Writing a Book With No Money, Experience, or Publisher

I met Drew at a college party in 2013. We shook hands and before I could ask him my usual introductory questions (“What’s your major? What year are you? Are you going to the game tomorrow?”), Drew volunteered that he didn’t go to my school. As a matter of fact, he didn’t go to school at all.

Drew went on to explain that he decided not to go to college, a decision his friends and family unanimously opposed. In particular, he kept hearing over and over again that he was missing out on “the college experience”. In an attempt to understand what made the college experience so profound, Drew was shadowing students at 20 universities around the country and writing a book (!) about his findings.

I didn’t think much of it at the time, besides that this was an impressive party trick as he now had my undivided attention. Drew and I ended up talking a little while longer, and we quickly lost touch as he continued his tour and I focused on coursework.

Five years later, a link to Drew’s book appeared in my Facebook news feed and I immediately purchased it. “Holy s***!!!”, I thought to myself as I flipped through its pages – what kind of divine patience does it take to write a book for five years with no money, experience, or coaching? I found his number and called him shortly after to ask him just one question – “How the hell did you do it?”

If you’ve ever wanted to write a book, complete a Herculean project, or are simply in need of some good old-fashioned inspiration, see below for my notes from my call with Drew.

1. Write A Social Contract

When I started writing this book, I gave a good friend of mine a check for $1,000. I told him if I ever quit writing my book, he could cash it. At the time, this was a huge amount of money for me and I never considered quitting after I gave him the check.

2. Relish In The Small Victories

Throughout my whole tour, I rarely knew my hosts before hand, which meant I had absolutely no idea what kind of stories I would write about until they actually unfolded. Often, I would find myself at the right place and the right time to witness truly remarkable and character building experiences. For example, one of the most popular chapters of the book is about a [sophomore named Randy] who finally works up the courage to talk to the girl of his dreams and its aftermath. I won’t spoil the story for any readers, but there was no way I could have planned on witnessing such a vulnerable and genuine moment during the tour. When I left [University of South Carolina], I remember feeling a deep sense of obligation that I had to share the story because it was just so good. Like, how could I not finish this book?

3. Create Well Crafted Rituals

Once the trip was over, it was very difficult for me to have the discipline and actually write the book. There were constant distractions and it wasn’t until I made this book my singular goal that I made any material progress. There are lots of books on how to structure your goals, but I ended up giving up alcohol, making a point to sleep nine hours a night, and started every morning by going to the same coffee shop to go write. I wouldn’t let myself leave until I wrote 1,500 words. I often felt like I was forcing it or wasn’t proud of what I wrote that day, but when I finished my first draft and went back to read what I wrote, I couldn’t tell which 1,500 words I thought were great at the time and which 1,500 words I forced myself to write. Everyday when I left that coffee shop, I would feel euphoric that I had finished my 1,500 words and it was this simple ritual that helped me finish my first draft in six months.

4. Shoot For The Stars

If I’m being truthful, deep down my loftiest goal for this book is for it to be read in high schools around the world – that it helps millions of students each year understand if college is right for them and, if so, enter college better prepared for the experience.

“What if you fail?”

(Laughs) You know, I have a tragic sense of view on life. I think after all of this if no one read my book and this was the end, it would be comical that I spent so much of my life working on this project only for it to go nowhere. I really hope that doesn’t happen obviously, but I think I’d be okay with it. I learned a lot from the experience and am already starting to work on my next project, so I wouldn’t feel like I’m walking away empty handed.

I struggled to reconcile Drew’s deep sense of ambition with his humility – that after all these years of work, he could be at peace with his magnum opus collecting dust in cardboard boxes. Then again, maybe those are the healthiest ingredients to lofty goals – the ambition to aspire for greatness but the humility to accept you may never achieve it.

As I thumbed through Drew’s four hundred hard fought pages, I couldn’t help but revisit that breezy Autumn night in college when I first met him.

“Do you go here?”
“Actually, I don’t go anywhere”

Drew Ott’s book, “Yes, The Students” is available for purchase on Amazon. As a fan of the book and nostalgic college graduate, I’d highly encourage you to give it a read.

I did not receive any form of compensation for this post.