Saturday, May 11, 2013

On Co-Authoring a Book (part 2/2)

In the first article of this series, I described how I came to be co-authoring the third edition of my book Software Requirements with Joy Beatty. I described how we set the requirements for the requirements book and established our collaboration process and tool environment. This concluding article in the series describes how we tracked progress on this complex writing project and my overall observations about the co-authoring experience.

Tracking Status

When writing a book, there is a vast amount of information to keep track of. At any given time one of our chapters can be in one of many possible states:
  • Not yet begun
  • Initial draft written
  • Initial draft being reviewed by the other author
  • Reviewed draft being revised by primary author
  • Out for peer review
  • Being revised following peer review
  • Being edited by our own internal editor
  • Submitted to publisher for copy editing
  • Being revised following copy editing
  • Final manuscript version submitted to publisher
  • Formatted PDF pages and artwork received from publisher
  • Formatted PDF pages and artwork being proofread and corrected
  • Final final final pages submitted to publisher
Our book contains a total of about 40 components—chapters, front matter, and back matter—plus more than 100 image files, and we are working on many of them simultaneously in these various states. Sometimes I feel as though I’m juggling 20 flaming chainsaws. We set up a spreadsheet to track the date each chapter transitioned from one of these statuses to another. Each of us had to maintain our own set of pending revisions to the shared tracking spreadsheet so we wouldn’t step on each other’s changes when we updated it periodically. We also had a tracking spreadsheet for review status. We recorded when each chapter went out for peer review, the target date for receiving review feedback, the actual date we received feedback from each reviewer, and a rating of how useful each reviewer’s input was.

Tracking status carefully like this was essential for us to make sure that we always knew what each of us should be working on. It helped ensure that could make our target dates for getting chapters where they needed to be at the right time. Speaking of which, we spent quite a bit of time scheduling those target dates for critical chapter milestones and rescheduling them as we saw how the work progressed. We had a lot of schedule flexibility until the publisher’s editorial team was put into place. At that point, they needed a firm schedule of when they could expect to see chapters, and they needed predictable turnaround on our review of copyedited chapters and final page proofs. When the editorial team was assembled, the project changed from being more or less open-ended to being timeboxed with firm constraints. I take pride in having never missed a deadline for any of the articles or books I’ve written, and I’m going to try hard to make sure I don’t break that record with this project.

The Result

Writing this book has been an interesting and fun experience, as well as a huge amount of work. Joy has been, well, a joy to work with. She closes important gaps in my own knowledge, and she brings a broad set of experiences and stories to share. Fortunately, our underlying philosophies and perspectives are very similar. Those minor disagreements that we have are easily worked out through the dozens of emails we exchange each day and the occasional phone discussion. It’s been great to have someone to bounce ideas off, to clarify my thinking, to help me choose between different possible approaches, and to straighten me out when I’m off in the weeds. Joy has also obtained some input from time to time from her colleagues at Seilevel, running small chunks of text past them to test their reaction. This quick, real-world input saved us from ourselves more than once.

You might think that working with a co-author who has responsibility for many of the chapters would save time. That has not been my experience. If anything, this book is taking more time than if I were doing it all myself. That’s mainly because each chapter goes through more iterations than if only one author was involved. However, there are some important advantages. First, I couldn’t do it all myself. Joy has expertise that allows her to write chapters and sections that I simply could not. She has taken some of the chapters that I had written years ago for the second edition and greatly enhanced and updated them.

In addition, working with a co-author has made the material I’m writing much better. On my previous books, I just did the best job I could on a draft chapter and sent it out to a dozen or so reviewers. This time, Joy and I are spending a lot of time going over each other’s work before the reviewers ever see it. We commit acts of unspeakable editorial brutality on each other’s writing (politely, of course), all for a good cause. We are each other’s toughest critic. As a consequence, our ultimate presentation of each topic is much clearer and more thorough than it would have been otherwise. It has also been great to have somebody to kick ideas around with, to help me determine the best way to approach a particular topic or whether to cover it at all. We’ve learned a lot from each other, and the quality of the work shows the benefit.

All that said, I’ll still be glad when it’s done!

(For your convenience, I have pulled together many of my blog articles about writing for publication into a small ebook titled "Writing Your Way to Success".)

(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!)

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