writer friend told me she had been working on a proposal for a year. The book itself should have been done by then! That is just creating obstacles for ourselves. You can certainly write a book in a year, and if you are focused, you can do it in three months.

(For more on Dorie, you can visit her website at DorieClark.com)

In other news: This is Laura again. I would still love another few tips from accountants on how they survive busy season! I know you are busy (of course!) but please email me at lvanderkam at yahoo dot com. Thank you!

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9 Responses to No cabin needed: How to write a book in 3 months while living your normal life


  1. Alex says:

    Thank you so much. I love to read about writers’ processes. And I’m definitely trying the 4 hours block, three times this week.

  2. Thanks for the motivation to get serious and organized with writing my own book. If I keep waiting for some “extra time” to write, it will never be finished.

  3. June says:

    I appreciate many recent contributions — including this interview — to the discussion of focus and “deep work.” One of the biggest issues I’ve had with parenthood (and my kids are close in age with your older ones) is the fracture of my time, and correspondingly, attention. I’ve heard some male colleagues quietly mention this too. In the professional arena, I’ve figured out work-arounds and how to get it back. Or at least, how to make do.

    I have not had as much luck with extracurriculars that require focused attention, and I realized recently, that I really miss this. To be sure, I have lots of time for my own stuff, but exercise, friends, kids, reading/TV/movies don’t take the same mental effort. It’s something I’m working on -my brain is taxed in the early morning and evening. I haven’t gained much traction with the weekend, but now that I have at least identified the problem, I can look for solutions.

    • @June – I think there is definitely something to this fracturing of time and attention. I’m very good at beating back some distractions and I do a lot. But it is the rare day that has nothing personal intrude into work hours for some reason or another. I do like the idea that 3-4 hours is enough. That can be done. Often I can get the whole morning before other stuff comes up. Three 3-hour blocks during a week is doable. Maybe 4 if I push. I just need to be good about protecting that time.

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  5. Thank you for this. I thought I typed slow, but I can get the same number of words in that you can in a writing session. I think now that I know it is normal only to be able to write in 4-hour chunks of time before reverting to gibberish my confidence has shot up.

  6. Trevor says:

    I like the idea of writing to a deadline. Otherwise it’s way too easy to think “I don’t feel like writing today, I’ll come back again tomorrow” and, of course, tomorrow becomes the next day and so on.

    I find that daily goals help as they’re much easier for me to keep to. They then accumulate to make the final book finally happen.

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