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How to write an ebook
You’ve seen them offered on websites. Heck, you’ve probably downloaded a few. (And maybe even read them?)
Ebooks. (Or “e-books” or “eBooks” – there’s still several variations in spelling commonly used.)
For companies using content marketing or inbound marketing, downloadable ebooks are often used as lead generation offers. Potential customers, interested in the content offered in the ebook, provide their email address, and maybe other information, through an online form.
A few moments later they get a confirmation email, and a link to the free ebook.
For busy marketing professionals, the question is, how do you write an ebook?
Most ebooks offered as free downloads are relatively short, often just a few thousand words. But even at that length, you’re not going to bang it out over lunch hour.
You first have to figure out what you’re going to write about that might entice potential customers to fill out that form. Oh, and by the way, you’re also going to have to make this thing look good, too.
Since I wrote an ebook for Flying Car Strategies just a couple weeks ago, I figured I’d tell you how I did it, and what might work for you.
Start with a plan
There are writers out there who can start with just an idea or two, or even a good opening line, and then produce something great in a draft or two. But that’s not most of us.
So start with a plan.
Answer these three questions:
- Who is your target audience for this ebook?
- What problem or question does that audience, that’s related to your business, that you could address?
- What are the main points you need to cover?
1. Who is your target reader?
If you’ve already developed buyer personas for your marketing efforts, then all you need to do is pick the persona or personas you want to target and go to step two.
If you haven’t, then spend a little time thinking about your clients. What categories do they fall into? Are they business owners, corporate executives or high-income individuals? Do they work in certain kinds of organizations or live in a certain geographic area?
Chances are, you have more than one kind of buyer. But chances are that almost all of your buyers fall into just a handful of categories. Pick one you’d like to target for this ebook.
(Note: Chapter 1 in From Content to Ka-ching! covers the process of developing buyer personas in detail. If you’re serious about content marketing – or any of your marketing – I highly recommend you take the time to develop buyer personas.)
2. What problem or question, related to your business, could you address?
Once you understand the audience you want to help with your ebook, put yourself in their shoes. What common problems (related to your products, services or industry) do they have? What questions do they have related to what your business does?
With ebooks, you should pick a subject that you can be authoritative and credible about, without being salesy. The goal of an ebook is not to sell your product or service. Rather, it’s a tool to get contact information from a potential buyer, and to persuade that buyer that you are a credible source of information. That positions your company properly when it is time to go for the sale.
Ideally, you should present that question or problem in one line. In fact, that one line might even be the title or subtitle for your ebook. Here are some potential ebook subjects:
- Seven changes in employment law that could require you to rewrite your HR policy
- The five key elements of a winning commercial loan application
- How to determine the kind of business liability insurance your business needs
- How to get your sales team to use your CRM effectively
Note some common elements in these topics. All of them relate to goods and services, but none of them are vendor specific.
The first – about employment law and human resources policies — doesn’t specify a particular employment law attorney or HR consulting firm. The commercial loan application ebook could — and probably will be — applicable to almost any bank.
The point is to provide information that’s helpful to potential customers. If you create a high quality ebook, chances are that buyer will at least consider your company (and probably consider you strongly) when it comes time to buy.
3. What are the main points you need to cover?
Now that you know whom you’re writing for, and what you’re writing about, you can start to outline your ebook.
If you loved outlining in school, this may come naturally to you. If not, let me make it easy for you. You can outline your ebook in three easy steps.
- Brainstorm a list of points/ideas you want to cover. Ideally we’re talking anywhere from 5-10 key points. You may want to get in a meeting room with a white board and some colleagues to facilitate this process. You don’t want these points to be too narrow, but neither do you want them to be too broad. You’re looking for something that you can cover in 1,000-3,000 words.
- Put the points in an order that’s logical and will help the reader understand the topic. Think of how you might walk an audience through these points if you were giving a presentation. Which would you cover first, which would come at the end?
- Draft your outline. Now, with your list of main topic points, listed in a logical order, write your outline. Many times, it will make sense for each point to be its own chapter. You’ll probably want to add an introduction that covers why you ebook topic is important, and a conclusion that suggests next steps or resources for applying this information. Your ebook should also have a table of contents, an “about the author” page, and an “about your company” page.
Do the writing
Now comes the important part: writing.
I find it easier to tackle one main point at a time, spending one or more writing sessions working on each one. The introduction, conclusion and other elements of the ebook should probably be written last.
Some of these main points you may be able to write off the top of your head, especially if you are familiar with the subject matter. Others may require research, including online research or interviews with subject matter experts at your company.
You may find it helpful to outline each main point or chapter, using a process similar to what you did for the ebook. That way you can break the writing into smaller chunks. The more planning and outlining you do ahead of time, the easier the writing will be.
A few other things to consider as you’re writing:
- Establish a deadline. This gives you something to shoot for and helps keep you accountable.
- Set aside a specific block of time each day to work on your ebook. One- or two-hour blocks work best for most people. You’ll produce a better ebook if you schedule your writing over the course of a few weeks.
- Establish a productive writing environment. If you find it difficult to focus on your writing in your office, it may be helpful to go elsewhere to concentrate on the material and avoid interruptions. I often write in coffee shops.
- Use concentration aids. You might also want to experiment with music or background noise to aid your focus while writing. I use Focus @ Will a lot when writing. The very modest cost of a Pro Account is one of the best investments I’ve made in productivity.
(If you don’t have time for this are simply having a hard time getting started, it may make more sense to hire a writer or content marketing specialist to write the ebook for you.)
The publishing process
Let’s say a few weeks have gone by, you’ve been working steadily on your ebook, and you’ve finally finished it. You’re proud. You’re exhausted. You just want to get finished with this &*#$ thing!
But there’s still a bit more to do.
Once you’ve written the ebook, you need to edit it, lay it out in an attractive manner and proofread it. You may have someone you can turn to for help with some of these items. A boss, colleague or willing friend, for example, can provide valuable editorial perspective.
But if you can do it yourself if you have no other choice.
You’ve spent a good bit of time with this ebook at this point, so I recommend setting it aside for a few days. If you’re on a really tight deadline, even delaying a few hours can give you some perspective.
Then, print it out and go at it with a colored pen or pencil. (I like green – it’s not as harsh as red and doesn’t trigger flashbacks to elementary school composition.)
Editing on paper may sound old fashioned, but every professional writer and editor I know swears there is something qualitatively different about it. In other words, you’ll catch more mistakes and problems this way than if you edit on screen.
What should you be looking for, besides spelling and grammar mistakes?
- Stylistic inconsistency. Do you write “14” in some places and “fourteen” in others? Do you sometimes use the full name of “Your Company Inc. LLC” and sometimes abbreviate it as “YC”? Consistent style makes your writing appear more professional.
- Logical organization. Is the content presented in a sequence and manner that’s easy to follow and make sense? If something seems a bit confusing or unclear to you, the writer, it will baffle a lot of readers.
- Unclear or confusing phrases. Sometimes a metaphor or fanciful construction isn’t clear, sounds dumb when as you’re reviewing it, or could be taken to imply something you don’t mean to. Revise those.
- Headlines, white space and other ways to break up the text. For a downloadable ebook, you should write in a style similar to what you’d use for a blog post or web copy. Assume readers will skim, so break up long passages of text and provide plenty of headlines and bullets.
- Easily misunderstood phrases. Keep in mind that online you may be writing for a much more diverse audience than you deal with in your day-to-day life. Readers may not understand regional vernacular (in the South, many people say “mash the button,” but everywhere else I’ve lived that just sounds strange). Some readers also may not be native English speakers.
- Opportunities to insert graphics, photos and other visuals. Look for places where a photograph or chart would liven up the page and communicate more powerfully. You can also pull out short sections of text in boxes or “sidebars.” Read a few of those ebooks in your downloads folder and you’ll see all the way writers and editors have used visuals.
- Conciseness. Use as many words as you need, but no more.
- The promise to your readers. When you started this process, you selected a target audience and a question or problem that audience has. Is your ebook delivering on its promise to answer that question or solve the problem? If it veers off course, get it back on course.
After you’ve marked up your paper copy, it’s time to dive back into your word processing program and make your changes. As you do this, you may find even more changes you want to make. That’s OK.
Once you’ve made those edits, it’s time to do the final formatting. Now’s the time to dive into word processing program’s settings, and create consistent attractive styles for headlines and subheads, add page numbers and make sure you have enough white space in your margins.
When you think you’re done, spellcheck the whole document. (You should have been doing this all along, but do it again now. Mistakes have a tendency to creep in at the last minute.)
When that’s done, you may think you’re ready to convert that file to a PDF and upload, but you’ve got one more step: Proofreading.
Again, I recommend setting aside the whole ebook for a couple of days, and then printing it out to go over on paper. You’ll want to do this in a quiet place where you can concentrate, and you’ll want to make sure you take enough time to do this properly.
Unlike in editing, in the proofreading stage we’re concerned more with making sure our spelling, grammar and style is correct and consistent. If you’ve proofed a lot of documents, this will be a familiar task. If not, here are a few proofreading tricks I’ve picked up over the years.
Once you’ve transferred all your proofreading changes into your word processing document, spellcheck it again. Then save it as a PDF and upload it to your server.
There have been ebooks written about how to write an ebook. This is just a blog post, though. If you have tips, ideas or questions to share, please leave them in the comments. If you want to discuss an ebook project with me one-on-one, please contact me.