It’s not an exaggeration to say that most Americans are asking themselves the question, “How do I start writing a book?”
A survey commissioned for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in 2021 found that just over half of all Americans think they have a good idea for a novel. But only about 15 percent ever start writing it… and only 8 percent ever complete one.
What about that 36 percent who have a great idea but never even put pen to paper? It is very likely they get stuck on the perfectly reasonable question of how to even get started.
Writing a book is a daunting task. Only around half a million books are published in the U.S. each year and the average book sells fewer than 200 copies annually.
There is no one single right way to start writing a book. It can depend very much on both the writer and the genre. The question of how to start writing a children’s book has a very different answer than how to go about writing a book on WWII airplane nose art.
In almost every case, though, a degree in creative writing is the right way to break the log jam and really learn how to write a book.
There’s No One Right Answer to How To Start Writing a Book
In general, there are several different approaches that writers might use to figure out how to begin writing a book:
Start with the inspiration.
For some writers, a key scene or unique vision is what sparks their imagination for a book. They dive directly into that scene, whether it is at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of the story, and work backward and forward as needed.
Create a comprehensive outline.
In other cases, writers meticulously plan and plot their work through an outlining process. With a full outline of what they will eventually create, then methodically began to write the contents.
Begin with intensive research.
Filling your mind with the subject matter is one other way to start writing a book. This can create changes in both your initial vision and your long-range plans for the book.
Start writing, then let the plot reveal itself.
If you have a beginning but not an end, you can just start writing and see where the characters take you. Stephen King famously describes his stories as discovered rather than plotted.
Write it, then scrap it and write something else.
James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man wasn’t the book he set out to write… instead, he had spent a year writing a novel called Stephen Hero, a sweeping autobiographical novel. But Stephen Hero ended up in the waste bin, with only bits and pieces plucked out for the novel that was eventually published.
At the end of the day, there are almost as many different ways of starting to write a book as there are writers. Not every approach works for every author. The reality is that most successful authors spend years, and sometimes even decades, feeling their way through the different formulas to find the one that works for them.
Most people don’t have the discipline to work through those different approaches on their own. And they don’t have the first clue where to start. That’s exactly the point where a creative writing degree becomes useful.
How Do You Start a Book When All You Have Is an Idea?
Ideas for books are easy to come by. Turning that idea into a few hundred pages of coherent plot and dialogue, with believable characters, a fully-formed world, and artful prose – that’s the hard part.
So the foundation of every book has to start with writing skills. This will include:
While some of these essentials come with any level of English education, many of them are specific to more advanced studies. Creative writing programs are particularly well suited to helping students turn their ideas into stories.
How To Get Started Writing a Book With a Degree in Creative Writing
Writing is a solitary activity, drawing on the well-spring of internal creativity. But that doesn’t mean that writers benefit from isolation. In fact, feedback and training can jar loose all new ideas that might never surface on their own.
The value in workshopping and refining ideas through creative writing programs becomes clear when you see publishers getting six-figure advances for the works that emerge from them.
So creative writing degree programs are one of the most time-tested ways to get started with writing a book. Novels that came out of creative writing programs include:
Starting a creative writing degree can help bring a book to life whether you have the germ of an idea already, or simply feel inspired to write. The process of distilling and perfecting your idea is the centerpiece of many college writing programs.
The Best Authors Are Voracious Readers
Most authors got their start as readers. It isn’t surprising that an affection for and mass consumption of written works is inspiration for writing a book. Novels by other authors help spark creativity and offer examples of styles and ideas that can influence your own writing.
Coursework in creative writing degree programs includes a lot of reading in many different formats and genres. This reading is more intensive and focused than the recreational reading you may do on your own time, however. As you deconstruct and analyze those works, you’ll also get a glimpse of the authors and their process. These are full of techniques that can help you get started writing your own book, techniques you might not ever learn about on your own.
Creative Writing Courses Offers Specific Training for Writing Novels and Other Books
Many creative writing programs take the bull by the horns, offering classes that specifically tell you how to start writing a book in different genres. With students coming in who have ambitions in many different forms and genres, many degree programs offer several different upper-division courses that cover the details of format, process, and style.
Where You Write Can Impact How Well You Write
When most people think about starting to write a book, they think about the actions involved: researching, picking out a word processor, creating an outline, and so on.
But many successful authors point to another factor: where they write.
Henry had a favorite booth in Pete’s Tavern in New York where many of his works were written. Tennessee Williams will always be associated with the Hotel Elysee in Manhattan, where he lived and wrote for the last fifteen years of his life. Maya Angelou went so far as to rent a hotel room in the same town she lived in, commuting from her home to the room promptly at 6 am each day to write. Hotel staff weren’t allowed to change the sheets at all while she held the room.
Like other book-writing techniques, there’s no consistency in what makes a good writing environment. Some authors need the hustle and bustle of public places; others are more creative in wilderness cabins, miles from humans. But a sense of setting, an inspiring environment in which to work, can be a key part of getting a book off the ground.
Just as importantly as offering training in the expectations and process of writing a book is the writing itself. The seven percent of Americans who start writing a book but never finish it aren’t ones who are enrolled in creative writing programs. There is a constant push on every student to be writing or revising their work, and accountability in the form of professors and students waiting on your progress. The very process of continuing to write is a vital one in authoring a book, and degree programs put it front and center.
With instructors who are often published authors themselves, you’ll have proven answers about how to get started writing a book—and, just as importantly, how to finish.
Creative Writing Degrees Expose You to the Mechanics of Publishing
For many writers, writing is a solitary process, one where they have few peers or mentors to lean on. A creative writing program solves this by putting you in with both fellow students and instructors and guest lecturers who are immersed in the business of writing and publishing.
This offers insights into everything from the software programs and tools that authors use to the details of publishing contracts and marketing. Writing a book for your personal satisfaction requires none of that information, of course. But most authors who set out to write a book want to share it as well. Creative writing degrees help build the knowledge you will need to get your manuscript in the right hands and onto bookstore shelves.
Is Self-Publishing a Good Way to Bookend Your Writing Project?
Self-publishing is easier than ever with the many online tools and options available today. Authors can commission a cover, hire an independent editor, get a marketing agency, and sell and collect payment… all without a dime going to a traditional publishing company.
But make no mistake: arranging for a book to be published yourself doesn’t in any way make writing a book any easier.
The illusion of ease comes because there are no standards or guard rails in the self-publishing process. Since the author provides all the money and effort up front, there is no check on how good, or marketable, their book is.
The hard work of crafting a book that is interesting, readable, and marketable still takes real writing skills. And the best place to build those for any kind of publication is through a college education in creative writing.
Self-publishing is so common now that, by some estimates, three-quarters of all books published today are self-published. But the trend also contributes to the low numbers of sales in a crowded market. The typical self-published book only sells about five copies, ever.
Your book could very well be the next big thing, heading for the top of the New York Times best-seller list. Or it could be the niche volume that kindles feeling and inspires a few fervent fans. Or maybe it’s just the earnest story that a few friends and family want to hear, waiting to emerge from your imagination.
In every case, answering the question of how to start is the key to delivering your story to those who most need to hear it. A degree in creative writing will help you answer that question.