Here’s What You Need to Know
by Sophia Young
Being in jail can be a very isolating and lonely experience. You may feel like you have no control over your life and that your voice doesn’t matter. But it does! Writing a book can be a way to take back some control, express yourself, and reach out to the outside world—as well as a great way to ensure that you continue learning and growing while incarcerated.
Raring to become the next big thing in prison literature and stand next to such giants as Nelson Mandela (Conversations with Myself), Alexander Solzhenitsyn (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich), and Eldridge Cleaver (Soul on Ice)? We're excited too!
But we're not going to sugarcoat it: it's not easy. It is, however, well within reach, and we're here to help you figure out how to make your writing dreams a reality.
Here's a rundown of what you need to know before embarking on your literary journey.
Make a Plan
Any successful project requires careful planning, and writing a book is no different. Let's start with the basics:
Assess your skills, knowledge, and experience
What are you an expert on? What do you have a lot of expertise in? Are there any particular topics or genres that you're passionate about?
It's important to make sure you're writing about something you know well enough to fill an entire book, without straying too far from your areas of expertise.
You should also be realistic about your writing skills. If you're not confident in your ability to produce quality work, it might be worth considering taking a few courses or working with a writing coach before you start working on your book.
Of course, you can't just learn forever. You will need to start writing at some point, and the best way to improve your skills is by practice. But it's important to be aware of any areas that might need a little extra work before you begin.
Striking the perfect balance between taking your time to work on your skills and actually getting started on your book can be tricky, but it's important to find a sweet spot that works for you.
Decide on the kind of book you want to write
An all too common mistake people make when trying to write a book—especially their first one—is that they try to write about everything they know. This is a recipe for disaster.
You need to focus your energies on writing a single book, not an encyclopedia. Trying to write about too many things will make your book unfocused. As you dive deeper and deeper into the writing process, you'll find that it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain a cohesive thread throughout your work if you're trying to cover too many topics—chances are, you'll end up quitting before you even finish.
Do you want to write a memoir? A self-help book? Educational materials for other prisoners? Or perhaps something else entirely? Pinning down the specific kind or genre of your book might feel limiting, but it's actually quite freeing. It gives you a direction to work towards and a clear goal to focus on as you write.
Tackle the logistical challenges
Your mind may not be bound by the walls of your cell, but your body is, which means you have to work with what you've got.
That means dealing with a lot of logistical hurdles that you won't have to face if you were writing on the outside.
If you write by hand, you'll need to have pens and paper. These aren't always easy to come by in prison. Account for this by stocking up when you can and making sure you have a reliable way to store your writing so it doesn't get lost or confiscated.
You'll also have to find a way to type up your work once you're done. This can be done in the prison library, if you have access to one, or by sending your work out to be typed up by someone you know on the outside.
Having a quiet place where you can write without interruption is important, but it can be hard to find in a prison. See if you can get access to a private cell or office, even if it's just for an hour or two at a time.
Staying within the rules
As a prisoner, you're subject to a lot of rules and regulations that the average person doesn't have to worry about. Staying on top of all of these rules is both annoying and difficult, but it's a necessary evil if you want to avoid getting into trouble.
You can learn more about the specific rules that apply to you by asking the prison librarian or another staff member, or by reading the inmate handbook.
The Nuts and Bolts of Writing a Book in Prison
Now comes the fun part: writing. Let's go over a few key points.
Start with an outline
Many first-timers make the mistake of diving into their book without any sort of plan or roadmap.
This is a surefire way to get entangled in the writing process and end up with a scattered, incoherent mess of a book.
Think of your outline as the skeleton of your book. Once you have the skeleton in place, it'll be much easier to flesh out the details. Of course, you don't have to stick to your outline rigidly—things will almost certainly change as you start writing—but it's a good idea to have a general idea of where you're going.
Establish a clear timeline
With all the free time you have in prison, it might seem like you have all the time in the world to write. That is the easiest way to get sidetracked and never finish your book. You need to establish a clear timeline for yourself and stick to it as best you can.
This doesn't mean that you have to write X number of words each day or anything like that. But you should be clear about when you're going to write and for how long.
If you can, set aside a few hours each day to write. But if that's not possible, try to at least carve out some time on the weekends or whenever you have a free moment.
The important thing is to be consistent and make writing a regular part of your routine. You might not use all of what you write—all writers know about bad days when nothing seems to come out right—but you can never tell when a good day will strike, so it's important to be ready when it does.
Accept that it won't be perfect
When you're writing a book, it's easy to get caught up in the details and try to make everything perfect. But the truth is, your book is never going to be perfect.
No matter how long you spend editing and re-editing, there will always be something that you could change or improve.
Of course, that doesn't mean that you should just throw caution to the wind and publish whatever comes out of your brain. But it does mean that you shouldn't spend months (or years) tweaking every little detail.
At some point, you need to step back and say, "This is my best work and I'm proud of it."
Find a beta reader
Ideally, you want to find a beta reader who is both honest and constructive. You don't want someone who is just going to tear your book apart without offering any helpful suggestions. Neither do you want someone who is going to tell you that your book is perfect just because they don't want to hurt your feelings.
You can join writers' groups or online forums to find potential beta readers if you don't know anyone who would be willing to do it.
Revise and edit
Once you have a draft of your book, it's time to revise and edit.
Start by reading through your book and making any changes that you think are necessary. Then, put your book away for a week or two and come back to it with fresh eyes. You'll be surprised how many mistakes you missed the first time around.
Publishing Your Book
Thankfully, it's easier than ever to publish a book today. You can go the traditional route and try to find a literary agent who will represent you to publishers. Or you can self-publish your book using one of the many available online platforms.
If you go the traditional route, be prepared for rejection. It's not easy to get a book published through a major publishing house. But don't give up—keep sending your book out until you find someone willing to take a chance on you. Focusing on agents and publishers who specialize in the type of book you've written will increase your chances of success.
You may have to settle for a smaller publisher or self-publish your book, but that's not the end of the world. Many self-published authors are finding a lot of success these days.
Writing is hard enough under the best of circumstances, but it's even harder when you're in prison. Not only do you have to deal with the usual challenges that all writers face, but you also have to contend with a less-than-ideal living situation.
But don't let that discourage you. If you're passionate about writing and determined to see your work in print, there's no reason why you can't make it happen—even from behind bars! Our tips above will help you navigate the challenges of writing and publishing a book while incarcerated. Remember: the only thing stopping you is you. So get writing!