There’s no getting around it. Writing a book is hard.
But some Authors make it a lot harder than it has to be.
They have unrealistic expectations, which only set them up to see their book as a failure.
They overthink everything, which holds them back from making progress.
And they give in to perfectionism, procrastination, and anxiety—all of which are avoidance techniques based in fear.
That’s why so many Authors start books but never finish them.
Even some of our most successful Authors faced these issues. Will Leach tried and failed to write his book two times before coming to Scribe. Joey Coleman stalled out on his book for almost a decade before we got him across the line.
Authors fall into a lot of different traps, but they don’t have to.
My favorite quote from Charlie Munger about investing applies here:
“It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.”
This piece is about how not to be stupid when you write your book.
Trap 1. Too Focused on Selling Copies
I see people fall into this trap all the time.
They assume that the point of writing a book is to sell copies. But it isn’t.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing bad about selling copies. If your book sells a million copies, great. Cash your check.
But sales shouldn’t be your overall goal. If you’re too focused on selling copies, it can create a lot of downstream problems.
Book sales are actually a terrible way to evaluate your book’s success.
Selling books is a hard business, and it’s not even the most lucrative part of having a book.
Royalties don’t pay much, especially when you compare them to the other ways Authors can make money from their book. You’ll see a much higher ROI if you consider the opportunities a book can get you, such as talks, consulting gigs, product or services sales, and new clients.
This is a very common and deep trap, though. Explaining it to a new Author is like trying to convince a fish it’s swimming in water. Until you get out of the water, you don’t even know you’re in it.
Going into the book-writing process, people have assumptions about how they’re supposed to write, what their book is supposed to be, or what they’re supposed to do. Those assumptions are usually built on the underlying idea, “I have to reach a large audience and sell a lot of books.”
As soon as you realize that you’re in the water and ditch that idea, it’ll be much easier to write a truly successful book.
You can stop and figure out what you truly want from your book, target the right audience, and write a book that will appeal to them.
The point of a book isn’t to sell books. It’s to use the book to promote something else: you.
Solution: Use Your Book to Market Yourself
Instead of trying to sell copies of dead trees, you should use your book to market yourself.
Don’t think of the book as the end product. Think of it as the thing that advertises your product, services, and skills. It’s the thing that sets you apart from the competition.
Think about it.
In a sea of financial planners, what makes one more likely to get the job than another? Visibility, authority, credibility, a wider reach within their industry—basically, all the stuff that comes with having a book.
Dismantle the common frame that book sales equal success. Your book is part of your brand, and that’s what’s going to make you successful.
The strongest Author brands offer a clear solution to a specific audience. Your goal is to tell your readers, “Here’s how I can help you, and here’s why I’m the right person for the job.”
Trap 2. Too Focused on Bestseller Lists
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard Authors say, “The only thing I care about is making the New York Times Bestseller list.”
When we start unpacking that statement, I find 1 of 2 things:
- Either that desire is pure ego, and the person doesn’t even care about their book. They just want their name somewhere that makes them feel important, or
- They don’t understand the situation. They think a bestseller list is the mark of success for a book when actually, it’s not.
Option 2 is much more common.
Here’s the thing: unless you’re a professional writer, targeting the bestseller lists isn’t the quickest or most reliable way to grow your business.
It might sound counterintuitive, but successfully targeting a small audience will have the most impact on your brand.
Solution: Target a Small Audience for a Large Impact
Books with wide appeal are the ones you see on bestseller lists. They often deal with broad subjects that are well covered, like “happiness” or “success.”
But here’s the catch: the wider the audience, the less personal and actionable the advice will be.
If you want your nonfiction book to bring you credibility or clients, you have to have to distinguish yourself with real, valuable information.
That’s why a focused book with a small audience is much more valuable than a book with wide appeal.
If you write a book on SEO for dentists, you won’t hit a bestseller list. In fact, you probably won’t even sell a lot of books (see Trap 1).
But that doesn’t matter. A book on SEO for dentists will almost certainly help your business more than a more general book.
There are already several massive SEO books on the market. So, if you write a book just on SEO, you’ll have a tough time competing.
But you can own the market on SEO for dentists. The riches are in the niches.
Trap 3. Making the Book about You
I’ll be blunt. No one cares about you, and no one cares about your book.
They only care about what your book will get them.
People read nonfiction because they want solutions to their problems. They want to lose weight, improve their businesses, or learn a skill.
They want your knowledge, not your life story.
They want your help. They don’t care about seeing your face on the cover.
There are only 3 people who put their face on book covers: famous people, health and fitness experts showing that their advice works, and arrogant jerks.
Your book should not be entirely about you.
The only exception to that rule is if you’re writing a memoir. Then, of course, the book should be about you.
Even then, you still have to think about your reader.
No one read David Goggins’ book because they care about David Goggins. They read it because they care about themselves, and they think they can learn something from David’s life.
Let’s say you’re writing a memoir, and you’re doing it completely for yourself. You put every emotional brain-dump you have into a 200,000-word manuscript. That might be personally fulfilling.
But if you want to publish it, you’re going to have to edit that manuscript with a reader in mind.
You need to trim it down to 50,000 words that are really sharp, motivating, and interesting. Then, you’ll have a great memoir designed for readers.
Nonfiction books should never be entirely about the Authors.
Solution: Make the Book about Your Reader
Readers don’t buy your book for you. They buy it for themselves.
So, when you’re writing your book, imagine an avatar.
Who is the ideal person who will be looking for your book? Who would you most like to reach?
Then position your book to speak directly to that audience.
They’ll be much more likely to buy it if you can tell them these three things:
- What their problem is
- How you’ll solve it
- Why you’re the right person to help
And if they buy the book, visit your website, or hire you—all because you wrote a book about their needs—that ultimately serves your purposes, too.
Trap 4. Not Putting Enough of Your Story into the Book
I know, I just said that your book shouldn’t be about you. But it should still have you in it.
As an Author, you have unique insight into your topic. People like Authors who can share that insight by drawing them into great stories.
People buy a nonfiction book for the benefits it provides, but they finish it for the stories.
Stories are what make a book come alive. They’re what turn a dense, data-filled book into a page-turner that you don’t want to put down. They’re what make evidence convincing and Authors relatable.
Authors are often tempted to gloss over the painful parts of their lives. They’d rather mention their thriving multi-million-dollar business than talk about the time they nearly went bankrupt.
That’s a mistake. Tales of pain, loss, grief, and failure are the hooks that keep audiences reading. They want the stories that most people don’t willingly share.
If it’s something you don’t want to talk about, you might want to reconsider. That could be a great opportunity for vulnerable sharing.
Solution: Teach through Vulnerable Sharing
The more you can teach through great stories, the more successful your book will be.
And the greatest stories tend to be personal, vulnerable, and honest.
If you don’t think you have stories, let me assure you, you do. It’s just hard to read the label when you’re the bottle.
The people who have the most interesting stories are almost always the ones who think they’re uninteresting. On the flip side, the people who have the least interesting stories are often the ones who think their stories are amazing.
You don’t have to get vulnerable if it truly makes you uncomfortable. But I promise it’s the most effective way to snag a reader’s attention. Ask me how I know…
The more you share the parts that are hard, the more people stop and look.
Trap 5. Putting Too Much of Your Story into the Book
It’s great when your friends can get loose with you. Over a beer, they talk to you about their problems and the things on their mind. That kind of conversation can make you feel closer to them.
But, let’s say things turn a little more intense. They start sobbing over their IPA, and people in the bar start looking at you. You try to pat your friend’s shoulder and quiet him down. But what was really pleasant a few minutes ago is now super uncomfortable.
There is such a thing as too much vulnerability.
Or, let’s say that instead of crying, your friend tells you he’s concerned about money. He pulls out his phone, logs into his bank account, and starts walking you through every line item on his credit card bill. Forty-five minutes later, you know every dollar and cent he’s spent in the last 3 months.
There is such a thing as too much information.
When it comes to nonfiction books, people only care about your story if it’s compelling and if they’re learning something valuable.
By the way, that’s true even in memoirs. You can have too much of your story in a memoir.
Solution: Every Story Needs to be Valuable or Compelling
My books sold millions of copies. Want to know why? Because there wasn’t a word in there that wasn’t relevant to the reader.
Every single sentence was either moving the plot forward, telling a joke, or entertaining the reader some other way.
My published book was somewhere around 60,000 words. But my first draft was around 80,000.
The 25% I had to cut was stuff I loved.
But thankfully, I had editors who sat me down and said, “Tucker, I know that lunch you made from leftovers that random Friday was very delicious, but no one else cares.”
They helped me cut all the nonsense I found interesting but my readers didn’t care about.
A good editor can help with this, but as you write, be honest and ask yourself, Will my readers care?
If the answer is no, cut it. No matter how much you love it. Every story has to add value to the book.
Being entertaining only counts as “valuable” if the point of the book is to entertain. Otherwise, your stories need to have a more focused purpose.
If your book is about teaching readers how to invest their money wisely, every story should have something to do with investing, while also being interesting and compelling.
That may sound like a tall order, but that’s what distinguishes mediocre books from great ones.
Trap 6. Trying to Be Perfect
If you think everything has to be perfect before you get going, you’re never going to write a book.
Perfection is an impossible illusion.
Not only that, but it’s also a tool that people use to pretend they’re not afraid. Perfectionism comes out when you’re trying to hide from yourself and from your work.
“This outline just isn’t working. There’s so much more I need to do before I can start writing.”
That’s fear talking.
Don’t obsess over perfection. Get your idea, outline, or draft into a workable state. And then get to work. Move forward.
Don’t operate out of fear.
Solution: Focus on the Reader
Perfectionism is an inward-facing problem. When you’re a perfectionist, you’re fixated on yourself, your shortcomings, and your worries.
To escape that trap, redirect your focus outward. Focus on the reader.
If you keep the person you’re serving in mind, you’ll forget about yourself. Then, the book will flow out.
Choose love over fear.
Trap 7. Putting Too Much Pressure on Your Book
A lot of Authors have unrealistic expectations for their book. So, when I ask what their objectives are, I’ll often get answers like:
- Sell a million copies
- Get famous
- Be a New York Times bestselling author
- Get on Oprah or Ellen
- Speak at TED
- Make my dad love me
That’s a lot of pressure to put on a pile of paper.
No matter how great the book is, most of those objectives aren’t feasible for the majority of Authors.
If any of them happen, that’s fantastic.
You can even wish for them.
But if you think, This is why I’m writing my book, you could have a very successful book, and you’d still think you’re a failure.
Or, just as likely, the pressure would freeze you. It would stop you from writing your book and prevent you from recognizing and capitalizing on your own success.
I love ambition and ambitious goals. If you want to set big, ten-year goals and build toward them, that’s great. That’s totally possible.
But if you’re a successful entrepreneur without an audience, and you want to come out of the gate with a bang, that’s unrealistic.
Professional writers work for years before achieving any of those goals—if they achieve them at all.
Too much ambition can bleed over into lunacy. It will get in your way because unrealistic goals are deflating. You can never live up to them, the same way you can’t live up to perfection.
Be realistic about what’s possible and what you really want.
Solution: Set Achievable Goals to Help You Take Action
The worst goals are the ones that are purely ego-driven. I want my book to sell a million copies because it will validate me. I want everyone to know my name.
It’s much better to set achievable goals that you can work toward.
For example, I want to become one of the dominant thought leaders in my niche. I want to meet new people in my field and have credibility with them out of the gate.
Set goals more in line with I want to write the best book on SEO for dentists than I want to be famous.
If you set goals you can’t achieve, you’ll never recognize all the realistic opportunities your book can provide.
But if you set attainable goals, it will be easier to build on your success and move gradually toward bigger and bigger goals.
Trap 8. Playing It Too Safe
Many Authors have anxiety about how other people are going to receive their book.
They stay up late at night, thinking about all the mean stuff people might say or how their book might get picked apart by their peers.
As a result, they end up playing it too safe. They leave out lots of valuable insight that readers would have actually appreciated.
In my experience, people who are deeply worried about what other people will think are almost always, uniformly, overthinking it. They’re just holding themselves back.
Say what you believe and what will help your reader, regardless of others’ opinions.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve worked with Authors who were worried about how their books would go over. After the launch, they tell me, “I had one or two people say not-nice things, but the response was overwhelmingly positive. My book helped me launch a new career, and so many people are thankful.”
As an important note, when I talk about “playing it too safe” and “not worrying about other people’s opinions,” I’m mostly referring to knowledge-share nonfiction.
That’s not the same as hurting other people’s feelings, which is a legitimate concern when it comes to memoirs.
When you’re writing a memoir, it’s best to be open and honest in your first draft. Say everything.
But when you edit, you might want to consider how your book will be perceived by the people you care about. It’s important to strike a balance that’s healthy and confirms your reality but that is also respectful of the people in your life.
Solution: Say What You Believe and What Will Help Your Reader
It’s okay to be afraid. Those fears seem meaningful because the work matters to you so much.
But don’t give in to them.
Shift your focus back to the reader. When you focus on the reader, it takes your focus off fear and puts it back where it belongs—on the book’s purpose.
If you write in the spirit of helping others, that’s exactly what your book will do.
And remember, if you’re worried about criticism, there are just as many costs to playing it safe.
Glennon Doyle says, “The braver I am, the luckier I get.” In my experience, that’s absolutely true.
Readers can tell when you’re holding back. They value honesty and sincerity. If your book feels too calculated or “vanilla,” it won’t seem authentic.
Don’t hold back on the stuff that matters. Otherwise, what’s the point of writing a book?
Trap 9. Getting Stuck on Irrelevant Details
The right details can make a book come alive. They help you build your arguments, add color to your stories, and give context to your data.
But in the same way that you can have too much vulnerability, you can have too much detail.
Some Authors include irrelevant details to make themselves feel like they’re adding credibility to their book. See, I was really there. I remember the details!
Really, all it’s doing is distracting your reader from the main point of the story. And it’s allowing the Author to indulge in fear.
Being overly detailed is actually a common avoidance technique. It’s a form of perfectionism. You think you have to get the details just right.
In the meantime, you’re avoiding dealing with the real stuff—the arguments, the message, the emotion.
If you get bogged down in the details, I promise you will stall out.
It doesn’t matter that you were wearing a blue shirt, gray jeans, and yellow sneakers on the day you lost your biggest client.
What matters is that you lost your biggest client, and it inspired you to improve your business.
Solution: Ask Yourself, “Does this Detail Make the Book Better?”
Sometimes you don’t know if a detail is irrelevant.
Maybe you really do need to know what kind of pen your boss was using….
Here’s my tip. Ask yourself, “Does this detail make the book better? If I left it out, would it change the book?”
If it doesn’t matter, ignore it.
Simple as that.
Readers want to learn information that’s valuable to them. They won’t think you’re less credible because you don’t include certain irrelevant details.
But they will get bored, confused, or sidetracked if you include too much stuff that doesn’t matter.
One of the most common places people get stuck is in the research phase of a book. They go down rabbit holes and convince themselves they need ten more pieces of evidence.
Again, that’s the fear talking.
For my suggestions on fighting that specific brand of fear, read this post on research.
Trap 10. Obsessing Over Finding “Perfect” Writing Tools
I’ll admit, I’m a junkie for pens. That’s why we have super-fancy Scribe pens and notebooks.
I like fancy tools. But they don’t make me a better writer.
The same goes for fancy software, dictation gadgets, office chairs, and whatever other tools you tell yourself you have to get right before you can write.
That’s a way to procrastinate and resist the actual work.
You don’t need to test every piece of software or sample every pen on earth.
Find something you’re comfortable with and move on.
Solution: Focus on the Writing and Serving Your Reader
If you’re still lacking the willpower to carry on, change your mindset.
Stop thinking about what’s going to make your writing experience better. Instead, think about how your book is going to make someone’s life better.
Get excited about the book. Remind yourself why it matters. And then get to it.
Trap 11. Using the Book to Validate Your Identity
You should take emotional joy and benefit from writing your book. You’re not a robot, and this book matters to you.
Be proud. Be excited. Feel good about the ideas you create.
Experience the emotions that come up.
But don’t think of a book as a way to validate your self-worth.
We often have people come in who want to feel more important—in their careers, personal lives, or inside themselves. They see the book as a way to make that happen.
These are usually the same people who are obsessed with the “success” of the book. They fixate on sales figures, bestseller lists, publicity, etc. They’re more concerned with the book’s commercial success than the impact it had on readers.
Buddhists call these kinds of people “hungry ghosts.” They’re endlessly searching for something to fill their soul.
I’m not criticizing them. I used to be one. In fact, sometimes, I still am. All of us are to a certain degree.
But don’t fall into the trap of thinking that a book will magically solve all your problems.
Writing might help you feel better or get clarity about your feelings. It won’t validate your identity or make you feel significant.
Solution: Use the Book to Serve the Reader
Your book isn’t a means to some socially validating end.
It’s something you’re creating to help other people.
And here’s the ironic thing: if you really show up in service and write for your readers, you’ll get validation.
Your book will resonate with readers. They’ll love it. And they’ll tell you they love it.
Trap 12. Expecting to Know Everything Before You Start
The outline is one of the most important parts of writing a book.
If you start without one, the writing process will take forever, and your book will probably be haphazard.
Outlines are also good defenses against anxiety, procrastination, and writer’s block. If you have a solid structure, you’ll be more confident when you actually start writing.
But sometimes Authors go overboard.
They obsess over the outline and think they have to know every single thing about their book before they start.
I sometimes hear Authors say, “I’m spending 3 hours a day, 4 days a week to finish my outline.”
Nope. You’re taking too much time.
I also hear Authors say, “It has to be perfect.”
Nope. Chances are, you’re doing 10 times more work than you need to.
Go back to Trap #6. There’s no such thing as perfect.
You’re just avoiding writing.
Solution: Do Enough Positioning and Outlining to Confidently Start and Let the Rest Emerge
Once you’ve got 80-90% of your outline, you’re good to go.
Good books require planning, but there’s no way to completely plan a book.
It’s an organic process. Things will emerge as you write. In fact, sometimes, the best things emerge as you write.
As long as you’re clear on what you want to achieve with your book, who it’s for, and why you’re the perfect person to solve their problems, you can confidently begin.
Trap 13. Editing as You Write Your First Draft
If I had to put these in order, I’d say that this is the absolute worst trap Authors could fall into.
A lot of Authors think they have to create a masterpiece from the get-go. They write 500 words, then spend days agonizing over those words.
A lot of the time, that’s where the book stops.
They have 500 “perfect” words, and nothing else to show for it.
There’s no such thing as a perfect first draft. In fact, most first drafts aren’t even good.
I can tell you, as a professional writer with multiple New York Times Bestsellers under my belt, my first drafts are garbage. They’re flat-out terrible.
But I don’t mind because I know I can edit them until they aren’t terrible anymore.
That’s the great thing about writing a book. No one has to see it until you show them.
This Barbara Kingsolver quote sums it up nicely:
“1. To begin, give yourself permission to write a bad book.
2. Revise until it’s not a bad book.”
Do not edit as you go.
You’ll never finish.
Solution: Write It All out First, Then Edit Everything
Come up with a writing plan, sit down, and write your entire first draft.
Don’t edit. Don’t go back and read what you’ve written. Don’t even add stuff to the sections you’ve already finished.
Don’t worry about how it sounds or whether it’s good.
Just put the words on the page.
I call this your “vomit draft” because when you vomit, you don’t care how you look. You just want to get finished.
Once it’s done, you can go back and edit. Tear it apart. Cut, add, move—do whatever you need to do to make yourself happy with it.
You’ll find that it’s much easier to improve something when it actually exists.