Planning a book - How to plan a book

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In the event that you might be reading this before submitting a proposal, and perhaps have not got far with your manuscript yet, here are some general considerations to bear in mind:

Ideal length

We’re happy with any length, from 10,000 words to a million, so long as it reflects the spirit and intentions of the book (but see comments in paragraph below). The target range for an average read, not too demanding, but substantial enough, is 40,000–60,000 words. Don’t spend days trying to get the text exactly to the agreed word count – it does not need to be precise.

Word counts on a standard 8½ x 5½ inches page size (216 x 140mm) can vary from 150 to 500 depending on type and font. Ours is usually 250 to 350 words per page.

Bear in mind that there is a direct correlation between length and price. Indirect costs are pretty much the same for every book, but the biggest element in production costs is paper. Increasingly, books now are costed on a per-page basis. Also, time to read and reflect seems to get harder to find. Researchers find that the most oft-quoted criticism of books is that they are "too long" (the others are "too boring," “disappointing ending," "overhyped", and "disappointing plot"). These comments are mostly directed at fiction, but they are equally true of non-fiction. If you are providing substantial, well-researched, new information, then the length of the book needs to reflect that. If it is more of a "get yourself a life"-type book, then 128 pages might be the optimum level, and more than that will turn potential readers off.

It’s always better to use fewer words when fewer will do the job. It’s also harder. Avoid padding and excessive use of examples. Many manuscripts turn out to be better books at half the length. When you think you’ve finished, read the manuscript through in one sitting. If there is any sense of repetition, it’s too long. If you find yourself using “as we’ve already seen,” “as mentioned earlier,” or similar, you are repeating yourself, and it needs re-organizing.

Equally, manuscripts can be too short. You might assume your reader knows as much as you do, or can follow your train of thought without you having to spell it out. Some staccato statements need to be paragraphs. Take the reader by the hand, lead them through to the obvious conclusion, and entertain them along the way.

Book plan

A few writers can hold the structure and development of the book in their head while they’re writing, but this is rare. Many books do not work as well as they could because the structure isn’t properly thought through. Equally, if your manuscript is divided into sections, then divided into chapters, themselves full of headings, it may reflect a weak argument, or an attempt to cover too much ground. If the thread of argument doesn’t flow clearly throughout, it needs rewriting. Focus throughout on the point that you’re trying to get across. If it hasn’t got one simple “message” it may not work, at least in competition with those that have. Go back to the one-sentence summary in the new book form. Does every chapter work towards this end? Does the chapter itself have a structure? Do the paragraphs lead the reader through the argument? Do the sentences make consecutive sense in the paragraph? Are the sentences themselves the right length?

Most of all, does it have "pace"? Does it keep the reader hooked? This is not only a question for fiction. Move the argument along, or you lose the reader.

Many writers find it helpful to write the aim of the book at the top of a page, with the title, subtitle, and then subdivide the page into chapters. Check that each chapter fits the aim, and that they follow a logical sequence. Then add paragraph headings that reflect the progress of the argument. Your argument should be building up a momentum through the book, leading to a conclusion. If you have 40 chapters, the argument is probably lost. Most authors aim for 10 to 12 chapters, then subdivide the chapter into a similar number of points.

Sample structure

  • Introduction
  • History, background, mythology or whatever applies here
  • Method of going about the system or main intro and lead-in to the heart of the book
  • The heart of the book
  • Examples, case histories, the system in action, advice for users
  • Additional information, more advanced information etc
  • Conclusion

Readership level

We tend to publish substantial books that cover subjects in depth, but avoid strictly academic or technical works. If we have trouble understanding it, we don’t publish it. We look for good and relevant writing – books that make an impression. We aim for accessibility.

So as a general rule, don’t assume the reader has more knowledge than the average reader of a good newspaper. If you find yourself using words you would never use in conversation, think again, unless you’re the kind of stylist who can carry it off. Avoid saying things elaborately when they can be said simply. “Use” is better than “utilize.” “Try” is better than “endeavor.” If you find yourself using a lot of subordinate clauses, see if you can write without them.

If people don’t feel compelled to read the book, they won’t. Most potential readers judge the book when they’re flicking through it on a shelf by the first sentence, first paragraph, first page. If it’s not easily readable, most will put it down. There are very few books that can’t be improved by simplifying the style and language. Einstein managed to sum up the universe in one short equation. Okay, the Upanishads take a little longer. But if you can’t get across what you want to say on the first page in a friendly, easy-to-read style, you probably won’t interest them at all.

Don’t assume that readers have less knowledge than you have; don’t talk down to them. You have the time and ability to write and the opportunity to get published, but there will be many out there who know more about the subject than you do. You are part of a community, engaged in a conversation, and you need to persuade those on the edges to adopt your view.


Though we’re publishing mostly for the general reader rather than academics, we need to be particular about who we’re trying to reach. This is essentially people who share the same beliefs/concerns/approach that you do. The more directly you can address them, the more likely they will be to pick up the book.

Read through the Proposal boxes again. You may want to rethink the target readership and the sales handles. It’s easy to fill those boxes in, but much harder to really believe that you are addressing real people when you write.


We like to publish books that are definitive, well argued, well sourced, and are likely to outlast the more ephemeral type of books.

But there’s always a push to the edges, to go for the different, the unusual. That’s where the best marketing possibilities lie. If there are dozens of books further out to the left field than your own, your book has to be exceptionally well argued to stand out.

Equally, if yours is out in the left field somewhere, it has to be exceptionally well written to avoid being ephemeral. This is particularly true where the text gets close to established areas of history, psychology, science, whatever. Don’t assume something is proven because you’ve read it by a popular author. Take the time to do some research. Nothing kills a potentially good title faster than optimistic assumptions in the text, which any reasonably informed reader knows are speculative, if not wacky. You can rapidly get an overall general perspective by looking up the subject on the internet, on Wikipedia. But delve deep; the greater the credibility of the book, the more you will build yourself a readership.

Work out in advance where you’re going to be challenged by critics, and have the answers in the text. Do the obvious things; read the relevant magazines to check that you’re up to date and covering the areas that people are interested in. Join the relevant associations and network. Find out what’s in your market through the directories. There are 'Guides to' guides on the internet, and Gale’s Directory of Directories for other fields.

Few readers are likely to be interested in your personal “quest.” Shops are overwhelmed with mountains of self-published personal stories, and their automatic reaction is to reject anything that looks like one. The best rule (with the odd exception) is to avoid memoir. But a personal element can be important; the reader likes to identify with the writer, and stories that illustrate the point you’re making are better than thumping the reader with a message. It’s a matter of “finding your voice” – see below.

Word programs

When it comes to the manuscript itself, the main disadvantage of computers is that word processing gives the appearance of making books easy to write. You can cut and paste, rather than rewrite the whole manuscript. If you’re not careful, the book will read like a cut-and-paste job. It won’t flow and it won’t sell - and if it does, it won’t last.

There is really no alternative to laborious, hard grind—by chapter, paragraph, sentence, phrase and word—in getting a manuscript right. For instance, use global word-change programs with caution. There are probably instances in the book (as in quotes, or references) where it needed to stay the same. Do not rely on spell checkers. Or spell chequers.

But there are programs that can be useful. Netspeak is a useful free tool that figures out everything from whether to say "use" or "used," to how popular a last name is, though it goes by what is most common, not necessarily what is strictly correct.


Credibility can come through as a result of the amount of work and research that has gone into the manuscript, but that’s only half the battle. Information can be found anywhere by anyone. Too much information can be counterproductive; the reader can feel battered by it. A lecturing or hectoring tone is still worse. More important is to convey your own “voice” through the text, so the reader feels they are listening to a real person, who is on the same wavelength as them.

Sometimes, authors who are good on the lecture or workshop circuits go to pieces when they start writing. Writing needs disciplines that talking doesn’t. On a one-to-one or group basis people can be swayed by who are you are or how you look as much as by what you say. Transcripts of talks can seem meandering and vapid when down in print. Or perhaps you’re trying too hard, crafting the perfect sentence, and it is coming out too stilted. Ask people who are close to you to read the manuscript and see what they think, whether it’s really “you.” Write as if you’re speaking to a friend. Maybe invest in a small digital recorder and speak rather than write, transcribing it later. Try reading it to someone, or ask them to read it to you. If they feel they know you and trust you, they’ll recommend other people to read your book. The articles that stand out in newspapers, for instance, are those where you feel you know the writer. You respond to his or her point of view, style or humour. Take a page out of any book from any bestselling or classic novelist and you can probably recognize the author from the style. Finding your “voice” is the most difficult thing to manage. But without it you won’t be a successful, long-term writer. Too many books have material in them that is “undigested” – lumps of matter imported from other publications. It may not be plagiarism, but it doesn’t “sing.” The reader will recognize this, even if subconsciously.

Few first-time authors find their natural “voice” easily. It’s often as hard as learning to talk, or read, and might take years. Much of the satisfaction of writing comes from knowing when you’ve found it.

References, examples, context

Be aware that your readers could be anywhere – California, Scotland or Queensland, for example. Fiction or autobiography depends on a specific context and evocation of particular time and place, but non-fiction is often limited, unnecessarily, through taking too narrow a perspective. Personal stories, real-life examples, experiences, as well as references, notes, sources, are often helpful and sometimes essential in certain books. But detailed references to the place or time when something happened are usually not. References to contemporary events can easily date the work, even after a few months, and it may be years from the time you write it till a reader picks it up. Sources that only relate to the US mean your book may be irrelevant to readers elsewhere. If references are all to UK sources, your book will be seen as “foreign” in the US.

It may be different if your book is about a particular “place.” Though even there, if you’re writing about Sedona, or Glastonbury, or Ankgor Wat, many potential readers are probably from any one of a number of countries (the important thing in that instance is to make sure the book is available in the place itself). Before you send the manuscript, it may be worth thinking about whether there are any specific ways you can make the book of more value to the reader. Is there any way you can broaden the audience for the book by adding material? Resources, organizations, bibliography, and websites, can all be useful in the right kind of book.

Free advice

Publishing is one of the few businesses that doesn’t market test its products; there are too many of them, too individual, the sales quantities per title are too low, and by the time you send the manuscript to us for copy-editing, it’s too late to change it. So get reaction from as many people as you can, as early as you can. Ask friends to give an honest opinion when it’s finished. Ask them when you have the first draft, and again later. Make friends with a magazine editor specializing in the subject area. Read it aloud. If it sounds awkward in spoken speech, it will be awkward to read.

A common problem with manuscripts is that they are fine in their own way, but not really answering the questions that readers are asking. The argument may be tight, but it does not deal with the counter-arguments. The premise may be valid, but the treatment is too subjective. The story may be good, but it is too long to hold the interest. And by the time you’re half-way through writing the book, it can be difficult to see the wood from the trees. So send the manuscript to people who really do know that particular market and what the current issues are.

There are just three things to bear in mind: figure out what you want to communicate, how to get there, and bear the reader in mind as you go. Strip out anything that doesn’t contribute to this. Read it through when you get to the end to see if the argument is strong and follows through.

There is something called the "Page 99 test." Turn to page 99 and have a quick read – would the reader buy it?

The more time you can spend improving the book in its later stages, strengthening its focus and improving the style, the better the chances are of it selling for years to come. Allow yourself a few weeks in the schedule for a breather, time to stand back, take another look, and rework. A month or two is better still. Don’t be surprised if it all takes much longer than expected. Few authors have a natural gift for writing and find it comes easily. For most, it’s as hard as anything they have ever done. Three drafts is usually the minimum, and many authors will go to a dozen or more. If it’s your first book it’s worth browsing the internet for advice – try for instance:

There are several thousand titles giving good advice on how to write well. We have started our own imprint with practical advice for new authors, which is growing rapidly; see Compass Books.

So, there is a wide range of options, from short-cuts—like: How to write a bestseller. —to taking a writing course. To get a feel for what these can cover, try: So you want to be a writer?