3 strategies for journalists writing a book

Olga Khazan is an author and staff writer at The Atlantic.

Congratulations, you are writing — or thinking about writing — a book. While this can be a daunting undertaking, you can take small steps right now to help get published.

We asked Olga Khazan, staff writer at The Atlantic, for her tips for journalists who want to publish a book. Khazan published her first book, “Weird: The Power of Being an Outsider in an Insider World,” in 2020; she is currently writing another book on personality change.

Here is her advice:

“First, a giant disclaimer that getting a book published involves a great deal of randomness and special cases. It’s perhaps the most ‘your mileage may vary’ activity out there. So if you’ve written a book without using any of these tips, I salute you and totally believe that that’s possible and valid. 

Second, ultimately publishing any book is less important than actually writing a book you want to write, so I would not follow these tips in pursuit of a project you’re not really interested in.

1. Try to get an agent by reading books similar to the one you want to write and looking in the acknowledgements to see who the author’s agent was. If you want to kick the tires on the agent a bit, you can call around to those authors and ask them candidly what they thought of their agent. 

2. Then I would write your agent-to-be a beefy email with your book idea. Discuss your platform: Who do you write for? Describe the idea in brief and who the audience would be. Good book ideas, generally, have some takeaways for the reader. They either present an argument or offer the reader something in exchange for their time. So if you’re writing a long tale of woe, what can be done about it at the policy level? If you’re writing about the human brain, why is your way of thinking about the brain the more correct way? You want to imagine the reader following along and going, ‘Amen!’ occasionally.

3. If you are successful with the beefy email, your new agent will give you some sample proposals to model your book proposal on. Write the proposal with an eye toward showing editors how your book, chapter by chapter, will advance that ‘Amen!’ argument or take the reader on some sort of journey. I would not have the chapters be something like, 1. The Brain; 2. The Eyeballs; 3. The Teeth, or whatever. They should build on each other, not just be Wikipedia articles.

4. Profit! Hopefully. Your agent will work with you to refine the proposal, then you’ll pitch the book to editors — hopefully successfully!”

If you have writing or reporting advice you’d like to share and be featured in our daily newsletter, The Latest, email Holly Butcher Grant at [email protected].

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