Size Matters: How to Write for a Long Project

Size Matters: How to Write for a Long Project

It’s no secret that size matters… especially when it comes to writing and creating a sellable product.

You might be great at turning out 500-word blog posts or short articles. But what you’d really like to do is write an ebook or an ecourse to sell – and you’re not accustomed to writing in a longer format.

Long-form writing is a whole different game. You can’t wait for inspiration to strike, and you don’t get that instant gratification when you finish, hit ‘publish’, and see your first positive comment within the hour.

But it can be done. And it’s worth it – both personally and monetarily.

Step 1: Plan Before You Start

When you’re writing something short, you can get away without planning. You’ve probably written blog posts that flowed from start to finish without needing to consciously think about them much.

When you’re writing an ebook or an ecourse, you can’t just jump in on page one and hope for the best. (Well, you can. But that’s a fast route to throwing away half your work.)

You need a plan.

At a minimum:

  • Know what the ending is. What should the reader have learned or be able to do by the end of your ebook?
  • Write down the major steps along the way. You might not know the details of every chapter, but you can at least jot down a heading for each one.
  • Aim for ‘enough’ – not too little and not too much. Your ebook isn’t going to work if you try to cover everything – nor will it work if it’s just an expanded version of a blog post.

Get another writer to look over your plan. They might spot a new angle or a missing piece that you couldn’t see.

Step 2: Create a Timetable

If you’re used to writing short pieces, you probably complete them in a day or two. Seasoned bloggers can often whip out a post in an hour if they’re having a good day.

When it comes to a big project, you can’t finish the whole thing in a rush of inspiration. You need to figure out a timetable that lets you write steadily and consistently. This is particularly crucial if:

  • You’re working for a client – you’ll need to hit the final deadline, but you may also need to meet milestones along the way
  • You’re working on something with a lot of moving parts – like an ecourse launch, where you won’t only be producing the course itself. You’ll also need to market and promote

Allow yourself a lot more time than you think you’ll need. A health crisis or family emergency can knock weeks out of your plan – and you may well find the writing itself takes longer than you’d estimated.

Step 3: Keep Going

This is a rather obvious step, but it trips up a lot of writers.

You need to keep going.

When you’ve only written 500 words of a 20,000 word ebook, it feels like you’ll never finish. That’s why you’ve got a timetable – so you can see how those pages will gradually add up.

You probably know writers who produce breathtaking prose – but who never complete anything. When it comes to making a living from your words, perseverance trumps raw talent every time.

Step 4: Get Accountable

One of the best ways to keep going is to be accountable to someone.

You’ve already seen this at work in your writing life: you publish blog posts three times a week because your readers expect it, or you write a monthly short story to share with your writers’ circle. Someone is waiting for your words – and that helps you sit down and write.

With big projects, you’ll want someone to keep you accountable. That might be:

  • A writing coach or business mentor
  • Another writer who’s also working on a long project
  • Your Twitter or Facebook friends

These people don’t necessarily need to do anything: all that matters is that you check in with them regularly and report your progress.

Step 5: Be Prepared to Revise

I can often turn out a blog post in one draft plus a quick polish – and perhaps it’s the same for you. Short pieces of content may come out pretty-much-right the first time.

But long projects don’t work that way.

However much you plan, you’ll find that your first draft has missing sections – and repetitive bits. You might need to merge two chapters together, cut a third and add an entirely new fourth. You may cut out an entire lesson from your ecourse and weave it into the remaining lessons in little pieces.

Allow plenty of time for revision. Get feedback on your first or second draft, so you know what’s working and what needs fixing. You can get away with clumsy, confusing passages in a blog post – but your readers will demand higher quality in something they’ve paid for.

Are you stuck on a big project – or scared to get started? Let us know in the comments, and maybe we can help you get going!

Post by Ali Luke

Ali is a writing coach who works with bloggers, novelists and copywriters to help them find their right size. She blogs at Aliventures and firmly believes a rich life feeds into great writing. Check out her mini-book on stronger blogging right here.

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  1. Thanks for this post! Exactly what I needed to read right now. I’m planning an ebook, and it’s still in its beginning stages – thinking about completing the whole thing right now is a bit daunting!

    • My advice would be to forget about completion – it’s actually only the last step in the process of many steps. So look at what you have to do NEXT… and no farther ahead. When you’ve made THAT step, then look to what the next step is, and no farther ahead.

      One step at a time, right?

      • @MenwithPens you are exactly right, breaking down a project into a series of mini-projects is the only way to get to the last step: completion.

  2. Ali

    My point of stuckiness seems to be between drafts. I make my own revisions + listen to advice from my writing coach but can’t get going again. Got any other tips or should I start the steps all over again?


    • Clearly your writing coach is a charlatan, sue her.



      When I’m redrafting something big, I find that it helps to make a checklist of specific changes. E.g.
      – cut out the chapter on X
      – merge the two chapters on Y
      – expand the section on Z

      I tend to do any major work (adding/deleting/restructuring) first, then drill down to the more detailed revision like tweaking sentences and words.

      Hope that helps a bit? Let me know exactly what the “stuck” point is and I’ll see if I can give some more specific advice — e.g. are you stuck on deciding what revisions to make, or are you stuck on figuring out when you’re done and ready to publish?

      • Ohh,

        Love the bit about creating a checklist – now that can help me get it done.


        • Question: How long of a time period goes by between, “Okay, done the first draft,” and, “Okay, time to start revising”? It sounds like you have motivation going on… but the break in working fizzles out your motivation to get back into it. Your brain’s saying, “Wait, MORE work? I was DONE!”

          I know when I finish a draft and set it aside for a few days, I have a VERY hard time getting back into it. The solution is easy – I finish the draft and immediately tell myself, “Good work. Time for a small break. Tomorrow morning, I’ll start revisions.”

          So I’m telling my brain, “Hey, this is just a break, we’re not done,” AND I’m keeping my motivation going by not giving it time to fizzle out. Make sense?

          • Answer: Weeks go by between revisions.

            I am thinking you are inside my mind – it is that lack of motivation to start again because I have had a rest.

            I suppose I need to think of writing as another form of exercise – I need to build up the habit to write every day, which should then help me with revisions.



  3. Oh boy, is this timely – thank you, Ali! I’m one of those people who can “write short,” as I think of it, but can’t sustain focus on one piece over time. If I can’t finish it in one or two sittings, it doesn’t happen. Right now, I’m stuck on an ebook. I wrote the outline, the intro and a couple of sections – and now I’m drawing a blank. 🙁

    • Is it a question of motivation (which I totally do sympathise with!) or are you just not sure what to write next?

      If the latter, it sounds like your outline might not be detailed enough. You don’t necessarily have to outline the whole thing in much depth at the start — but it can be very helpful to write down a list of bullet points for each section, before you tackle them.

      Happy to help brainstorm, or take a quick look at what you’ve got so far, if that’d be any use! I’m pretty sure you have my email address, but if not, it’s 🙂

      • I’m with Ali on this one – it sounds like the outline might be too vague, incomplete or not broken down enough into tiny little bites.

        Some people write chapter titles… but don’t define what goes into that chapter. Or they do, but only put three points.

        A solution is to write a chapter title, write three points you’d like to cover in that chapter, and then write three MORE points for each main point. So your outline would look like this:

        Why writing long is tough

        We run out of steam

        It’s easy to lose the momentum
        Our brain sees it as too much work
        We didn’t have enough coffee that morning

        We wait too long between steps
        If you set work down a few days, your brain thinks it’s done
        By shortening the ‘set down’ time, we keep motivation going
        We forget what we wanted to write about if we don’t keep writing

        See? Those little points are really easy to tackle in short bites – three short paragraphs would cover it. Which means you have nine paragraphs per main point. And you’d have 18 paragraphs for that chapter. Woot!

        • Thanks, you two – you got me started again! Motivation was definitely a problem, but I lost it because I lost sight of where I was going. Breaking down the outline to finer points will help a lot. 🙂

  4. Great advice Ali. For me the two biggies are writing a plan and keeping on going. The first I have you to thank for because I stumbled across that post of yours about writing an ebook in the Problogger archives. Without a good outline in place I would have struggled with the second and never got finished!

    I’m a girl who is easily distracted so with my recent thing I forced myself to finish the whole first draft before I started with the design and tinkering type jobs because I know myself too well. 😉

    • Having an outline helps *hugely* — otherwise, it’s so easy to fizzle out after a couple of chapters.

      I tend to leave the design till last, too; it’s way too easy to get distracted otherwise!

  5. Hey Ali!

    Talk about a timely post! Since I took Ainslie’s course, you probably have a vague idea of what I’m working on 🙂 Surprisingly, that’s going supremely well.

    What I’ve been stuck with is a revision of the free ebook I offer on my blog. It needs some major reworks to reflect the feedback of my newsletter subscribers.

    My problem simply is the lack of motivation. I’m so used to seeing it in the pdf format that opening the word doc and trying to restructure the book is giving me nightmares.

    How do I get past that? A new outline? A master doc with all the changes I need to make and cross them off as I get them done?

    Lol, did I just answer my own question?

    • Yeah, I think you did!

      I have to say, revising a “done” project is a real pain. I revised my Staff Blogging Course from a six unit self-study course, across a bunch of documents, into a 26 chapter ebook.

      It took me WAY more work than I thought it should. It was hard to figure out what to add, what to take out, what to merge…

      I guess what I’m saying is — it’s okay for it to be hard. What worked for me was pulling all the content into a brand new document (rather than trying to restructure it in the old ones) and also creating a list of exactly what changes I wanted to make.

      You might want to try printing it out and physically rearranging sections/pages, too.

      Good luck! 🙂

      • Here I’d give simple advice: If it’s not turning your crank, there’s a reason. Ditch it. You don’t have to revise something and make it better… sometimes it’s easier, smarter and more time-effective to start with something fresh and new that DOES turn your crank.

        Even if some of the content overlaps, most of the new stuff will be… well, new!

  6. Hi Ali,

    Great points! Perseverance with rewrites and editors has been the only way I’ve gotten my essays published. My free e-book isn’t that long, so I didn’t have any resistance to finishing it. It’s easy to digest.

    Here’s what I’m wondering.

    Do people really read these long e-books/courses? I find myself skimming them or even abandoning them and now I don’t even buy them anymore. If writing something that long bores the writer, will it bore the reader? Gathering dust on digital or virtual shelves has long been a complaint on the Internet.

    Perhaps, we need to write medium instead of long and make it truly engaging?

    Thx, G.

    • Interesting thoughts, Giulietta!

      “Long”, to many people, means “more than a few thousand words”. I’ve read – cover to cover – ebooks of well over 20,000 words, and now that I’ve got a Kindle, I’m likely to read even more. I’ve just signed up for a writing course which has six months of weekly lessons, with 30 pages or so to read each week.

      Now, I really LOVE reading, so I’m open to the idea that I’m the exception, not the norm…

      I think that we all learn in different ways. Some people like short, pithy content; others need time to really dig deep into an issue before they’re confident with it. And some topics suit short manifestos while others need in-depth guides. Some folks want massive ebooks that they can dig into intensely — others want a slow drip-feed in an ecourse.

      Whatever we write, short, medium or long, needs to be engaging, like you say — and needs to work for our intended audience.

      • Whether people read or not depends on a bunch of factors – their personal interest, their reading habits, where they read and when, what distractions are going on, their readiness to pay attention, their phase of life, their need to learn, etc etc.

        Most people who pick up a book about something they already know SOME of tend to skim and scan. Their brain skims over stuff they think they already know, which means they miss that sentence or section with brand-new info they could use. “Oh, I know this… skip… skip… is this new? Ech, I know most of this… skip…”

        The best solution is to retrain yourself NOT to skim and scan, which is difficult. You have to actively remember to slow yourself down and read every word. It takes time, care and effort to read quietly and concentrate.

  7. Oh! Isn’t anyone going to comment on the picture? Of course when I read the title, my mental image was along those lines—but our dear sweet Ali? What a hoot!

    Content: I’m glad you talked about the difference between short posts (500 words) and longer works. My posts always end up about 1200 words–no matter how hard I try to shorten them. I’m hoping that’s just due to my needing more practice, and not a terminal disease.

    • I’ll have you know, *I* didn’t choose that image! Even while half a world away, James still has the power to shock me speechless… 😉

      Most of my posts on Aliventures are around the 1,200 mark. Nothing wrong with that — so long as the words are warranted. If you feel that the posts are a little overwritten, look for places where you’ve said the same thing twice, or where you’ve gone on a slight tangent for a paragraph or two. Often tangents can come out and be made into a post in their own right…

  8. Carol Anne says:

    You’ve hit the nail right on the head with this post, Ali. It really does take a differnent type of mojo and plan of attack to write longer pieces. Planning and beginning with the end in mind really are key.
    When I started blogging, I was surprised at how easy it was for me to knock off a good 500 word post. I attribute that to all the long-form writing I did before blogging was invented.

    • I found the same when I started blogging — I was used to writing academic essays, and a 500-word post was a breeze in comparison. I remember being surprised that I only had to tweak my drafts, rather than completely take them apart and rewrite them…

  9. I like how you’ve defined each step of the process. It’s really easy to forget to plan ahead and just wing it, get right into the middle of the project, and then get discouraged and give it up when you could have figured out where you were going and planned for each step.

    Thanks for making it easy! 😉

  10. Great advice. I completed my 4,000 word free ebook in two months, just could never get any momentum going. Now I have undertaken an ecourse and I am ploughing through it. For me there are three changes:
    1. I did a Mindmap of my entire course so I can see all the pieces in one place. The mindmap has broken the project down into about 120 small chunks.
    2. Imported mind map into scrivener for writing the project.
    3. Spend some time writing on this project EVERY day. This is critical for me to maintain the momentum.
    I still have a long way to go but I can see progress being made. Thanks for the encouragement.

    • I really agree with working regularly on a project (either every day, or at least a couple of days a week) — as soon as a few days go past, like James and Ainslie were discussing above, your momentum inevitably vanishes!

      I find mindmaps very useful in the planning stages too, and I think being able to get your whole project in one is incredibly useful.

      Good luck with the ecourse! I’m sure you’ll get it finished 🙂

  11. There’s another option… don’t do it if you’re not good at it.

    Now I completely suck at long writing. I ramble, and it goes off on tangents. For the first month of my website I thought I needed long copy to convince my target market, and it sucked, hard.

    When I figured out my main power is fast first impressions, I revised the copy accordingly. I’m spent after 700 words.

    Am just saying this because there’s a lot of advice around the web on ‘long writing is better’. Long copy converts more than short, long blog posts are more epic, long cat is long, etc.

    However, I think the short form market is definitely something that’s worth considering.

    Kinda going off topic. But I think people can be too quick to assume they need to go long. I know I did.

    • Patrick, that’s a great point. Not every writer wants to write wants pages and pages of copy — and not every audience wants to read them!

  12. Hi all,
    Great conversation so far. One additional note I’d like to add with regard to motivation is that when you get stuck, remember your “why”. Why are you doing this project in the first place? More specifically, who will it help? You need to finish because whomever you’re writing for is waiting for you to finish. Their problem/issue may not change until they read what you’re writing.

    Is that line of thought a little guilt trippy? Could be, but really it’s about remembering we are in business to serve and make a difference. If the next way we want to do that is with a book, whether print or digital, that doesn’t happen until we’re done and people have access to it. Getting excited about the impact the book or course will make is often enough to get people over a stuck point.

    Who or what is your “why” and what are they waiting for?

    • Cheryl, I think that’s really powerful. It’s what I tell myself when I’m bored with the rather more tedious aspects of producing something (at the moment, I’m formatting a bunch of lessons into separate blog posts for my next ecourse…) — people are going to be helped by this material.

  13. I have a problem with changing my mind about the overall plan / outline once I get started. I would have written maybe 1 or 2 chapters of my outline, then come across some new “insight” from somewhere, then feel like my plan is no longer relevant and start again from scratch. A few rounds of this and then I give up completely…. *sigh*

    • It sounds like you might need to do a bit more idea-generation or research before you start the plan? I find that my plans often shift and change a bit before I’m certain about what direction I want to go in, especially when I’m still gathering new ideas.

  14. This is a great article post and very useful reminder.

    I like the funny image you used for it 🙂


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