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5 Important Questions To Ask Yourself Before Writing A Book

Writing can be a strange profession to undertake. In some ways, almost anyone can do it - every literate person, at least, is able to string words together to form sentences and use them to communicate. But not everyone can be a professional writer. The same thing can be said of music, or painting - many people can sing, but that doesn't necessarily make them a singer, and one might be able to draw and paint even fairly well, but that doesn't make them an artist. But what is the line that separates these nuances? To define a writer - or any type of creative pursuit really - as only being able to be called one if someone will pay you to produce that work is not fair: the arts are subjective, and there are also issues of gatekeeping, inequality in opportunity, and so on, to contend with. You can still be a writer even if that's not and never has been your job. But if you want to call yourself a professional writer, then yes, I'd say that you probably have to have some track record of people having paid you to write words.

And then there's the question of what distinguishes a writer from an author. The best conclusion I've come to is this: you can call yourself an author if you've actually finished a manuscript, having completed an entire book from start to finish. You can call yourself an aspiring author if you hope to be one; an author-in-progress if you are currently writing a book but have not yet finished one; and then an unpublished or published author once you actually have a book out - and you can add the labels of "self-published" or "traditionally published" before that too, if you wish. But whatever stage of your author journey you're in, and whichever type of book you may be writing, here are some universal questions worth pondering before you even begin pounding out those pages and racking up that word count.

  1. Why are you writing this book? Is it because you think it's an easy way to make money? If so, I hate to break it to you, but it's actually the opposite (at least in most cases). Is it because you have valuable information you want to share with the world, that you think people will find useful (particularly as an expert on a non-fiction topic)? Is it because you simply fancy the idea of yourself as an author? Or is it because you have stories coursing through your head and heart that you cannot contain, and you feel that it is your calling to tell them? Whatever it is, it's important to be honest with yourself about this: put your self-judgment aside and figure out your "Why".

  2. What are you hoping to achieve from writing this book? Again, this is a question to be brutally honest with yourself about. Are you writing this story simply because first and foremost, you want it out of your head and on a page - and if nobody else reads it, would you be happy to have written it just for you? Or do you really want to make sure it is as commercially viable as possible no matter what? If it's the former, I believe you'll be more likely to nurture this story for longer, and stick to this idea that you really believe in through thick and thin. If it's the latter, you'll need to be much more open to suggestions and changes, for example. Bear in mind also that if you are writing your story first and foremost for you - but it's not something that is popular at the moment, and might not be anytime soon even with the often cyclical nature of story trends - then you might end up querying the finished story for longer than anticipated. If you are solid with your intention, you'll be more inclined to make peace with working with that story for however long it takes. Whereas if you're determined to write something mainly for the sake of people liking it, then that will change the way you work around this story too. Either way, you must remain open to the suggestions of experts while staying true to your story's "North Star" - because publishing is still a business, a book is still a product, and I've learned that there is still a certain level of savvy, open-mindedness, and willingness to take feedback required in order to sell a book. Personally, I'm in the camp that is not a fan of writing to trend in general - firstly, because I feel that the best stories are created with the writer's own passion at heart, not just to satisfy the whims of the masses - and secondly, because it can take so long to write a good book sometimes (especially if you're doing it alongside a full-time job) that if you try to jump on a current trend, by the time it's finished, polished, and hopefully picked up, that trend might be over anyway. I would rather just write the best story I can, on something that I am really passionate about, and then be ready to edit and tweak that story within my own limits of what I'm willing to keep and not, to make it the strongest it can be through the advice of great editors, beta readers, and so on, when they tell me what is and isn't working in it. But hey, to each their own. Whatever you choose, self-awareness is an important quality to have, across most aspects of life.

  3. Who is your intended audience? Knowing your audience from the start is a must for writing anything, whether that's an article, a piece of marketing copy, a speech, or a novel - but in this case it can also help you narrow down how you want to write this book, reducing the chances of a major repivot down the line. Is this book fiction, or is it non-fiction? Who do you imagine reading, enjoying, and buying this book if you write it? If you're writing fiction, this can change down the line - for instance, you might have started writing a Young Adult novel, only to realise later that it works better as a Middle Grade one, or for an adult audience instead. Your genre also might change slightly - what you thought was science fiction might actually be better pitched as speculative fiction, or your family saga might be better off marketed as literary fiction - and genre-blending tales are wonderful in their own right (e.g. a story that crosses crime with comedy, or fantasy with historical fiction) - but it would be surprising and somewhat painful if you'd started writing a light-hearted rom-com only to realize that this story is much better off as a dark and gritty horror story. You can remain open to those changes down the line as needed, but at least when it comes to getting out that all-important first draft, it'll be a lot easier if you have a relatively clear direction to start with.

  4. Do you want to self-publish, or opt for traditional publishing? This is a complicated question that should be a whole separate post (and one I don't yet feel qualified to fully answer myself), but ultimately, it's one with an annoying "it depends" answer. Each type of publishing has its pros and cons, and what is better for each person will differ. A short version of my understanding is this, though: self-publishing can be great and it can be quite lucrative for some people, you will be more in control of the process, and it can be faster in many ways - but it can also require a lot of work on your part, with a lot of marketing know-how and dedication needed to get your book out there so it doesn't die a quiet death. Traditional publishing can take quite a long time, but beyond the kudos it can afford you, it can also open up some opportunities not available to self-published authors. You'll have the wisdom of experts by your side throughout your journey too, including but absolutely not limited to their marketing power. To be honest, if you don't have this question answered before you start writing your book, that's fine - you can always remain fluid about this and decide later - but it is still worth contemplating, and doing some research on.

  5. Does your book actually have to be a book, or can it be something else? Ok, that's a vague way of putting it: What I mean is, does your novel need to be an actual novel, or is it better written as a novella, or even a short story? Perhaps it would be better off as a screenplay. This is a hard one to answer, especially if you're a newer writer or author. I've not yet attempted anything other than novels and short stories myself - I am not ready to write a screenplay, and so far the stories I've dreamed up absolutely need to be novels not novellas! This is another question that you might actually only be able to answer once you've started writing the story. But it is, again, something worth considering, or at least keeping in the back of your mind as your story begins to take shape and you work your way towards its final form.

A typewriter and coffee: 5 important questions to ask yourself before writing a book
Photo by Pereanu Sebastian on Unsplash

Despite the fact that I always wanted to write a book, it took me many years to even begin my first attempt. Why? For various reasons, but one of the most pertinent was the fact that I didn't have the courage to start. Although I had been a professional writer for many years, I still wasn't able to take the leap of faith to thinking I could make it as an author and not "just a journalist" - and I suffered from a decent amount of impostor syndrome, as so many of us do. I also didn't believe that I could make it - this was a dream for other lucky people, and one that was so far out of my reach that I could never consider it - because I'd gaslit myself into thinking I wasn't worthy of my dreams, I hadn't had enough people in my life encouraging me to believe that I was good enough, and I didn't have a lot of positive examples of people like me, from backgrounds like mine, who could "make it".

Until one year, when some of my deep spiritual explorations and journeys of the soul (let's just call it that!) made me wake up and realize that if I didn't follow this dream, I would spend the rest of my life wondering, "What if?" and possibly never feel true fulfilment around my sense of purpose in this life. I transformed my "What if?" into a "Why not?" and just started writing. Even though I was pretty clueless about what writing a book would require or involve, the moment I began, I knew in my gut that it was the right thing for me to do. So I continued. And I learned, and kept learning. And then a wonderful writer friend encouraged me to apply for a competition that could win me a place in a prestigious fellowship - "You are absolutely good enough, and if you don't get in, then at least you'll have tried. You have nothing to lose," she convinced me. And to my utter surprise, disbelief, and delight, I won. I'm still working my way towards becoming a published author, but it's been the journey of my life since then.

And the moral of this story is that if you want to write a book - if you've always dreamed of writing a book, and you really, truly, absolutely know in your heart that you want to write a book... then do it. Write that book. Just start. Even if you don't have all the answers, even if you don't entirely know what you're doing yet, and even if you're not sure where it will take you: just start. Until you do, you'll never know. And that's the only place your author journey could begin.


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