This is an excerpt from Writing Better Books the Agile Way, you can get a copy here.


 

What the reader wants to read and what you will provide with user stories is very much aligned. A reader has a specific problem, need, or interest, and you are trying to solve it by providing instructions or information.

For example, the topics discussed both in  Better Books with LaTeX and here in Writing Better Books the Agile Way are in that regard very simple. The former because it describes a technology and its application, the latter because it describes a project management method. In addition, both books deal with topics relatively limited in scope.

For simple non-fiction books, I recommend following these steps:

1. Create personas representing your readers.
2. Write the user stories—things your readers want to know.
3. Group your user stories by topic.
4. Write the book based on the user stories.

But following this step-by-step approach, you get something like a how-to description, dictionary, or encyclopedia. By contrast, in my Philosophy for Heroes series, my goal was to provide a comprehensive discussion of philosophical and scientific concepts for the reader to figure out for himself or herself how to be a (better) hero in real life. As I used the series also as a way to form my own opinion of the topic while continuing to study it, my original approach to plan everything from the start failed.

If you are not already an expert on a topic, if it is not a simple how-to description of a proven method, you will have to go back to the start of your writing again and again to fix something you learn later. Split your project into a series; be open to telling the reader that you have changed your opinion on something discussed in an earlier part of the series to demonstrate that it is also a learning experience for you, the author.

If you want to write a book that takes the reader by the hand and guides him or her through the topic you are discussing, you need something more. You need a big picture, theme, vision, or overarching story you want to tell with your book.

For this, you have two options:

1. Arrange and re-arrange the user stories and tell a story explaining why they are in this sequence.
I recommend writing the user stories on stickers and put them on a wall, making the whole scope of your book easily visible and easily changeable.
2. Start with an overarching vision and then go back to arranging (and possibly modifying) the user stories in a way that supports that vision.

The challenge with the second approach is that you might curtail your creativity. If you start out with the conclusion, all your efforts are focused on proving it, instead of also looking left and right and investigating alternative views on the topic. So, when choosing the second approach, you should be careful to set only a general direction, not a fixed result.

For example, instead of writing a book about how “Word is the best software to write books,” set a more general theme of your book, such as “The advantages of using Word as an author.” This leaves the outcome of your research open but keeps you on track. You could gather a number of arguments, examine alternatives, and end up with clear advice for whom and what kind of book projects Word is the best software. This is also the more scientific approach, helping to prevent falling into the trap of confirmation bias.

Whichever option you choose, you will end up creating some kind of outline of your book, either as a starting point for your user stories or as a tool to connect them together into a consistent theme. This outline will be like a streamlined version of your book. Practice describing your book to other people in an “elevator pitch” of 30 seconds. If you cannot deliver the message of your book in that time, you could consider either splitting your book into two or more books or rewriting the outline. You could even use the outline as an article you release online (we will discuss in Chapter 10 more about releasing parts of your book early).

An additional or alternative approach is to start your book with the front cover. Having to limit the way you describe your book by a title, an image, and a short subtitle automatically helps you to focus on a single idea. It is also the cover, not your outline, that will ultimately sell your book. You can reuse your outline on the back cover or in an online description of your book, but the first contact point with your readers is the cover.

In summary, we have the following two approaches to start writing your book:

Option 1:

1. Create personas representing your readers.
“Peter is a paleontology student.”
2. Write the user stories—things your readers want to know.
“Peter wants to know about dinosaurs in the Jurassic Age to study for an upcoming exam.”
3. Group your user stories by topic.
“Dinosaurs in the Jurassic Age.” “Dinosaurs in the Cretaceous Age.”
4. Arrange your groups of user stories into a sequence that fits into the narration of your book. One story or group of stories should build upon the previous one. When in doubt, put more important user stories before less important user stories.
“First Jurassic Age, then Cretaceous Age…”
5. Write a basic outline or come up with a theme or vision of the book that fits the written user stories.
‘In this book, we will discuss the different Ages of life on Earth in chronological order.”
6. Write the book based on the user stories.
“Dinosaurs first appeared during the Triassic period, between 243 and 233.23 million years ago…”

Option 2:

1. Write a basic outline, come up with a theme or vision of the book, or create a book cover.
‘In this book, we will discuss the different Ages of life on Earth in chronological order.”
2. Create personas representing your readers.
“Peter is a paleontology student.”
3. Write the user stories—things your readers want to know.
“Peter wants to know about dinosaurs in the Jurassic Age to study for an upcoming exam.”
4. Group your user stories by topic.
“Dinosaurs in the Jurassic Age.” “Dinosaurs in the Cretaceous Age.”
5. Arrange your groups of user stories into a sequence that fits the outline, theme, or book cover. When in doubt, put more important user stories before less important user stories.
“First Jurassic Age, then Cretaceous Age…”
6. Write the book based on the user stories.
“Dinosaurs first appeared during the Triassic period, between 243 and 233.23 million years ago…”

For the companion book Better Books with LaTeX , I decided on the second option. Market research has shown me that there is a demand for books about writing, but only a limited supply in terms of books discussing how to write books in LaTeX. While there are many introductory books about LaTeX, there are only few that focus on helping book authors. I want only what gets someone from A to B (in this case, writing a book) and nothing else.

But instead of asking people if LaTeX is what they actually want, I went for the niche simply because my objective of the book was to reflect upon and document my own writing process. The advantage of this approach was that I was able to write a well-rounded and focused book; the disadvantage of this approach was that I might not have taken the actual needs of readers into account. I simply present the proven solution I have found. Maybe the bigger market would have been the people writing books in Word?

For the elevator pitch for  Better Books with LaTeX, I used the following form:

  • For: First-time authors, novel writers who want to write a first non-fiction book, writers who are looking for better tools, LaTeX experts, editors who want to expand their services, LaTeX beginners who are looking for an introductory book, self-publishers who are seeking insights, and professionals who want to add a book to their portfolio,
  • The: “Better Books with LaTeX” book
  • Is an: introduction to building books with LaTeX
  • That: takes readers through a variety of topics on publishing, from A to Z with the focus of using LaTeX as the central word processor.
  • Unlike: pure LaTeX books that focus on the technology or pure publishing books that ignore the difficulties of managing more complex books with Word,
  • We: provide a template and a tutorial that even beginners can use and professionals can refine for their purposes and embed this technical knowledge into a discussion of publishing, polishing, and editing.

For the user stories for  Better Books with LaTeX, I developed the following list (the “what” part is in bold for each user story):

1. Mary wants to know about the possible advantages of using LaTeX instead of Word to make an informed decision on whether to use LaTeX for her future books.
2. Mary wants to know how and where (foreword, preface, publisher information, TOC, glossary, etc.) to insert the texts into the template for an e-book / printable PDF.
3. John wants to learn the basics of LaTeX so that he can make small adjustments to the template and enjoy a head start when learning more complex commands.
4. John wants to know how to better manage bibliographical references to save time and reduce mistakes.
5. John wants to know how to better manage indexes to save time during index creation and after page changes.
6. John wants to know the reasoning behind the organization of the template in order to make informed adaptions.
7. George wants to know how to convert his LaTeX document into an HTML file to publish it as a website article.
8. George wants to know the special requirements of final polishing (which image quality to choose, what to do about blank spaces and page breaks, etc.) of the PDF to make a professional-looking printed book.
9. George wants to know how to tweak the HTML output (page breaks, table of contents, etc.) to improve conversion quality for mobi (KDP) in order to have an e-book of high quality.
10. Clara wants to know how to publish her books and e-books on Amazon KDP, so that she will have a central place to manage and sell them.
11. Peter wants to know about how to create a book cover, LaTeX graphics, etc. and how Lode Publishing can help to create an appealing book.
12. George wants to know how to reuse glossary items and other text blocks to save time when writing a series.

For the user stories of this book, I developed the following list:

1. Peter needs a pep talk to prepare him for possible disappointments when starting a book project.
2. Peter wants to know about the potential sales of his book in order to better plan his expenses (and manage his own expectations).
3. Clara wants to know the general approach to investing money so that she doesn’t waste any.
4. Clara wants to know how she can incorporate her book into her professional career and benefit from it more than just through book sales.
5. Peter wants to know where to start with a fresh book project so that he will not get lost in endless edits that prevent him from completing and releasing the book.
6. Peter wants to know how to better decide what to include in the book and what to leave out to create a better book more efficiently.
7. Tina wants to know how to use personas so that she can write for her target audience.
8. Mary wants to know how to have the same quality of language and content throughout the book to keep the reader engaged.
9. Clara wants to learn a method for organizing her ideas and how not to get lost in details so that she can write a comprehensive but to-the-point book.
10. Tina wants to know and stay in contact with her audience as a means of increasing future sales.
11. Mary wants to know how to conduct market research for books and how to include that into the writing process so that she can sell more books.
12. Peter wants to understand what working with a professional editor or coach looks like and how it could help him in order to make an informed decision about whether to hire someone and whom to hire.
13. Mary wants to know how to work more efficiently with her editor to speed up the writing and editing processes.
14. John wants to know how to better organize his communication with an author in order to reduce overhead and better deliver what the author expects.
15. Mary wants to know how to create better ads on Amazon to increase sales.
16. Peter wants to know how to properly cite so that he will respect the work of others.
17. Mary wants to get earlier feedback for her book so that she can incorporate market demand and readers’ wishes.