This is an excerpt from Writing Better Books the Agile Way, you can get a copy here.
Substitute ’damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ’very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be. —Mark Twain
Now that you have written and ordered all your user stories, switch your “hat” from being an idea person to a writer.
With this different perspective, take another look at the list of user stories and ask yourself if you know exactly what you will write to implement each user story. Do you still need to do research that will distract you from writing? Is it still unclear how your characters would act in a particular situation? Are you unsure about the sequence of the arguments to make your point? If you find something that will block you, it is better to hold off on writing and put your idea hat on again, and do the required research or work on the concepts.
If, during writing, despite all that preparation, you still end up missing some information—a transition, a reference, a table, a diagram, or a photo—and if you do not have the resource available right away, just insert a placeholder and add a reminder. Platforms like Overleaf or Google Docs allow adding reminders or comments that are highlighted so that you can easily find them. These platforms will even track any changes for later review by your editor. If your program does not support that, you can also just use a keyword like “TODO” that you can easily search for.
This way, instead of interrupting your work and for example browsing for an hour to find the right picture, just put in “TODO add picture of xyz” and continue writing. Taking the time to fix it would break your focus; simply go through your reminders after you have finished the user story or chapter.
Beyond your own reminders, your editor might add additional notes to your text. To organize this collaborative work, a very basic set of rules for your workflow could look like this:
- Add a reminder whenever you know more work or research is needed (but would require you to switch to another “hat”) on the chapter you are currently writing.
- When finished with the chapter, have your editor read through it, and have him or her add reminders if necessary.
- When getting back the corrected version, work through all the reminders (wearing the “idea hat”). If you make any changes, mark them with with a different reminder (e.g., “TODO EDITOR”) to make it clear to your editor that you have made changes and it needs a final check. Again, platforms like Overleaf or Google Docs can highlight your changes automatically.
- Finally, during your daily or weekly chat with your editor, review all reminders and clear them up one by one.
In terms of time organization, there is no single solution that works for everyone:
- Work on a single user story or chapter each day, no matter how long (or short) it takes.
- Set a fixed timebox (e.g., from 9 to 5), stop once you have reached it, and pick up where you left off on another day.
- Set a fixed timebox, and work on as many user stories as possible. Whenever you finish a user story, estimate whether you can finish the next story on the same day. If not, take an early break.
Whichever way you choose, a successful writing day depends on whether you have prepared the user stories in advance so that you do not have to switch your hats all the time.
If you suffer from writer’s block or procrastination, another approach is to go not by time or user story, but by volume. If you set a word count goal, the danger of stopping to find the perfect words will be lower. And if you have a well-written outline, a complete description of your characters and their background, and a description of the world in which they are living, then there is little that can stop you from continuing writing. Even if you think you are writing uphill or it is going nowhere, just keep on writing: you can get back to it during editing. With non-fiction books, have your arguments and research texts prepared in advance and see the actual writing as an exercise to connect all the points you want to make.
As a writer your goal should not be to create “perfect” paragraphs: what counts is the overall quality of your book. The reader will put your book away on the weakest page. If you have spent all your time perfecting one part and then run out of time or energy for the rest of the book, the entire project will suffer. The book need not (and indeed cannot) be “perfect.” What is important is that it gets finished and that the quality is consistent throughout the book.
Beyond planning individual user stories, you also have to plan the whole project. In project management, there are usually three main factors to think about: time, cost, and quality (or content). The basic idea is that you usually can meet only two of those goals. If you want to publish faster and achieve better quality, hire more people. If you want to keep costs down, take more time or reduce quality. If your publication date is fixed, you can either hire more people or reduce quality.
|Fixed publication date||Hire more people||Fixed user stories|
|Fixed publication date||Fixed expenses||Reduce user stories|
|Delay publication||Fixed expenses||Fixed user stories|
For a book project, you probably cannot afford or make use of additional writers. It might be worthwhile to hire a freelancer for basic research or for writing a first draft, but ultimately, it is up to you, the author. This leaves you with either increasing time or with decreasing quality (or reducing content). With the user story approach where you build up your book step by step, you can stop at any time and release what you have so far, so it is best to timebox your book project. Even if you have chapters left to write, you can always move them to a second book and add a preview to your first book. Also, you are always free to re-release your first book’s contents later, working in any feedback you received.
To decide when to divide a book, you might want to take a look at your competition and the book size your readers expect:
- 20,000 words: Short e-book. Writing Better Books the Agile Way is an example of this at about 20,000 words.
- 40,000 – 50,000 words: Most non-fiction books/a short novel. Both Philosophy for Heroes: Knowledge and Philosophy for Heroes: Continuum have around 50,000 words. Printed books for sale in book shops should have at least this length so that their spine is large enough for display.
- 70,000 words: Long non-fiction book/novel.
- 100,000+ words: Very long non-fiction book/long novel.
For counting words, you can simply use Word’s function (Review/Word Count), or copy your text into Google Docs (Tools/Word Count). For examples of lengths of famous novels, check out http://commonplacebook.com/art/books/word-count-for-famous-novels/.
My recommendation is to involve an editor to review your work regularly. Myself, I chat with my editor two times each week, during which time we discuss issues with past books, sales, newly written chapters, and her insights on chapters I wrote the previous week. This way, my memory is fresh and issues can be addressed right away. If I were to wait until the manuscript was done, I might no longer be able to implement some of the suggestions made by my editor.
Ideally, your editor also acts as a writer’s coach and helps you to reflect on your progress. Having someone to report to every week is using social pressure to your advantage. With all the processes outlined above, it is good to have someone look out for you so that you do not get sloppy and make excuses. Alternatively, create a blog where you “force” yourself to record your progress each week— similar to a diary, but for the public eye. Another possibility is to join a local writers’ group whose members report on their writing progress and motivate each other.
It is too easy to fall into the trap of writing as if you are writing a report and talking to the computer instead of a person. Your editor’s job is to ask you what you actually mean in questionable paragraphs. This puts you into the state of mind of having to explain it to an actual human being.
In terms of tools, there are a lot that can help you in the process of editing. Myself, I am using Overleaf (check out my book Better Books with LaTeX for a complete discussion), an online document editor with collaborative features. It is vital that you see changes the other person made or is currently making (during your chat meeting). Alternatively, for shorter books or documents, use a collaborative editor like Google Docs.
For tracking your user stories (and your general tasks), you can use Trello, Asana, or Jira, and for automatically checking your texts, you might want to give, for example, Grammarly a try. If you have a smartphone, you can use these apps also to record ideas “on the spot”—when you are not sitting in front of a blank sheet of paper.
To sum up the recommended steps to optimize your workflow:
- Prepare your work beforehand; do not switch too frequently between conceptualization/research and writing.
- Find the right tools to work with an editor collaboratively.
- Answer your editor when he or she asks what exactly you want to express with a particular paragraph. This will help you to write as if you are talking to a person.
- On a daily basis, figure out what type of goal works best for you: writing for a fixed amount of time, reaching a certain word count, or finishing a user story.
- Finish up individual user stories or chapters, even if it means that details will be added later.
- Commit to deliver completed chapters/sections in regular time intervals. An editor can help.
- Deliver the same level of quality throughout the book. Limiting yourself to regular deliveries will help you with this.
- Commit to a publishing date. Sticking to regular deliveries will make it easier to be able to publish your work at any time.
- If necessary, cut your work in half, publish what you have, and get early feedback.