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Agile Editing Publishing

How to Get Early Feedback from Readers

This is an excerpt from Better Books with LaTeX the Agile Way. You can get a copy here.

While we have discussed how to include the reader by creating user stories and personas, we have not included actual readers in our publishing process. In this chapter, we will discuss how listening to your audience can help to improve the quality of a book.

Learning from and Connecting with Your Audience

Learning from your audience can be done in various ways:

  • Examine feedback from a previous similar book you have released. This is an especially relevant option if you are writing fiction books in the same genre, or if you are writing a new edition of a book on technology.
  • Set up ads and examine the statistics. See Better Books with LaTeX the Agile Way.
  • Send out copies to trusted reviewers and listen to their feedback. This is undoubtedly the gold standard of improving a book with the help of a reader. The most significant drawbacks are that the reviewer might have a lot of other books to read before yours and that the process of reviewing takes time.
  • Release parts of your book for free. With the Agile method, you will be finished with the first chapters of your book long before the final release. In order to get early feedback, you could choose to release those early parts as individual articles on your website with a reference to your book. This way, you not only get feedback from early readers but also you can use those articles as an early advertising campaign for pre-ordering your book.As an alternative to publishing individual articles on your website, there is also the Leanpub project (see Better Books with LaTeX the Agile Way) where interested readers can pre-order your book and read your work in progress before you have released the book.

Piracy

If you decide to publish a chapter on your website, your advantage is that the post will already have a clear purpose (the user story!) and minimal editing is required (references and pictures). Add a featured image at the top, use the chapter title as the post title, add a small advertisement about pre-ordering the book, and you are done. If you are worried about people pirating your work, your strategy will depend on the final price of the book, the time you have invested in it, and the expected size of your audience.

First, there are niche books that required a lot of work and sell easily for more than $50. An example would be books about current technologies: they have a unique selling point given that there is not a lot of competition. In this case, you might want to limit the amount of work you publish on your website.

Second, if you are writing your book to advertise professional services, people copying your work should be a welcome situation as a means of reaching a wider audience. Think of it as people copying your advertisement and showing it to other people for free.

Third, if your book is your product—not your services—you need to weigh your options. On the one hand, if you release individual chapters on your website, people could combine them together and have a complete book to read and no longer see the need to buy the actual book. On the other hand, they might tell other people about your book, or they might not be inclined to spend the time compiling your articles and instead buy the compiled book. You could also put more advertising on your website, release only excerpts, or limit access to those articles to trusted reviewers.

Amazon Ads and Market Research

Ads are another way to connect with your readers. Start your first ads when your book is ready for pre-order—ideally, on day one! Amazon sets a maximum time limit of three months for pre-orders, so aim for releasing at least four books each year to get the most out of it. Alternatively, you can use Google Play or Leanpub (see Better Books with LaTeX the Agile Way) which have no time limit. Have a first draft of your cover and upload that, together with your user stories (minus the names) as a description. Even though this might take extra work, any information you can get from your readers before the actual book launch will be helpful. For example, you might notice that one keyword does exceptionally well. You could use that information to improve your book’s description, pointing out that this (the keyword) is something you write about, and you could add an additional or extend an existing chapter about this topic. On Amazon, you have the following options:

  • Product Display Ads: You can display your book as an ad by Interest (on Kindle), by Category (on Amazon.com), or by Product (on Amazon.com). The first type of ad is relevant to you if you write for a specific genre and have an audience using mainly Kindle to read books. The second type of ad is also recommended if you write for a specific genre but aim for people browsing on the Amazon website. The third type allows you to place your ad on the page of a specific product on Amazon. This should only be used if you know that people who are interested in that product will very likely also read your book. For example, you could advertise your gardening book on a product page of a popular gardening tool.
  • Sponsored Ads: Sponsored Ads show up when a customer searches for a product. You can either set automatic targeting or manual targeting. With the former, the keywords will depend on your existing product information. If you have put relevant keywords into your description, this might be the fastest way to get an ad up and running. For more fine-grained control, manual targeting is highly recommended.

If you are (also) producing paperback editions of your book that include an index, you are at an advantage here. Creating an index for your (offline) readers is the same as creating a list of keywords for your online readers to search for. While it requires some extra formatting, you can basically copy your entire (!) index into the keyword field on Amazon. While most of the index keywords are irrelevant, you will quickly (depending on your traffic) see which keywords people click on and which they do not (Amazon provides a detailed analysis for each keyword). Over time, deactivate non-performing or low-performing keywords and increase spending on the high-performing keywords. Once you have found the core keywords that sell your book, you can then optimize your copy by setting up multiple ads with the same keyword, but different copy.

While this evolutionary approach will not revolutionize your sales (give yourself at least six to 12 months to learn the trade), it will most likely reduce your unnecessary spending and will likely increase the conversion rates of your ads. But again, ads can only do so much. Ultimately, it is your cover, your ratings and reviews, and the topic you are writing about that sells the book. A valuable side effect of running ads is certainly that you will learn more about the market and what people are searching for—invaluable information for deciding the topic of your next book. Also, you could put your top seven performing ad keywords into the book description. Free advertising!

Beyond optimizing your keywords and your ad copy, you can also optimize your product page. To accomplish this, you have to have ads running for a certain amount of time depending on your sale volume (for example, one month), then pause those ads, make changes to your product page, and create identical new ads. By comparing the conversion rate (number of sales divided by number of clicks), you can then compare both versions of your book’s product page.

If you want to rely on third parties to advertise for you, make sure you can track the conversion rate and start small. For example, someone might offer to publish your book ad to Facebook groups of 25,000 people. But that might only help you to get maybe 10 clicks because many people in those groups never see the post on their timeline. Paying $10 for this service will actually cost you $1 per click—more expensive than a Facebook ad you place.

A bestseller is properly defined as “a book for which demand, within a short time of that book’s initial publication, vastly exceeds what is then considered to be big sales.” But many authors falsely call their book a “bestseller” if it was for an hour at the top of an Amazon category instead of relying on a trusted bestseller list by an established authority (e.g., New York Times). Hence, one should be cautious with people promising to make your book a bestseller.

That is the reason why, for the copy (in the ad and the product page) itself, it is best to refrain from the usual marketing buzzwords that come to your head. Sure, adding “bestseller” will create the illusion that everyone else likes your book so something about it must be special. But if it is not truly a bestseller, calling it one is dishonest and will make you and your book look cheap.

If you want to advertise in forums, write an article about your book, or create a video. The best approach is to not simply tell your audience what the book is about, but to evoke an emotional reaction; whether they love or hate your approach, at least you will get them talking about it. Then you can begin to collect early feedback.

Whatever approach you choose, keep in mind that the idea is to lay the groundwork for a long-term relationship with your audience. A quick sell can always be made at the cost of your reputation. Set as your goal to deliver on your promises with a well-researched, well-written book.

This is an excerpt from Better Books with LaTeX the Agile Way. You can get a copy here.

Categories
Agile Editing Publishing

How to Optimize the Work Process

This is an excerpt from Better Books with LaTeX 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

Once you have written and ordered all your user stories, put your writer’s hat on back again. 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. 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 that need a final check. Again, platforms like Overleaf or Google Docs can highlight your changes automatically.
  • Work through issues identified by automated spelling and grammar checkers like Grammarly. Remember to review each suggestion, because some will improve your writing while others will not fit the context of your book.
  • Finally, during your daily or weekly chat with your editor, review all reminders and clear them up one by one.

Grammarly ⋅  Grammarly is an automated spelling, grammar, and plagarism checker. It also checks for weak vocabulary, repetitions, and overly long sentences. You can get an account here: https://www.grammarly.com.

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.

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.

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.

Project Planning

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.

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:

  • 25,000 words: Short e-book. Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is an example of this at about 25,000 words.
  • 40,000 – 50,000 words: Most non-fiction books/short novels. Better Books with LaTeX the Agile Way has 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 more examples of lengths of famous novels, check out http://commonplacebook.com/art/books/word-count-for-famous-novels/. For counting words, you can simply use Word’s function (Review/Word Count), or copy your text into Google Docs (Tools/Word Count).

Working with an Editor

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 many that can help you in the process of editing:

  • For collaborative editing, it is vital that you see changes the other person made or is making during your chat meeting. I am using Overleaf (see the book for a detailed discussion) for this.
  • For shorter books or documents, I use Google Docs, which you can also use collaboratively with your editor.
  • For tracking your user stories (and your general tasks), you can use tools like Trello, Asana, or Jira (or simply add the tasks to a separate section of your document).
  • For documenting ideas “on the spot” when you are traveling, you can also use these apps on your smartphone. Alternatively, track your ideas in your calendar (app) or make audio recordings.
  • For automatically checking your texts, you might want to give Grammarly a try.

Summary

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.
  • Use automated tools for basic checking of your text.
  • 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.
  • Finalize individual user stories or chapters, even if it means that details will still have to 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 prepared to publish your work at any time.
  • If necessary, cut your work in half, publish what you have, and get early feedback.

This is an excerpt from Better Books with LaTeX the Agile Way. You can get a copy here.

Categories
Agile Editing Publishing

The Rules of Your Book

This is an excerpt from Better Books with LaTeX the Agile Way. You can get a copy here.

In non-fiction works, the rules of your book are simply the rules of reality. In order to have a consistent quality throughout your book, I recommend deciding early on how deeply you will be researching specific topics. For the reader, it might be odd to have one chapter full of references, while the others only scratch the surface. If you indeed need different rules for different chapters, make it clear. Ideally, write down these rules in a separate document and have your editor check whether you are following them. In Agile terms, this is called Definition of Done—conditions that have to be met in order for your editor to accept your work. This document could also include things like grammar rules, spelling, rules about usage (e.g., capital letters, lower case, contractions), formatting, citation styles, image resolutions (what prints well?), caption style, tone (formal, informal), or perspective (first person, third person, etc.). This document is typically referred to as a style guide.

In fiction works, after creating your world and characters, it is time to put them into a specific situation and think about how they would act. This ensures that they will come to life and that they really are the actors of your story—and do not seem like they are hanging from the strings of a puppeteer.

If your book follows the (fictional) world’s rules throughout (with very few exceptions), you keep your readers on edge, not knowing how the characters will come out on top. Breaking those rules is possible, but should be done only sparingly to put more emphasis on a scene, for example, “Sometimes, Superman can overcome even kryptonite.”

If you do not provide limitations for your fictional characters, a common mistake is to create “Mary Sue” characters who always do the right thing. This approach means that your characters are driven by the plot, rather than driving the plot. It leaves out internal development. You should handle characters as people who have gone through a series of defining experiences. In order for them to be believable, they had to discover their own strengths and limitations. Even if you want to portray an ideal, you need to explain how they became who they are—this is true even for superheroes. You cannot simply wish yourself to be a hero. Someone who thinks that he or she can do anything without effort is not a superhero but a Mary Sue.

Mary Sue ⋅  Mary Sue is the term for a seemingly perfect fictional character. It originated from a parody of Star Trek fan fiction stories where writers included new characters with a major role in the story, but without making an effort to describe how they reached their position.

Likewise, if you allow your characters to have superpowers when it is convenient, it reduces the relevance of the actual climax of the story. The reader would assume that your characters are unlimited and could overcome any challenge by breaking the rules.

This also applies to non-fiction works if you are discussing people and their achievements: do not forget to include their failures, and how they dealt with challenges privately, in order to paint a complete picture of internal and external development.

Your readers will notice when you are trying to play God within the book’s world. It will break the “fourth wall,” destroying the illusion that these are real characters acting, and not a writer making them act. If you want your characters to reach a certain place or situation, you can create events that shake things up, but those events have to be believable based on the rules you have set up for your world. If you want the reader to think that the person he or she is reading about is a conscious being reflecting on his or her actions, you must create and follow your world’s rules.

The fourth wall ⋅  The theater stage is usually surrounded by three walls, with the fourth wall facing the audience. In this context, breaking the fourth wall is a reference to the characters becoming aware that they are being watched and directly addressing the audience.

Before you define the rules of your book, though, you should have a clear picture of the reader for whom you are writing the book. Some writers advise using 8th-grade level language, especially when it comes to complex topics. This is the same level that, for example, Harry Potter was written in, and which around 80% of Americans can read. With tools like https://readable.io, you can get an idea of the quality of each chapter. With such a feedback tool, you can also train yourself to write at a lower language level than you naturally do. For example, I write (English) at an 11th-grade level, and my books are aimed at adults and professionals, but I am thinking about writing special editions for children.

Likewise, reading is a linear activity, and you do not want the reader to put away the book because he or she stumbled over a weak part of the story. A true page-turner requires the same quality throughout the book. One of the big advantages of using the Agile approach to writing is that (at least to a certain degree) you spend roughly the same amount of time on each part of the book. This maintains a certain level of quality throughout your book. If you catch yourself getting lost in details, it is often better to just finalize open ends (and remove half-finished texts) and prepare your book for a first print. After a break, do a complete read-through. This method helps you more than spending too much time on any one part of the book.

This is an excerpt from Better Books with LaTeX the Agile Way. You can get a copy here.

Categories
Agile Editing Publishing

How to Organize Your Ideas (Fiction Books)

This is an excerpt from Better Books with LaTeX the Agile Way. You can get a copy here.

Don’t say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.

Mark Twain

For fiction books, you cannot simply map your user stories directly into individual chapters of your book. Instead, you have to approach the project in several phases:

First, you have to describe the world in which your novel will take place. For writing fiction, you have a simple tool available to you: genres. Genres are basically story and character templates that have proven to be interesting for a particular group of readers. Most novels fit into a single genre, meaning you have basically only a single audience persona (and user story), but some are a mix of genres which can (if done properly) help the book appeal to broader audiences. For example, some people like Westerns, and some people like science fiction. A Western-type scenario in space might appeal to both. Combining two genres, you can create a market niche with a very broad appeal, where writing for different personas improves rather than lowers the quality of the book. In terms of user stories, you can organize your ideas by taking the view of the reader. For example, “As a reader, I want to know how this futuristic dystopian society came to be and works now, in order to get a point of reference for the character’s upbringing and actions.” This backstory of your characters and world will not appear in its entirety in your book. But every detail will help you, the writer, to figure out how they will behave. Alternatively, you can present parts of their back story from the perspective of a narrator, to refine the reader’s idea of the world more and more as the novel progresses.

Second, you will be creating the characters of your world. Some characters you can immediately draw from your choice of genre. For example, in the “noir” genre, you often have a “femme fatale,” a woman protagonist who is rejecting societal expectations like marriage or motherhood. Another example is (a very early part of) the “Western” genre, often with a protagonist who fought on the Confederate side of the American Civil War and is basically portrayed as a “dead man walking.”

Using the template provided by a genre instead of coming up with your own can help you to get started. While it is true that choosing a genre will mean more competition for you, the only alternative would be to do a lot of market research and create and market your own genre. While there are authors who have defined a new genre, these instances are rare—think of William Shakespeare (drama), Homer (poetry), or J. R. R. Tolkien (fantasy).

In contrast to the previously discussed non-fiction books, in fiction books, you are not necessarily describing parts of the real world, you are instead building a new world and fresh characters. Here, your readers cannot tell you what they want to read about, except in a general way. They might want a “Western in space,” but it is up to you to describe how the characters in your world act and react.

As a writer, you set up the fictional world and its rules. If you have done a thorough job, at this point, you can let it play out and unfold on its own, with you just continuing from where you have started setting everything up. Your characterization of the individuals and the world they are living in become the main drivers of the story. A positive effect of applying rules to your fictional world is that it forces you to become more creative. For example, if your Western setting does not allow for magic or modern medicine, you have to come up with other ways your character survives a gunshot wound.

Please note that the general artistic argument is to not listen to what the market “wants” but to write what comes to your mind. I think this is a valid point, given that your mind, your experiences, and your ideas are by default unique in the market. So, whatever you write will automatically fill a niche. Even with this approach, selecting a fitting genre might be useful. You can put your story into a fantasy or science fiction setting without losing its core. If you know that, currently, science fiction stories are most sought after, you might want to give it a shot. The fundamental decision you have to make, though, is whether you are writing as an art form, with the goal of expressing and exploring your emotions and ideas, and learning the trade itself, or if you look at writing as a business, where you have to attract “likes” and “subscribes” to build external validation.

To summarize the difference between how to organize your writing for non-fiction and fiction books:

  • Non-fiction: User stories are things your readers (personas) want to know. Group them into topics, then order them in a way so that they build upon the previous stories.
  • Fiction: Select a genre based on the interest of your target audience. Create separate user stories for the elements of the world, for each character,and for each scene or event.

Finally, your book needs an overarching theme, moral, or philosophic view. Please note that even if you do not start out by defining it explicitly, you will still have one. We are all driven by a philosophy, consciously or unconsciously. So, whether you intend it or not, your book will have a viewpoint. It could be a whole system of philosophy, or it could be simplistic as in “crime is bad.” We always have some viewpoint. Either we follow the predominant views of the society we live in, or we consciously decide upon a specific theme, morality, or philosophy.

Similar to (physical) rules of your world, you also need ethical rules of your world. If those rules are contradictory or inconsistent, this can lessen the tension in your story and your world will be somewhat chaotic. If the reader can expect anything to happen, then nothing is at stake. An alternative is to maintain contradictory philosophies, but with characters representing them.

The issues are similar to those with non-fiction books: if you decide upfront on a theme or moral, you run into the danger of moralizing and breaking the rules of your “world” (the world within your book) just to prove your point. If you develop the moral while writing the story, you give up control over your world, and you have to adjust the world in a clever way to ultimately demonstrate the point you want to make.

My advice is to start with your views, but the tool to express those views should be the world you have created in your book (or the real world). If you cannot create a world where the scenes or events you have thought about can happen, it might be time to reconsider your ideas.

This is an excerpt from Better Books with LaTeX the Agile Way. You can get a copy here.

Categories
Agile Publishing

What to Keep and What to Remove

This is an excerpt from Better Books with LaTeX the Agile Way. You can get a copy here.

A successful book is not made of what is in it, but what is left out of it.

Mark Twain

If I ask you to bring me a coffee from the local coffee shop, you might end up not buying the drink I wanted. But if I stop you before you leave for the shop, and tell you that I do not want a coffee after all, you can no longer make the mistake of buying the “wrong” choice between, say, an espresso and an iced coffee. Similarly, in software programming, there is a saying that the best piece of computer code is the one that is not necessary: you can simply remove it and the program will still run perfectly and flawlessly. While your readers are not machines, and while it is OK to repeat yourself to make a certain point, this saying also applies to your book. Ask yourself if a particular passage or paragraph is really needed to deliver your point. Unnecessary “fluff” not only increases the time you need to edit your book, but also decreases the weight of all the other points you are making.

Shorter is always better: it saves you, your editor, and your reader time and elevates the other parts of your book that have a reason to be there. This applies both to fiction and non-fiction books. Introducing random characters you will never use again is just as problematic as explaining something that does not serve the point you want to make.

It is easy to fall victim to writing superfluous text. You are not only the person coming up with ideas for what to write about, but you are also implementing those ideas through your research and writing. In addition, you are looking at a computer screen or piece of paper rather than speaking to another person. These issues can lead to writing to yourself rather than to your readers.

To prevent this, imagine that you are wearing a different hat for each activity. Your state of mind and perspective on the text is different when planning, writing, or editing. To write better texts, it is best to not wear multiple hats at the same time. For now, let us put the writer’s hat down, put on the idea hat, and consider these questions:

  • To whom are you writing?  e.g., First-time author.
  • What does that person want to know?  e.g., What are the alternatives to Word?
  • Why does that person want to know it?  e.g., Wants to streamline the e-book creation process.
  • What is your goal with this particular passage? (for fiction books)  e.g., Introduce a character or plant a line of dialogue for a later payoff.

Once you have written down your answers to these questions, you can put your writer’s hat on again. You are now tasked with addressing the answers to those questions in a paragraph or section instead of going off on a tangent while thinking about new ideas.

The one trait of a good writer in this context is that he or she is following the instruction to the letter and will write only what is necessary to answer those questions, but no more. Once you are done with writing, you can again put on your “idea hat” and think about what your reader might want you to address next.

  • Idea hat. When brainstorming about your chapters, or researching topics, you are wearing the idea hat. Take only minimal notes and focus on elaborating on the idea later.
  • Writer’s hat. After having completed your research, you put on your writer’s hat and write, ideally without interruption.

This split between the idea person and writer can also take place on a larger scale. You can prepare an entire series of points you want to make in your book, noting whom you are talking to, what the person wants to know, and why he or she wants to know it, and then switch roles and do nothing but write those answers for a while. This will speed up your writing process by keeping you focused and reducing the time it takes to switch between roles.

In project management, this approach is called “creating user stories.” This is the method for creating user stories:

  • Define your audience (“personas”);
  • Brainstorm what your audience wants to read about and why;
  • Divide your ideas into individual tasks relating to a specific persona;
  • Put those user stories into a long to-do list (“backlog”); and
  • Rearrange the user stories in your backlog so that their sequence flows logically (you will be working on them from top to bottom one after the other).

Once a paragraph or section is done, try putting yourself in the shoes of your readers and read it out loud. This will help you to write in a more personal, rather than distant, style. Also, it will be easier for you to remove parts that are superfluous and to improve the overall quality of your book by making it shorter and more to the point.

A good idea is also to take your concept and try to explain it to another person. If nobody is around, you might even give the “rubber duck debugging” method (the name is a reference to a story in the book The Pragmatic Programmer in which a programmer would carry around a rubber duck and debug the program code by forcing himself to explain it, line-by-line, to the duck) method a try: explain your idea to a rubber duck you hold in your hands. This is used sometimes in software engineering to clarify a problem and might also help you to get a different perspective on your own writing.

While discussing or working on a story, you might come up with new ideas. Instead of adding those on top of your existing story, you may want to think about whether it would be better to write a completely new story. For example, in this book, I discuss fiction and non-fiction books sometimes side by side, sometimes in separate chapters. When I do the latter, I have usually started with the former, and then decided to divide the chapter into two. A better approach is to split chapters as soon as you see that what you are writing might address two different audiences (we talk about “personas” in another article and the book) or deal with two distinct user stories. If you see this pattern repeating with other user stories, too, you might even want to think about moving the new user stories into a separate book.

Likewise, if you notice that individual user stories become too large, it might be useful to split them. Splitting can be done in various ways. For example, if your user story is “Clara wants to know how to publish her e-books online, so that she can manage the sales from her computer,” it could be split into several user stories dealing with different platforms (Amazon KDP, Google, etc.).

In following articles and the book, we discuss how you can come up with “personas,” which describe our readers. We will discuss how good user stories are written and what user stories I employed in this very book. And we will discuss the same for fiction books, which require a slightly different approach.

This is an excerpt from Better Books with LaTeX the Agile Way. You can get a copy here.