How to write a medical book

Writing a book is a big undertaking but can be much more achievable than many doctors realise. Anna Sutherland, Angela Nelmes, and Peter Kaye reflect on their combined experiences of contributing to and writing seven different medical books

The first step in writing a book is having an idea. Identifying a gap in the market or writing the book you couldn’t find in the library will mean your idea for a book is more likely to be commercially viable.

To research the potential of your idea for a book, read competing and complementing books already published. This will give you suggestions on style, layout, and what you do and don’t want to cover in your book. It will also help you to define your book’s unique selling point.

Setting out with this idea, you need to take a series of steps to refine it and to define what your book will be.

First of all, you must decide what type of book you want to write. Think about whether it is a textbook, a revision book, a careers advice book, or some other type of book. Then determine whether you will be a sole author, write in a pair, or work as a group.

Next you should identify the book’s scope, its limits, and its target audience. Ask members of the target audience if they think the book is needed and useful and whether they would read it. Also ask them whether there are any particular areas they think it should deal with.

Ideally, you should identify a mentor for the project who is knowledgeable about the subject and has published a book, preferably using a publisher you are interested in working with.

You then need to decide on the structure of your book. Using a draft contents page can help to identify the sections and chapters of the book. This is a simple way to build the initial structure, and you can always change it later. This idea is described in Eviatar Zerubavel’s The Clockwork Muse, a guide to establishing a writing schedule to take the anxiety out of writing.[1]

You will need to develop a system for keeping track of thoughts, ideas, and quotes you want to incorporate in your own work. Different methods we have used include notelets, mind maps, posters, and an ideas folder. You should also timetable how and when you will write, ideally planning to write a little each day.

You should think now about finding a publisher. From your research it may be clear that your book could fall within a publisher’s current series or that you prefer one publisher’s style to another. Perhaps you have written for a publisher before or know someone who has. Ensure you read the publisher’s guidance for authors and write your book proposal accordingly.

Your proposal should include a synopsis, details of the book’s target audience and unique selling point, information about the likely length of the book, a list of competing and complementing books, and some sample chapters. Publishers may also stipulate that they would like additional information, such as a page about the author.

If your proposal is rejected, try another publisher, and then another. If you are struggling to find a publisher, you may need to consider if the book is really needed and if it will actually sell. Another option is to self publish or publish online.

When you start writing the book, some chapters may seem more daunting than others, especially the broader topics or ones where you feel less comfortable. Break each chapter down into sections. Make a list of all these sections in an exploded contents list. When you write the first draft of a chapter, simply copy and paste your headings for that chapter from the exploded contents list into your document to provide a framework for writing. Now all you need to do is fill in the blanks.

Once you have finished the initial writing process it is important to review the final draft of the book and ensure that all the referencing, bibliography, and any appendixes are complete. Printing off a few hard copies for yourself and trusted colleagues to review can be helpful.

When you have completed your final draft and submitted it to the publisher, the book may be sent for peer review before the draft is accepted for publication and a formal contract is agreed.

The publisher will then copy edit the text, typeset the manuscript, and send you proofs to review. You may need to make further changes, before proofreading the typeset pages and signing off the final proofs.

At this stage, the publisher may offer to have the book indexed. The best index is usually one collated by the authors because they understand their readers best. If you undertake this task, ask your publisher for a booklet on how to index.

Having agreed the changes to the final proofs, it is just a matter of waiting for the book to arrive on your doormat. As part of your contract you will probably be given a number of complimentary copies for your use and to promote the book. If you have not agreed an advanced payment from the publisher, you will be sent royalties on a regular basis from the book sales.

In addition to a small source of supplementary income, writing a medical book looks good on your CV and may open further writing opportunities. However, writing a book requires discipline and can be tiring, frustrating, and time consuming. There have been times when we wondered why we started, but holding a book with your name on the front is an incredibly satisfying feeling. We wish you every success in your book writing endeavours.

Book submission stages Book proposal discussed with publisher and a contract agreed, if you are lucky

Final draft completed

Author submits final draft to publisher

Peer review

Draft accepted for publication and formal contract agreed

Publisher typesets manuscript

Author is sent proof from publisher to review

Author makes changes

Author agrees final proofs

Proofreading and indexing

Book published

Useful resources European Medical Writing Association:

Zerubavel E. The Clockwork Muse: A Practical Guide to Writing Theses, Dissertations and Books. Harvard University Press, 1999

Stuart MC. The Complete Guide to Medical Writing. Pharmaceutical Press, 2007

Coales U. Tips on . . . Publishing a medical book. BMJ Careers 2005;

Competing interests: We have read and understood the BMJ Group policy on declaration of interests and have no relevant interests to declare.

References Zerubavel E. The clockwork muse: a practical guide to writing theses, dissertations and books. Harvard University Press, 1999. Anna Sutherland  specialty doctor (palliative care) and clinical teaching fellow  Keele University, Keele, UK Angela Nelmes  core medical trainee year 2   Douglas Macmillan Hospice, Stoke on Trent, UK Peter Kaye locum palliative care consultant  Douglas Macmillan Hospice, Stoke on Trent, UK