7 Project Management Principles for Writing a Book

Writing is a “learn by doing” thing, and the only way to learn how to write a book is to write one.

This is problematic for many reasons, the main one being that writing a book is confusing, difficult, and almost always optional.

Several years ago I borrowed a bunch of money and went back to school for an MFA. I was on the third draft of my fifth novel and was getting very tired of not knowing what the hell I was doing, writing multiple drafts that were really just poking the misshapen beasts into a different shape. But I was finishing novels, that was for sure. They were in a box under the stairs. I could look at them any time I wanted to.

The MFA was great. My writing improved exponentially. I met some terrific writers.

A few months into my two-year MFA program I realized that many of these talented writers got irreversibly stuck on long projects.

They weren’t so in love with the short form that they didn’t want to write a book. Many of them had started one. They just couldn’t seem to get to the end.

I could. I’m not saying it was easy, but I could do it consistently—hence the five finished novels under the stairs.

So what made the difference?

After long reflection I have realized that it was the influence of my career as a project manager in the international conference industry. With every novel I wrote, I was applying project management principles to my writing life.

7 project management principles for writing a book

  1. Know your why
  2. Define the project
  3. Break it down: it can’t all be done in a day
  4. Enjoy the play aspects
  5. Don’t spread yourself thin
  6. Give yourself what you need
  7. Do the unpleasant stuff

1. Know your ‘why’

You are the only person on planet Earth who can write this book, but that doesn’t mean the world needs it. This will become apparent to you many times over as you work your way through the first draft and then (conceivably) multiple subsequent drafts. So you have to ask yourself: why?

In the international conference management industry, the ‘why’ is usually related to the organization’s goals. Government printers meet to talk about passport security and improvements in anti-counterfeiting paper because they want their identity documents to be secure and their money to remain valuable.

What’s your reason for writing a book-length work? Maybe you have a contract for it. Maybe you have a particular niche to fill. I wrote a non-fiction book recently and the ‘why’ was twofold—to demystify my day job (editing) for other writers, and to make a bit of money on the side.

Whether it’s a novel or a non-fiction work, dig deep for your reason: Why this book, why now, why you?

Your why has to matter to you, but it doesn’t need to make sense to anybody else. Maybe you want a novel published so you can teach at an MFA program, and you know that to get one published, you have to write it first. Personally, I write novels because I get an idea and I want to fool around with it. I can’t imagine not writing the book. I consider writing fiction integral to my own operating system. I write the book to get rid of it and make room for the next one, if you will.

2. Define the project

As GK Chesterton said, “Art is limitation.” You can’t make a sculpture of everything, after all. You have to choose.

Every writer I know who isn’t a hobbyist thinks in terms of projects. They might not know immediately what type of project an idea will be, but at some point they make the decisions that must be made to define what they’re working on.

Fiction’s long forms are novels and novellas. Nonfiction takes many forms: how-to, memoir, self-help—you can actually look up how books are categorized on the Book Industry Study Group’s website, which lists the many BISAC (category) codes under which book-length works might fall.

With novels, my project definition is much looser than a BISAC code, at least initially, because frankly, sales are the least of my worries. If I don’t write the novel, I’ll expire (see #1). So I take whatever my initial impetus is (often an image, like a sad man on a train) and slap an arbitrary scaffolding on it. “OK, it’ll be 80,000 words, it’ll cover a five-week period, it will be set in France, and it will involve a bereaved man.” The scaffolding will change as it develops, but that’s not the point. The point is to have a shape in mind so you can find a place to start.

3. Know that it can’t all be done in a day

The international conference industry is kind of like showbiz. You work with interesting people from all over the world and, as with movies and Broadway shows and the Olympics, you start planning years in advance. These international events cost millions of dollars. They have a start date and an end date, and they happen in that period whether or not everything’s ready. But (because millions) everything had better be ready.

To make sure it’s ready on time, each member of the organizing team works at the project regularly. You can’t just block the conference center dates and do nothing for two years, then start working on it a week before everyone arrives.

The same goes with writing a book-length work. If you are not prepared to do it bit by bit, it will rarely get done at all.

Project managers use critical paths, a handy tool that breaks each element down (signage, speakers, etc.) and assigns deadlines and deliverables. Writers can do this too. Writing down everything you might need to do—research, the actual draft writing, deep revision, lining up beta readers, polishing, putting together a submission list—will show you the enormity of the task. You will see that writing the book is only part of it. You won’t delay starting because you will see that this thing’s going to take a while, and that the best time to start is right now.

A side bonus of breaking a book project down into bite-sized tasks and working at them regularly is that, in addition to steady progress in each area, you will also get periods of exceptional work because the project is on your mind.

4. Enjoy the play aspects

In conferences, sometimes you’re dealing with serious issues and sometimes you’re doing fun stuff, like sampling menus or picking out tote bags. Writing is much the same. As novelist David Mitchell says:

Writing describes a range of activities, like farming. Plowing virgin fields—writing new scenes—demands freshness, but there’s also polishing to be done, fact-checking, character-autobiography writing, realigning the text after you’ve made a late decision that affects earlier passages—that kind of work can be done in the fifth, sixth, and seventh hours.”

Source: Paris Review interview by Adam Begley

So relax into whatever schedule and systems you’ve developed (see #6) and don’t try to rush your way through the writing itself. Use your writing time to play. If you need to get back to kindergarten and cut up pieces of paper to diagram where your characters are, as playwright George Bernard Shaw was reputed to do, then let yourself do it.

Conversely, some of writing is really just thinking, and you don’t have to do it at your desk. While walking through the city I have dictated entire paragraphs of deathless prose into my digital voice recorder—things that I couldn’t have written at my desk in a million years, because the light hit something in a certain way or I had a great idea for the scene I was working on. Walking connects both halves of your brain, birthing new insights.

5. Don’t spread yourself thin

You will rarely find international conference teams working on several shows at once, especially as a big event’s run dates approach. Similarly, it is not productive to keep too many long manuscripts going at once. This is partly just mathematics: twenty actions on two goals get you closer to the goals than twenty actions on twenty goals. It’s also got to do with morale. Finishing something is encouraging, and focusing on one or two projects lets you finish things more often.

6. Give yourself what you need

I personally believe that you can’t manage time—it’s just a silly human construct! But you can manage your environment, access to work, and support.

This involves knowing yourself. If I have a project buried in my computer I tend to forget about it—weeks can go by before I remember I was actually thinking it would get done soon.

So I externalize projects, put them in binders, schedule time on my phone, set deadlines to swap work with other writers, etc. I get to my office two hours before anyone needs me and work on my own stuff in that time period. I have actual checklists and systems that I know work, especially for the revision phase.

All of these needs I have are not very sexy, but that’s OK, they are tremendously helpful when I veer off into the rhubarb and need to steer myself back on the path to THE END. And they let me relax and have fun with the writing itself (see #4).

7. Do the unpleasant stuff

I hate submitting. I find it difficult and demoralizing. I tell myself that I don’t have time to read all the literary mags to find out which ones publish work like mine, or comb through the Internet to see who takes novellas.

I have admittedly avoided submitting for years, except when I wanted to get into a residency, wanted an agent, or wanted a government grant (no soap on the third one, so far). But it has to be done.

Likewise, there are awful aspects of international conferences, often related to political issues, handling giant egos, or managing the fallout from an act of God. But these things must be faced.

So I have begun submitting at least once a week, on Tuesdays, for an hour. First benefit: I realized that it’s not that bad. What on earth was my problem, all these years? Second (unexpected) benefit: It’s kind of fun, the feeling of having a few balls in the air.

Every book project will involve aspects you don’t like, but that’s just part of the deal. If you mix those bits in with parts you do like (see #4), give yourself systems and support (#6), and break them down into bite-sized tasks (#3), you will hardly notice your doing them and who knows—you might even discover they’re fun.

An unfinished project is a millstone around the writer’s neck.

These project management principles have saved my own writing life. If you try them, I’d love to hear how it went—contact me here.