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14 Stages of Writing a Book (or Finishing Any Big Project)

It’s been a little quiet around here, hasn’t it?

That’s because I’ve had to be quite stern with myself, putting myself in a kind of content solitary confinement that made me ignore everything—including this site, my job, my family, and (occasionally!) my hygiene—while I sprinted toward the finish line of my new book.

Part of the proceeds for the new book sales will go toward buying lavish gifts for everyone in an attempt to make up for it.

It got a little rough toward the end. If you’ve ever worked on an overwhelmingly huge project, you might glimpse yourself in the graph here.

Time Spent WorkingThe writer Andre Dubus III (House of Sand and Fog) likens the writing process to feeling your way along a dim, very long tunnel. Even when your eyes adjust to the darkness, you can still see only a few feet ahead of you.

Not unlike a solitary, literate mole.

I think that’s what is feels like to be in the midst of any big project any of us might take on—like a presentation, sales meeting, campaign launch, or what have you.

Since I submitted my manuscript for the book (called Everybody Writes) yesterday to Wiley (woohoo!), I’m now out of the tunnel and blinking in the Saturday sunshine like a spring mole emerging from its larder. Tomorrow is June already? When did that happen?

Four years ago, I wrote a kind of reflection on this process. I’ve updated it here:

1. Confidence. I’ve crafted a killer proposal to write a book based on an original, amazing idea and a unique approach. My book is useful. It solves a problem lots of people have, and by writing it I’ll create bounty and blessings for all. I write a proposal oozing with wit, charm, and warmth: I smugly mail it off and open a celebratory bottle of something. Might as well celebrate while I still can. I’m going to be very busy very soon, you know.

2. Anxiety. Why aren’t they getting back to me? Hello? Where is everyone? Why haven’t they accepted the proposal? Wait… will they accept my proposal?! Crap! My ringer was off! What if they tried to call? Did they?

3. Elation. YES!!! I’m writing a book!

4. Fantasy. I’ll get up early every morning and go to the coffee shop, where I’ll write in the same booth in the back. I’ll wear a thoughtful expression and maintain a wise writerly demeanor. The staff will get to know me, and respectfully they’ll have my latte waiting and save the last scone for me. Maybe I’ll wear a beret. Maybe I can have a launch party there…

5. Self-doubt. Wait… I’m writing a BOOK? Who am I kidding? What do I know? Who talked me into this again? Must ID scapegoat to blame.

6. Procrastination. No need to fret now. I have plenty of time. The manuscript due date is when…? Well, whenever. Ages from now. The third season of Scandal is out on Netflix! I’ll binge-watch the first two seasons now. And hey! What’s up, Facebook?

I heart you mommy7. Realization. Wait. The manuscript is due WHEN?

8. Bargaining. If I finish this paragraph, I’ll let myself eat the chocolate chip muffin saved from earlier. Or maybe I should eat half now so I have the energy…

9. Depression. This is horrible. I hate this. This is stupid. I’m stupid. And ugly. I hate writing. I have nothing new to say. I don’t want to do this. I can’t do this. I wish I were dead. Also, I wish I had another muffin.

10. Repeat steps 5-9 above for an indeterminate period of time, in an endless, private circle of hell.

11. Annoyance. Leave me alone! Stop calling me! Stop emailing me! Stop knocking on the door! Stop asking what’s for dinner! Stop breathing inside the house at all!

12. Actualization. (Silence. Save for tap-tapping on keyboard.)

13. Exultation, best done blinking in the sunlight again. YES! I wrote a book. I’m an author! (Phew.)

14. Consciousness. I used to be an author. Now, I’m in sales.


Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide for Creating Ridiculously Good Content is what would happen if The Elements of Style had a baby with the Internet. It will be published by Wiley this September.

Image credit: Ancestry Images

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37 Responses to 14 Stages of Writing a Book (or Finishing Any Big Project)

  1. Steve says:

    When will it be out? If it reads as fast and charming as this blog post, I gotta get it.

  2. Ann, I absolutely, positively can’t wait.
    Also, I loved this list the first time around and I love it even more now.
    I’ve missed your posts, but know the absence has been for a worthy cause.
    Welcome back, little mole.

  3. Jay Baer says:

    I loved the first album from Literate Mole, but once they hired Danger Mouse to produce, the whole sound just became trite.

  4. Can you let me have a preview eCopy? (PDF) … would love to read and review.

  5. Elaine Fogel says:

    Very cool, Ann. I hope you tackled grammar in the new book. Have you noticed how many content marketers can’t spell or use adverbs? 🙁

    If you have any words of wisdom for the post book-writing phase, I”m all ears. I finished my book and am just proofing it one more time before sending out for review.

    • Ann Handley says:

      hi Elaine — Congrats on your book! I’d love to see it. Happy to swap post-book-writing-now-sales stories!

      I do talk about grammar, but only some: It’s one of six parts. The rest of the book is about the writing process, story, rules of brand journalism, and content “tools.” Grammar is important — but something I think people think “writing = grammar.” And it’s less about grammar than many think.

  6. Jerod Morris says:

    Congratulations Ann! I can’t wait to read the book. And great summary of the process. Heck, I feel like that sometimes just for a blog post. Can’t even imagine what it must be like for a book. (Hoping to find out someday though …)

  7. Mack Collier says:

    “14. Consciousness. I used to be an author. Now, I’m in sales”

    And there it is.

  8. Ditto Mack Collier! #14

    This process also sounds strangely akin to the divorce journey. Am I wrong?

  9. Ann – You continue to amaze. Congrats! As always, thanks for your humor which puts things into perspective.

  10. Michael Cunningham says:

    The book will be out in time for my birthday!!!

  11. Looking forward to the release of your book! Loved #14 in your list above. I wonder — is it a time to rejoice or squirm?

  12. Ann,

    I’m currently in sales, but also writing 3k-4k words a week on my blog. I’m hoping to stop at 80k words, pull the content down and edit it into a book. I will find a new theme for the blog and repeat the process. It takes a lot of the big project stress away to “publish” three times a week and get feedback. You can read all about my madness at


  13. A very realistic insight into what happens when writing. Many think that writing is a romantic, painless and ever-inspired exercise… The truth: there’s often awful-doubt and muddling… Doing things that matter is not actually that romantic cf.

  14. A very realistic insight into what happens when writing. Many think that writing is a romantic, painless and ever-inspired exercise… The truth: there’s often awful-doubt and muddling… Doing things that matter is not actually that romantic cf.

  15. Tim Miles says:

    Your list is so full of awesome it actually hurts! I might add:

    6a. Field test 19 writing applications. “Hmm… will Scrivener make me more brilliant than Ulysses? Surely, I shouldn’t use Word… or maybe I should… what about Pages… WAIT! Time to finally learn Markdown…”


    • Ann Handley says:

      Oh yes…! Good add, Tim. You’re totally right! And perhaps:

      6b. Commit vast amounts of time (hours, days, weeks) researching How to Write More Productively. Read aphorisms by famous published authors.

      • Tim Miles says:

        6c. Share aforementioned articles and aphorisms on Facebook and twitter.

        6d. Check regularly for new likes, comments and mentions.

        6e. Write blog post comparing various productivity software apps. Write total-linkbait-post titled 346 Great Quotes About Writing.

        6f. Decide your blog needs a new design.

        (I think we may have just stumbled upon the subject for your next book…)

  16. Nenad says:

    And I thought you were travelling big time and that’s why you forgot to write 😉 A nice review of all your writing phases. Alas, number 5 is my eternal phase before doing anything. I am my worst enemy and this prevents me from even seriously considering writing a book. But congrats! Can’t wait to get ahold of your new book.

  17. DJ Waldow says:

    Ann! SO glad your re-shared/updated this. One of my favs!

    (oh, and congrats!)

  18. Corey says:

    Scandal is ALWAYS the answer.

  19. Eileen says:

    I love this! IT’S SO TRUE!!!!
    However, I think you’re missing one stage:
    Stage 9.5, Self-Analysis, in which we ask, “Why, why, why do I do this to myself?! What is wrong with me that I keep taking on these huge writing projects, when I KNOW what it’s going to be like at the end?! To heck with healthy coping strategies like mindfulness meditation and exercise. I need a muffin.”

  20. Michele "Wojo" Wojciechowski says:

    This is hilarious because it’s so true!!! Love it!!!

  21. Dina says:

    Congratulations Ann! Your take on finishing a big process is throughly illuminating and simply hilarious! I can truly rate. I look forward to getting my hands on a copy of your new book!

  22. Mark Armamentos says:

    Hello Ann,
    The graph grabbed me and I had to read the rest. I am two-thirds (gosh I hope so!) into writing my first novel and the fact that you got yours to the publisher helped me get some work done on it today.
    For a good read on how another writer approaches the mighty task of book-writing (or any project), you might like “Do the Work” by Steven Pressfield.
    Congratulations on your accomplishment!

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