Thursday, March 1, 2012

You Say You Want to Write a Book? (Part 2/2)

My first draft of Creating a Software Engineering Culture left much to be desired. I began with a laughably skimpy outline, less than three pages for what turned into a nearly 400-page book. The result was a badly structured manuscript that had thirteen chapters of widely varying length, endless bullet lists, a lack of continuity, and numerous other problems. Thanks to much valuable feedback from the publisher (I’m forever indebted to Wendy Eakin and her colleagues at Dorset House Publishing), I was able to greatly improve the manuscript, albeit with considerable effort that added little value to the content but a lot to the presentation. Following are some things I learned.

It's usually a good idea to organize a book into parts having groups of chapters on a common theme. I restructured the initial thirteen chapters of Creating a Software Engineering Culture into twenty chapters of more uniform length, grouped into six parts. This restructuring required a month of tedious drag-and-drop editing and cleanup. I learned my lesson, though. For my next book, the first edition of Software Requirements, I began with a much more carefully thought-out seventeen-page outline. As a result, I had to do only very minimal restructuring along the way. This is analogous to designing before coding. I'm a big believer in working hard on your book's architecture.

It's important to have some threads of continuity—recurrent themes—running through the book. Tie sections of the book back to those themes, both to make sure that the content you include is relevant and on-message, and to constantly reinforce those themes to the reader. Sometimes you might be tempted to include material that you're excited about, but if it doesn't align with one of your book's themes, maybe it doesn't belong there. I read the manuscript for one colleague’s first book and told her, "There are two and a half books in here. Figure out which one you’re writing this time, then take everything else out." She wrote a great book, and then another one. Focus, focus, focus.

Sometimes when I've read manuscripts by other authors, it seems that they've thrown in every thought and idea and experience that they’re excited about, regardless of whether it fits with the chapter or even with the book. To help avoid this tempting trap, here's one technique I use. I put just a few bullet points at the top of each chapter before I begin writing the chapter. These bullets remind me of the key messages I wish to impart in that chapter. As I write, I refer back to that short list periodically to make sure I'm not throwing in extraneous stuff just because I think it's cool or interesting. Of course, I might adjust the focus of the chapter if I find that my initial intent wasn't quite right. Then, when I'm done drafting the chapter, I remove those temporary bullets because they've served their purpose of helping keep me on course.

You need to devise some "hooks," devices to grab the reader's attention and give your book some distinctive and memorable presentation patterns. You might study other books that you find appealing and see what distinctive characteristics they have that stick in your mind or help make the content more accessible to the reader, Some hooks I've used are:
  • Beginning each chapter with a pithy quotation or a concise focal statement like the "pearl of wisdom" that opens each chapter of Pearls from Sand.
  • Using icons in the margin to identify elements like "culture builders" and "culture killers," cross-references to other chapters, best practices, and true stories.
  • Including a summary of key points at the end of each chapter.
  • Including an annotated bibliography (instead of just a list of cited references) at the end of each chapter.
  • Appending a list of next steps, practice activities, and/or worksheets to each chapter to help the reader begin applying the material presented.
  • Embedding anecdotes in boxes or sidebars to relate true-life experiences that reinforce the points made in the text.
Thinking about these design elements and getting a clear focus on the scope, objectives, and themes for my books help me write much more efficiently, resulting in far less rework than my first book required. Or you could just start typing and see where you end up, whatever works for you. There's no single correct approach to writing a book, but this is the approach I find effective.

Writing a book is not easy. It takes a lot of time, dedication, and persistence. When I was writing my first book (while working full-time at Kodak), periodically I would call out to my wife. “Chris,” I’d say, “would you come shoot me, please?” One day she replied, “I’m about ready to.” Not being totally stupid, I stopped asking. But, like everything else, writing books gets easier with practice. When I completed the manuscript for my second book three years later, I told Chris, “That didn’t go too badly.” “No,” she replied, “you didn’t ask me to shoot you even once.” I guess that’s progress.

(If you found this article helpful, please consider making a donation to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund to help a consultant who has been disabled since 1999 with a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. You can read Norm's story or donate here. Thanks!)

1 comment:

  1. Karl, these two posts are gold. Like every writer I have made most of these stumbles, and even more. But it does get easier with practice. Your comment about the bullets at the beginning of each chapter is totally on-target to stay focused. I use this technique, and also mindmaps, to help me conform to the architecture I want to deliver. I love mindmaps.

    --Gary K. Evans