CareerProfessional Development

How to write a book: Get started, keep going, and get published


Have you ever picked up a new book and thought I could have written this? Many nurses would like to write a book, but only a small number do. No doubt, several barriers keep would-be authors from writing, but the two most important are a lack of knowledge about writing and the publishing process and a lack of confidence and motivation.

The first barrier can be broken with some basic information on how to write a book proposal. The second is a bit more difficult, but some key motivational strategies can help you start writing and see the project through.

Writing a book proposal

Writing a book begins with a book proposal, which is a plan and rationale for your book idea. Specific guidelines for proposals vary, depending on the publishing company and the editor, so format each proposal appropriately. Most editors prefer an electronic submission, and most proposals include the elements described below.

Introduction. Present an overview of your book, including the need it will serve and its benefit to readers. If you’ve seen your topic presented at conferences, say so. This information indicates to the editor that there’s interest in the topic.

Name of the book. If you have a proposed name, include it. If you have several ideas, list them as possible titles. You don’t know which titles will appeal to the editor and reviewers. Be open to title suggestions. And keep in mind that the title can change very late in the publishing process.

Content. Describe the subject matter of the book and the rationale for each subtopic. For example, “The subject of the book is business etiquette. The chapter on dining etiquette will help readers avoid dining faux pas during a business meal or interview.”

Organization. Explain how you will organize the material and how your organization will benefit the reader. State the number of chapters and the format of each. Include a table of contents with chapter titles and an outline with headings and subheadings for each chapter. Note your intent to use charts, illustrations, objectives, case studies, study questions, bibliographies, or any other features.

Audience. Identify your target audience. What education, knowledge, and experience are expected of the readers? Examples of target audiences include undergraduate students, graduate students, staff nurses, nurse managers, orthopedic nurses, dialysis nurses, legal nurse consultants, and so on. In your proposal, you might write, “This book is for undergraduate nursing students in a leadership or management course.”

Physical characteristics. Using other books as a guide, estimate the number of manuscript or book pages. Also, indicate the number of photographs, line drawings, and tables. State whether they will be borrowed from other sources or will need to be created.

Competition. Identify books that will compete with yours. Describe how your book will be similar to and different from each competing title. Having no competition may mean there’s no market for your book. Or it may mean you’re the first to address a new topic or audience. Years ago, I saw the need for a book on diagnostic and laboratory testing geared to nurses. There was only one competing title. When I approached an editor at Mosby, I was told that my idea was just what they were looking for.

Authorship. Indicate whether or not you will be the sole author. If you will be the nurse-editor, submit the names, credentials, and chapter names for each contributor.

Author background. You need to answer this question: “Why are you the person to write this book?” Address your educational background, relevant experience, and previous articles or books. Many editors request a list of your publications, and some want a résumé. Don’t worry if you don’t have a big list. I had only two published articles when I secured my first book contract.

Sample chapter. A sample chapter allows the editor and reviewers to evaluate your writing style and your content. The chapter should be a showcase for your book’s organization and key features. Don’t use an introductory chapter. And make sure the chapter is polished and professional. It will be used to judge if your material is “potentially publishable.”

Motivational strategies for writers

Writing is difficult enough. Without motivation and confidence, it’s impossible. These strategies can help you get on track and keep you moving.

Read. Spend time browsing through books and journals to get ideas for your book. Reading is essential to writing because it leads to ideas. It also helps you develop a sense of how words are used to make ideas flow from one to the next.

Designate a time for writing. Most nurses don’t have time to write. If you’re serious about writing, you must make it a priority and make the time. Select and schedule a time period when you are most creative. Guard this time and make yourself unavailable.

Find a place to write. You need a place where you can be productive. I’m much more creative and productive in a library than at home. I reserve noncreative work (such as proofreading or writing bibliographic references) for home.

Organize the manuscript. Without organization, writing can be unnecessarily difficult. Try to organize your ideas by making an outline of your key points. If you get stuck in the middle of a section, your outline can guide you to your next point.

Begin writing. The hardest part of any writing project is writing the first sentence, but the first sentence you write doesn’t have to be the first sentence of the book. Start where you feel most comfortable. Some writers begin with their favorite chapter and end with the introduction. Also, when writing a first draft, don’t be overly concerned about grammar, spelling, and vocabulary.

Revise, revise, and then revise. Put a first draft aside for a couple of days before revising your copy. This distancing allows you to approach the subject with a fresh point of view. Ask a colleague for feedback. An unbiased pair of eyes can provide invaluable feedback.

Take small steps. The whole process of writing a book can be overwhelming. One strategy is to divide the project into small steps. I usually devise a checklist for the book and each chapter, so I can keep track of my progress. This provides positive stroking and helps keep the momentum going.

Plan ahead. Beginning a writing session is difficult, so before you end one session, plan the next one. Write the title and the first sentence of the next topic.

Mingle with nurse authors. When I began my writing career, my greatest stimulation came from exposure to other nurse authors. Seeing that they were normal people and not so different from me motivated me to write.

Don’t take rejection to heart. Although rejection is painful, it should not force you to retire your pen or toss your laptop. The reason for rejection may have nothing to do with the quality of your manuscript. The editor may have already committed to a similar topic. Remember, rejection isn’t final. Theodor Geisel, the author of the well-known Dr. Seuss series, had his first book rejected by 20 publishers before it was accepted. So be persistent. Think of a rejected manuscript as one that hasn’t yet found its home.

Keep writing

Writing a book is challenging, but the rewards are great. The personal satisfaction of seeing your name in print is indescribable, and the recognition from your peers is stimulating. Because success breeds success, writing your first book will motivate you to keep writing.

Kathleen D. Pagana, keynote speaker and author, is a Professor Emeritus at Lycoming College and President of Pagana Keynotes & Presentations. She is the author of 25 books, including Mosby’s Diagnostic and Laboratory Test Reference, 10th edition; The Nurse’s Etiquette Advantage; and The Nurse’s Communication Advantage. She can be contacted at

Selected reference

Nettina SM. Writing a book or book chapter. In: Saver C. Anatomy of Writing for Publication for Nurses. Indianapolis, IN: Sigma Theta Tau International; 2011:229-244.

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