7 Tips to Help You Write Your First Book

It’s a Friday morning and I got an alert that a package had arrived on our front doorstep. This one, though, isn’t Tide Pods from Amazon or pet food for our bird. No, this is a special package, one that my wife and I couldn’t wait to receive. As we opened the package, feelings of fulfillment and excitement flooded over us as we held the first copies of our brand-new books Forgiving Challenge and Forgiving Challenge Kids. FYI the books will be available for purchase on Wednesday, September 22, in our shop. Even as an author, it’s hard to put into words the feelings of accomplishment that you experience holding the first copy of your own book.

Zach and Allison Zehnder holding the first copies of their new books Forgiving Challenge and Forgiving Challenge Kids.

81% of Americans think they have what it takes to write a book. Yet, for the even smaller percentage that starts, only 3% actually finish. And of the 3% that finish, only 20% of those publish their book. Pastors and church leaders create a LOT of content. Is it possible to take some of our greatest content and turn it into a book?  Have you had a desire, or better yet, a calling to capture some of your content into a book? If so, I want to help you overcome some psychological hurdles and give you some tips and truths that I’ve learned along the way to encourage you.

At the age of 38, I’ve written 9 books. 6 of the books are in print and 3 of them are digital eBooks. 3 of the books, though my name is featured on the cover, I owe way more credit to my co-author Allison Zehnder. Despite never intending to be an author or even excelling in writing classes in school, God has given me a platform to share His Gospel through my writing. I say that with humility, that if I can write books, certainly you can too! I have learned several tips that have helped me not only write several books but navigate through the world of writing and publishing. These are tips and secrets I wished someone would have shared with me before I started!

So welcome to the world of my writing process. I hope it’s helpful for you.

You have a unique God-given voice that is powerful.

When I read the words of other prominent and some not so prominent authors, I often feel underqualified and less than adequate. What I have found, however, is that God has given me a unique voice. Rather than running from it, I try to pursue and jump whole-heartedly into my unique voice. Like me, you have a unique voice.

Revelation 12:11 says that we will overcome the enemy by the blood of Jesus and through the word of our testimony. Our stories, told in our unique voices, connected to the saving work of Jesus is a powerful combination.

Clearly, there are different types of books you could write: Fiction, Non-fiction, Biography, Children’s Stories, and poetry to name a few. There are a select few who can dabble in multiple styles, but when writing your first one, simply choose the one that feels most natural. Over a period of time, you will figure out what your sweet spot is. For me, I’ve found my sweet spot is writing 40-Day Challenges that feature short devotional studies. My devotions are Jesus-centered, simple-to-understand, but challenging in practice. I also have found out that I have a gift for creative one-liners. Knowing who I am and how God has wired me helps me to not overthink what I am doing. It also helps give me a framework that I know is not only attainable but repeatable.

Write in a way that is unique and natural to you and watch and see what God does with it. And over time, you will further shape and discover your unique voice.

Don’t rush your controlling idea. But you may already have it.

A controlling idea is the main idea that you will develop in your book. The controlling idea absolutely must be compelling. In non-fiction books, likely, the controlling idea solves a real problem or answers a relevant question that people are asking.

This is where pastors or church leaders may specifically have an advantage. Many of you have prepared sermon series in the past. There are some sermons, and some sermon series that I knew were solely for my church at the proper time. But over the course of a year, I always felt like there was always one sermon, or a sermon series, that could be something more. It was a message or series that featured a controlling idea that I knew was compelling and I knew would be solving a relevant problem.

My point with this truth is to remind you that you are already creating a lot of content. If you are preaching, you are already studying, reading, and listening to podcasts and sermons. You are putting a lot of time into your craft and message. One helpful practice that I’m grateful I started with is to write out my sermon manuscripts fully. That way, if and when, it is the right time to turn the content into a book I wouldn’t be starting from scratch. You should never rush your controlling idea, but I’m guessing for many pastors there is an idea or two from your past that you have felt could be a blessing to the world.

Once you have your controlling idea, you can then begin reading, research, and study which will help you develop your outline.

Give yourself multiple rewards along the way. Map it out.

Some people enjoy writing more than others do. My wife is one of those. She loves to write. Me, I love having written. I feel called by God to do it and I want to be a faithful steward. But for me, it’s important that along the way I reward myself. Otherwise, it can feel tough, hard, and like a slog. I learned from author Donald Miller to reward yourself at key points along the journey. But, before I know when to reward myself, I like mapping out my writing project from start to finish.

While all writing projects may differ from mine, here’s what I do.

When I want to create a new 40-Day Challenge I map out from start to finish on a 100-yard football field what needs to happen. If the 0-yard line is where I’m starting, the 100-yard line is the touchdown, that moment when I hold my first copy. A lot needs to take place before I score the touchdown.

The “football field” map that I used to create the newest Forgiving Challenge church-wide challenge.

In my experience, gathering the concept or developing the controlling idea, then doing the reading, research, and study, followed by writing the outline and introduction is moving the ball 25 yards. Getting to a complete rough draft is another 35 yards. Gathering feedback, reviews, and then going through multiple rounds of editing and revising is another 35 yards (and this is the most draining part of the entire process for me). Finally, getting the book print-ready, discussing design elements, is the final 5 yards before I can do my touchdown celebration dance. 

Every 20 to 25 yards I reward myself. These rewards are important to give me positive nudges to get to the end-zone. The last book that I wrote ended with a golf trip with friends that I’ll be enjoying this coming week. My wife bought a pair of shoes for herself that she had been wanting for a while. Littler rewards like a gift card to a restaurant or an item for your man (or woman) cave can also be fun along the way. The more specific as to when you will get a reward and what your reward will be will help you along the way. Now, here’s to hoping my golf game excels this week!

Books are filled with words. Set a word count goal.

Every book starts at 0 words. I love using Microsoft Word because it will tell me exactly how many words are in my document. Where a book finishes could depend on the project or type of writing. A book with no graphics and 50000 words will be close to 165 pages while a book with 90000 words will be closer to 300 pages. In writing your first book, set a word count goal. I tend to believe that it’s better to start with a shorter word count goal than a larger word count.

The printed books I end up writing end up being in the 50-60K word count. In writing your first book, set a word count goal. I tend to believe that it’s better to start with a shorter word count goal than a larger word count.

In the past, I have been able, after study and research, to write an entire sermon manuscript of 4000-5000 words in a day. But, when it comes to writing a book, after discovering the controlling idea and developing an outline, I begin writing. A great day of writing might end up with 2000 words. More than likely, a good day is 1000 solid words. If my goal is to write 60000 words and I can write 1000 words in a day, then it should only take 60 days of writing for a rough draft to be ready. Stated that simply, now what seemed impossible is starting to feel attainable.

A rough draft is exactly that. It’s rough. Find some coaches and cheerleaders now.

Just because I may be able to put 1000 solid words on paper in a day doesn’t mean that I’m done. Oh no! Writing a rough draft is a part of the process, an extremely important part of the process. Again, according to my estimation, you may be somewhere in the 50-60% range of completion but it’s not close to print-ready.

At this stage of the game, it’s important to invite both coaches and cheerleaders into your journey. For my purposes, I invite about 8-12 people into my feedback journey and ask them for their feedback. What I have found is that some of them tend to be more like coaches and others tend to be more like cheerleaders. Coaches and cheerleaders are terms that Donald Miller uses for those involved in his writing process, and it also fits perfectly for my football field analogy!

Coaches will give you really honest, constructive feedback. They may rank or rate your work lower than others. You need their feedback, because as much as you may want to be, and think you should be, done with your project, can I just be blunt with you? It’s not ready. It needs to be better. Coaches do a great job of showing where you can improve. Coaches may also give some words of encouragement or affirmation. If they do this, make a particular note of that and realize you may be onto something really special when this feedback comes.

Cheerleaders are those who primarily give words of affirmation and encouragement. In the middle of a big project, especially for someone whose love language is words of affirmation, this is incredibly important to hear! Cheerleaders remind you that you do have what it takes. In the middle of the encouragement, a cheerleader may also give a few bits of constructive feedback. Because of how limited their constructive feedback may be, you definitely want to take their advice as much as possible.

I think coaches and cheerleaders are equally important as you begin as an author. As you grow and gain confidence in your writing, I’d lean more on coaches but still have a couple of cheerleaders on your team. Coaches will truly push to help you become your best.

The most uncelebrated skill in writing a book is calendar management. Schedule it.

It takes time to write a book. If you have a desire and feel called to write a book, but are not intentional about scheduling the time to do it, it will never happen. Every part of a writing project requires time to complete it. You need time to research, develop your idea, outline, write, revise, and edit.

In my experience, if I have a goal to write 60000 words, and I know that I can effectively write 1000 words a day, then I need 60 days of writing to complete a rough draft. Knowing this is a great discovery, but scheduling it is where the magic starts to happen. All of us have different schedules in life. Some of us have full-time jobs. Some of us have kids at home. If you have 60 days of writing to do, then you need to schedule 60 days of writing to do it. Duh!

A friend and author Carey Nieuwhof says it’s important to do what you are best at when you are at your best. I have found for myself that my morning hours are the best times for me to be creative and write. I likely have a 2-3-hour creative window where I am at my best. Therefore, for me to get a rough draft written I need to schedule 60 2-3-hour time blocks on my calendar in the mornings. Because I have other responsibilities, and also, kids still at home, this is not 60 consecutive days for me. There may be a week or two where I can schedule 4-5 days, but there may be a week where I only get 1 or 2 blocks.

If you do not schedule the time needed, others will hijack your calendar with their needs. If the goal is for you to do what you are best at when you are at your best, then give yourself permission to put it on your calendar and don’t let other things, outside of emergencies, infringe upon this time.

The enemy will try to stop you the entire writing process. Put the reps in.

If you have a desire or feel God calling you to write a book, you better believe the enemy will be prowling around telling you that you don’t have what it takes. Writing a book can seem like a monumental task but I have found it to not only be attainable, but incredibly fulfilling. Before I begin a writing project the lies of the enemy are really loud telling me it’s impossible, that I don’t have what it takes, that no one would want to read what I write, I’m not qualified, this is way too big of a project, etc.

Even after writing as many books as I have, every time I begin a new writing project, it always starts with a wrestling match where I have to remind myself of God’s power living in me. I have to remind myself of the truth that I have done this before. I can do it now. And if God calls me to write again in the future, I can do it then too. God has given me what I need to accomplish this task. And He’ll give you what you need along the way too. Stop listening to the lies of the enemy and believe in the power that God put inside of you.

As much as I still wrestle with the process, here’s the truth I’ve found. When it comes to writing, the more you put the reps in, the stronger you will be. Those who help review my works continue to comment about how I’m growing as a writer. My newest works are stronger than my older works. And, truthfully, I can feel it. The more I write, the better I become. That’s the truth. The more I lean into this truth the less of a foothold the enemy has on me.

So I’m going to keep on writing.

The 6 completed books in the Red Letter Living Series.

And if God puts the desire or calling in you, you should too.

Tell the world about Jesus! He is the author and finisher of our stories, and He is also the hero of our stories. Tell His story in your unique way!

If I can be a help to you further to help you bring your writing project to completion, please email at hello@redletterchallenge.com.

If you are an author or a content creator, what other tips would you include?

7 Responses

  1. Love this blog! I’ve been wanting to write for quite a while. I have notes that I do when I feel inspired, late night when I wake from a sleep and I have this thought that seemed so real….congratulations on the completion of yours and Allison’s books!

  2. This is great , Zach. Makes it more practical and attainable. I especially like the Football time line and breaking this down to 60 2-3 hour blocks. I might just do this! After all, my wife, son, and daughter-in-law have all become authors. Why not me? And I think I have my controlling idea!

  3. Great helps you shared here, Zach. Having published my one and only book, I learned a lot after finishing. I affirm so much of what you wrote. Breaking it down into smaller goals to complete by a deadline is so helpful. Getting over the hump of obedience to what I felt God calling me to do was important for me. It feels awkward to believe what I write could be useful, yet if God lays it on my heart, it’s obedience. It’s His heart coming through the written words. Same is true for anyone else. Fight through the lies of the enemy. Additional editing by getting coaching and cheerleading takes time, but I believe is so important. I’d do more with that in the future if I ever write another book.

  4. My wife Pam and I enjoyed the Zoom call on 7 tips for writing. We attend Grace Lutheran Pocatello Idaho. Pastor Jonathan Dinger is a good friend of ours. He asked me to write a series of daily devotionals to accompany the Red Letter Challenge and Being Challenge our congregation completed during Lent 2021 and 2022. It was through those devotionals that I was able to find my “voice” and preferred style. Although I had been writing Advent and Lent devotionals for several years at Grace Lutheran, these two projects were the tipping point in my writing journey. Thank you for the inspiration to move forward with writing our story of my Leukemia Journey and beyond.

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