Whether pushing the boundaries of historical realism or updating legal concepts in an academic tome, certain rules of writing will always apply. Katharine Freeland asks authors for their takes on how to write a successful book

1. Write about what you know

Zadie Smith set her most critically acclaimed novels in the corner of north-west London where she grew up. The same rule applies for non-fiction: ‘If you know about ice hockey, don’t write about butterflies,’ advises James Morton. The Gazette columnist is a former criminal solicitor and author of the Gangland series, a history of serious and organised crime in London’s East End.

2. But it is not all about you

Think about the audience. Who will buy your book and why? If it’s a textbook, consider whether it is aimed at the practitioner or student market. ‘This will determine the feel and layout of the book, as well as its content,’ says Mark Pawlowski, property law professor at the University of Greenwich. ‘For example, one would expect a practitioner book to have detailed footnotes, and cover both the substantive and procedural law. There may also be a need for a section on precedents and pleadings.’

3. Be disciplined

‘I would suggest that it is important to set yourself a task of writing between 1,000-2,000 words a day and keep to it,’ says Richard Moorhead, professor of law and professional ethics at University College London. ‘Deliver on time. And like an article, it can’t be edited if it isn’t there.’ Sage advice is to calculate how long the book should take to write, and then double it. ‘A common pitfall is underestimating the time required, particularly for research,’ says Helen Shay, author of several books on copyright law.

For all but the lucky few, a major challenge will be balancing the book with the demands of a job: ‘Don’t miss deadlines. If Anthony Trollope and T S Eliot could hold down jobs while writing, you can too,’ advises Isobel Williams, author of The Supreme Court: A Guide for Bears. ‘Try to allocate time in a disciplined way… and give full credit to any junior colleagues helping with writing or research.’ 

Shay recommends warning colleagues of your writing commitment to manage expectations of any surplus availability. She also suggests booking leave to devote time exclusively to meeting any writing deadline (unpaid, if necessary). 

4. Manage the relationship with the publisher

Writers with publishing deals will need to think beyond the honeymoon phase when the contract is signed. ‘Define clear boundaries at the outset in terms of the content to be covered,’ says Pawlowski. ‘There are likely to be cost and publication restraints which need to be kept in mind.’ Good communication is essential: ‘If there may be a delay, the publisher will want as much warning as possible,’ says Shay. ‘Obviously this is to be avoided if at all possible, but publishers will be more understanding if they are kept in the loop.’ 

Don’t give up if your book is considered too niche. Isobel Williams self-published her book after many glowing rejections from publishers. ‘Self-publishing is good for product control, bad for distribution,’ she says. 

5. Take care of the practicalities

Channelling the muse into elegant prose is all very well, but additional effort is needed to propel your masterpiece on to the shelves, whether at Wildy & Sons or Waterstones.

‘Any permissions for images and so on should be sourced as early as possible, so as not to end up over a barrel later on when agreeing any fee,’ says Shay. ‘It also allows time to reshape the book if a problem over permissions arises.’

When writing a textbook, Pawlowski advises adding in any footnotes as you write. ‘It is really difficult to come back to this at a later stage,’ he says. A useful, well-presented index is also crucial. 

And don’t expect to be the next J K Rowling. Writing a book is rewarding, but rarely in the monetary sense.


Talking point

Remember when a train journey was for looking out of the window? Flying meant time spent with business lounge freebies, while the bus was for reading a newspaper.

No more, as technology and the pressure to be productive enable work to seep into our travel time. The TUC estimates UK workers do over £33bn of unpaid work a year. A fair portion is done on the daily commute.

Certainly, lawyers do their time in transit. Commitments to clients and colleagues are in the DNA, so give a lawyer a smartphone or space for a laptop, and a work session begins. Small wonder wellbeing levels are sub-optimal. 

Or is it such a bad thing? Technology makes ‘agile working’ possible. A lawyer hammering their laptop on the 7.54 from Tring maybe got to have breakfast with the kids or a run before leaving, and would otherwise have been on the 7.07. Mobile tech has reduced the practical and legal risks of not being physically present. 

Except that lawyering on the hop comes with rules that are widely flouted. Lawyers can routinely be heard on commuter trains having unguarded phone conversations about both criminal and corporate matters.

Hotels, airports, restaurants, bars and cafes are among the locations with insecure Wi-Fi, meaning devices can be hacked.

‘Public Wi-Fi should never be used for any work-related or business-critical activity as the risk to the business is simply too great,’ says Law Society law and technology committee member Peter Wright.

Back, then, to long fixed hours, pen and paper, or an earlier train? What is probably required is better organisation, so that necessary work in travel time means documents read offline, conversations that happen before or after a stint on Virgin (or Thameslink) while sensitive emails have to wait.



Katharine Freeland is a freelance journalist