Lots of people decide to write a book, but only 3% of people who start writing a novel actually finish their first draft.
So, what do those successful 3% do differently?
There’s no single right answer that works for everyone, but there are a lot of writing craft tips that have worked for successful novelists in the past. We’ve compiled some of the most useful advice out there to help you optimize your writing process.
Read on to learn our best tips for how to write a novel and make sure you get to the finish line.
20 Tips for Writing Your Novel
Whether you’re writing science fiction, young adult, or a contemporary story based on events in your own life, many aspects of writing a novel remain the same.
You need to manage your time well, figure out how to pitch your book, and learn how to problem-solve, just to name a few.
All of the tips in this article are broad enough to apply to any type of novel writing but specific enough to be immediately actionable.
Without further ado, here are our top 20 tips for how to write a novel readers will love.
Tip 1: Find Your Own Process
There are as many different ways to write a novel as there are books in a bookstore. Only you can figure out the writing process that works best for you.
For example, some novelists outline before they write their first draft. Others outline when they revise. And some never outline at all.
Some novelists finish a first draft very quickly and then revise for much longer, while others spend years creating a clean first draft and then speed through their revisions.
It’s tempting to hear about someone else’s process and want to adopt the same one for yourself, but if that process doesn’t work for you, you’ll be sabotaging yourself. Figuring out your own process should be your primary goal.
Remember there’s no wrong way to write a novel. Your end goal should be figuring out what type of writer you are rather than molding yourself to fit someone else’s process.
Tip 2: Study Story Structure
Whether or not you like outlining, it’s important to study story structure.
You don’t have to outline your book in advance, but in order to master fiction writing, you have to understand how stories work and what readers want to see.
If you love detailed outlines, you can pick a story structure with lots of story beats, such as Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat beat sheet.
If you prefer to leave yourself more freedom to develop the story organically, you can choose a story structure with fewer beats. The three act structure is a great place to start because it gives you a few key moments to hit in your story while still leaving a lot of flexibility.
At the very least, you should have a vague idea of what your inciting incident, midpoint, and climax are going to be. Those three plot points are crucial for every novel.
Tip 3: Know Your Ideal Reader
It’s important not to write a book that you think will please the whole world. No story is meant for everyone.
Figuring out who your target audience is can help you guide your story.
Start by figuring out your genre and target age range. Then, get even more specific.
What type of humor does your ideal reader have? What books, movies, and TV shows do they like? What philosophical questions do they struggle with in their own lives?
When you’re worried about an aspect of your story, such as the fear that the protagonist’s sense of humor might be too cheesy, think about your ideal reader and whether or not they would agree. If your ideal reader loves cheesy humor, it doesn’t matter if all the critics disagree.
Tip 4: Develop Your Novel Idea Before Drafting
Not every story idea can support a whole novel. You might get 20,000 words into the first draft before you realize there’s a fundamental flaw with your premise.
That’s why the process of developing your story idea properly is just as important as the process of drafting the book itself.
Follow your excitement. Ask yourself, “Which parts of this idea am I really excited about?”
It might be the unique main character and the misunderstood villain. It might be a dramatic battle scene, or a surprise betrayal. Or it might be themes of friendship and found family.
If there are any parts of the story idea that don’t excite you, try to heighten them. How can you raise the stakes for the main character? What interesting themes can you include that might resonate with readers?
Tip 5: Choose the Right POV
Each point of view has its own strengths. It’s important to choose the right one for the story you want to tell, so you can save yourself the trouble of having to switch it later.
A novel told in first person POV might make the reader feel like they’re very close to the main character, while a novel told in third person POV might give you more distance and scope.
If you’re not sure which POV would suit your story best, you can try writing a passage of your novel in several different POVs and comparing their effects. Doing this work in advance can help you set yourself up for success.
Tip 6: Write the Blurb First
Think of the blurb as what you would find on the back cover of a novel when you pick it up in a bookstore. It tells readers the basic premise of the story and hooks them into the core conflict.
Writing the blurb before you write the novel can help you develop your novel idea by figuring out the main point of the story. It can even help you develop scene ideas and figure out where your story should go when you get stuck.
Most importantly, it gives you a clear vision for what you want this story to be. You can use the blurb to make sure you’re staying true to your original vision—or to intentionally change that vision, if needed.
The blurb will come in handy later on, whether you’re self-publishing or writing a query letter to an agent or a professional editor. So there’s no downside in getting a head start on it.
Tip 7: Build a Writing Routine
Writing novels is a marathon, not a sprint. Setting an organized routine can help you make sure you get to the finish line.
Choose a writing routine that suits your own writing habits. Some writers are binge writers, and like to write in long, focused sessions. Others write a little bit every day.
You can plan regular writing sessions. Short “writing sprints,” where you set a timer for a certain length of time—say, 20 minutes—during which you’re allowed to do nothing but write are a great way to be productive.
Changing your environment can help you stick to your writing routine, too. Maybe you like to write in the library, or maybe you like to brainstorm while in the bath.
When you hit a point in the book when you want to quit, your routine can keep you going until inspiration returns again.
Tip 8: Track Your Progress
Tracking your progress is crucial to staying motivated and holding yourself accountable.
That’s why so many writers find National Novel Writing Month useful. It gives you a built-in word tracker that motivates you to stick with the writing process until you’ve finished 50,000 words.
There are multiple ways to track your progress. One popular method is to measure your word count, another is to measure the amount of time you’ve spent writing.
Many writers choose to measure time spent because measuring word count sometimes pushes you to churn out mediocre passages that will just need to be cut later.
Whichever you choose, make sure you have an effective way of recording your daily progress, such as a journal, a calendar, or an Excel spreadsheet. That way, you can hold yourself accountable and celebrate how far you’ve come.
Tip 9: Celebrate Small Wins
Writing a novel can be a long and grueling process, even if you follow all of the tips in this article. If you wait to celebrate until you’ve finished the entire book, you’ll be waiting a long time.
It’s important to choose some small milestones and celebrate reaching them.
Here are some examples of milestones you might want to reward yourself for:
- Finishing your plot outline
- Drafting every day for seven days in a row
- Reaching 10,000 words (and 20,000, and 30,000, etc.!)
- Discovering solutions for tricky plot holes
- Sharing a chapter with a friend or critique partner
Tip 10: Start with a Messy First Draft
Aiming for a messy first draft can help you start writing when you’re facing the blank page.
Remember that the purpose of the first draft is for you to tell yourself the complete story. It’s much easier to revise a bad first draft than to revise a blank page.
Try to avoid editing your work while you’re drafting because that’s how you get stuck working on the same few chapters for months on end without making forward progress.
Of course, this tip doesn’t work for everyone. Some writers (myself included) need to edit while they draft in order to fall in love with the book, and there’s nothing wrong with that—always use the process that works best for you.
Tip 11: Don’t Be Afraid to Skip Around
There’s no rule that says you have to write your novel in chronological order. In fact, sometimes it can be beneficial not to.
If you have writer’s block, it’s okay to skip to another scene you’re more excited to write. Chances are, the path to get there will fall into place once you see the destination.
For example, I know at least one professional writer who often doesn’t write the first chapter of a new novel project until she’s finished most of her first draft, because she knows she’d just have to change it later.
You can even use placeholders like “[Fight scene here]” or “[Something happens here that makes Susan change her mind.]” It might feel like you’re cheating or being lazy, but if it helps you get to the finish line, it’s fair game.
Tip 12: Learn from the Greats
Almost nothing is completely original—you’re always referencing the stories you’ve experienced in the past, whether intentionally or not.
There’s nothing wrong with learning from your favorite authors as long as you’re not plagiarizing. In fact, one of the fastest ways to improve as a writer is by studying the greats.
When you start writing a new novel project, you can make a list of books that inspire you. Maybe you love another author’s voice and it makes you want to improve your own prose. Or maybe the author is amazing at character development.
Make sure you’re not copying any single source though. Instead, try to take inspiration from multiple sources at once to create something that’s wholly your own.
Tip 13: Surprise Yourself
Even if you’re a meticulous outliner, you should still leave room for discovery.
Part of writing fiction is a willingness to let the story take you where it wants to go. A great novel is more than a detailed outline because there are always parts that come to life through the actual process of writing.
So, don’t be afraid to surprise yourself.
Does one character have a secret you didn’t realize she had? Does a scene that’s supposed to be set in a coffee shop actually work better if you set it in a cemetery?
Of course, you should make sure the surprises make sense within the story, rather than coming completely out of left field.
Most readers don’t want to read a novel where the ending is obvious from the first page. Surprising yourself will keep the story fresh and ensure you can surprise the reader, too.
Tip 14: Brainstorm as You Go
When you learned how to write essays in school, you were probably taught the brainstorming phase comes first, followed by the outlining phase, followed by the drafting phase.
When it comes to creative writing, however, chances are you won’t have such a linear process. The more you draft, the more you’ll learn about your characters and plot, which will lead to new problems you didn’t originally anticipate.
That’s why it’s crucial to continue brainstorming even while you’re writing. Every time you’re not sure where the story should go next, open your brainstorming document and try to come up with new solutions.
Use words like “what if” and “maybe.” It’s okay if you don’t commit to any single idea—just let yourself be creative and consider multiple possibilities. The brainstorming phase should always be ongoing, even after you’ve finished your first draft.
Tip 15: Know What Each Character Wants
Character motivation drives plot. A novel’s plot is based on different characters pursuing the different things they want and need.
So, to generate plot and conflict in an organic way, you need to know what your characters’ goals are.
Before you’ve even started writing, you should have figured out what each character wants and why they want it. What do they want most in the entire world? What are they most afraid of?
Remember the protagonist’s allies should have goals that overlap with the protagonist’s goals in some way, but they shouldn’t be exactly the same. Each character is the protagonist of their own story, with their own ulterior motives.
Tip 16: Lean into Conflict
It can be tempting to make your characters’ lives easy. After all, you made these characters, and you probably love them enough to want to protect them.
But there’s no great story without great conflict.
Conflict is created whenever one character’s goals clash with some kind of obstacle, whether that obstacle is a natural disaster, an evil sorcerer, or their mother being a bit too overprotective.
Your main characters should rarely achieve their goals without an obstacle getting in the way. Ask yourself what might stop them from getting what they want, and place those obstacles in their paths.
You can use conflict to develop characters, increase tension, and make your hero’s life more interesting.
Tip 17: Create a Chain of Cause and Effect
Many fiction writers overlook the importance of cause and effect in novel writing.
Stories are all about action and reaction. That’s what makes them meaningful stories instead of a series of unrelated events.
To write a novel that feels cohesive, make sure every event in your story is linked to the ones around it.
The creators of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, came up with a simple rule for helping other writers remember cause and effect. Here’s the rule: Replace the phrase and then with therefore or but.
For example, instead of writing, “I was raised by two starving artists, and then I went to law school, and then I got married,” write “I was raised by a starving artist, therefore I went to law school, but I got married.”
Just like that, you’ve transformed a series of unrelated events into an intriguing story.
Tip 18: Give Yourself Fresh Eyes
Sometimes, the best thing you can do to improve your novel is put it away for a month or two so you can come back with a fresh perspective.
When you get stuck, it can be tempting to jump straight into tackling the problem, so you can get to the finish line faster. But that might be the worst thing you can do to your manuscript.
When you’re too close to the story, it’s hard to see the right solutions to the problems you’re facing. Only time and distance can fix that.
Take a month off and work on something else. When you come back, read through your manuscript the way a reader would. Make notes on what you love about the story and what you think could be strengthened.
Then, you can pick up where you left off, and your novel will be stronger for it.
Tip 19: Don’t Do It Alone
Writing doesn’t have to be a solitary process.
Finding a supportive writing group can completely transform your writing process in the best possible way.
If you’re asking friends and family to read your book, make sure they’re willing to give you honest feedback, instead of just saying “I liked it.”
There are many different ways to engage with a critique group. Different authors have different preferences, such as:
- Share your unfinished manuscript one chapter at a time, while you’re drafting
- Share your completed first draft as soon as you write “THE END”
- Share the polished manuscript after you’ve already revised it once or twice on your own
Tip 20: Use a Grammar Checker
When you finish writing your first draft, it’s time to start revising!
Revision isn’t a single process—it will probably take several rounds to get your novel to publishable quality.
Using a grammar checker will make your revision process quicker and more efficient.
ProWritingAid can help you check your sentence structures, look for redundancies and cliches, and more. I used ProWritingAid to revise the novel that got me my literary agent, and it caught a lot of small mistakes I missed when I was revising on my own.
Conclusion on How to Write a Novel
There you have it—our top 20 tips for how to write a novel, whether it’s your first novel or your thirtieth.
Remember that all of the tips in this article are worth trying, but the ultimate goal is to find your own process, not to follow someone else’s. Pick and choose the tips that work best for you, and don’t be afraid to experiment with new tips and tricks as you come across them.
Let us know if you have any favorite novel-writing tips to share.
Good luck, and happy writing!