While most people benefit from plans, it's often the preparation begotten by planning that matters more than the plan itself. This truism is attributed to Eisenhower, but its commonsense application pre- and postdates his mid-century usage.
First-time nonfiction authors, whether they walk the traditional or self-publication path, benefit from planning when they develop a completion* strategy in the earliest stages of drafting.
In most cases, this strategy begins by simply determining a completion date. The date is strategic not only because it encourages an author to set a realistic time frame in which to produce a book, but also because it invites an author to think ahead, anticipating the best-case timeline for publication and pointing to the larger continuum on which a book’s publication exists (on which completion is not completion but the beginning of the publication strategy).
Many authors are excited to set a completion date in the idea development stage. It’s only later, when faced with inexorable variables that limit progress, that authors feel the pressure of a self-imposed deadline. Of course, this is entirely as it should be. Everything feels possible before we begin—the exhilaration of possibility is the reason that some of us resist planning in the first place. It isn’t until we actually experience limitations (such as the inefficient cooperation of sources or coauthors) that we acutely feel their restrictive influence.
But pressure is often conducive to completion. And the date from which that pressure proceeds can help authors prepare for inevitable challenges, sometimes by helping to force different, more inventive, efforts at countering them.
There is another, less recognized reason for setting a completion date, too: The soft strategy authors develop for completion anticipates and readies them for that later stage of the continuum—the much harder, much more tactical strategy of publication.
*Let us stipulate that after reading Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, some of us will never be able to use the word "completion" without a sense of despair.
The best books depend on a team effort.
This is not to say that a book idea should be divided up and conquered by a team of writers (although that works, too); it’s to say that generating ideas, finding good and helpful feedback, procuring specialized editing services, designing engaging interiors and exteriors, creating solid marketing plans, and more depend on a team of specialists.
Among these specialists, a publicist or PR rep is invaluable.
For some authors, a publicist feels unnecessary: Isn’t the author the person best positioned to sell their book? Aren’t they most capable of speaking (and loudly) to its merits? For other authors, a publicist feels extraneous: Why should an author pay someone else to market a book that’s already great?
But regardless of an author’s intent or a book’s brilliance, selling a book is hard work. It requires a plan for priorities and scope, a deep(ish) list of relevant contacts, and attention to small and large details over the long term.
An author can often meet many of these criterion, but they’re almost always better positioned to do so with the help of a good publicist.
A good publicist will mean different things to different authors. But in general, a good publicist has broad experience in the author’s genre. Because of that, a good publicist also has a list of contacts in relevant media industries and with outlets where their authors will benefit from coverage. A good publicist is familiar with media lead lists and is comfortable engaging in a variety of ways on social media. A good publicist works with authors to ensure authors articulate their goals, are best positioned to meet those goals, and are able to recognize—and celebrate—when those goals are met.
Publicists are an investment, and that, coupled with the sense that they aren’t really necessary for good books, means that they’re often overlooked. But smart authors know they can best sell a book the same way they wrote it: with the help of a team.
Giving a talk, presenting a slide deck, teaching a class, delivering a keynote, conducting an interview, and other performances often provoke uncomfortable anxiety. Whether it's a low-key motivator of a stronger performance or produces a more debilitating flight-or-flight response depends less on the presenter's personality and more on perception and preparation.
Although glossophobia (literally/delightfully, tongue (glosso) fear (phobia)), or speech anxiety, can manifest in uncomfortable ways, anxious performers can rejoice. Why? Because anxiety is mitigated by preparation, and preparation influences perception: When performers perceive themselves as well-prepared, they perform better.
We’ve discussed tools for presentation preparation, but there are also important tools for developing softer, interpersonal skills. For example, learning the efficacy of an artful pause can differentiate a compelling talk, presentation, lecture, speech, or interview from a “meh” one.
Periodically pausing in the midst of a performance opens up space for your audience to respond or ask questions or reflect, and it conveys your comfort with your material, even if the comfort isn’t real. Pausing helps to promote listening and depends on the ability to conclude, whether a thought, a main point, a response, a slide, or a speech.
Listening and concluding can be hard to master in a performance setting, partly because talking too much and too fast is a contextual symptom of anxiety. However, it’s so important to show your audience that you're comfortable inviting their scrutiny (and can withstand it) that preparation is worthwhile. Help yourself by using a word-to-time converter.
The tool’s purpose is straightforward: Input your word count and your talking speed, and converts it to time. Its import is clear for presentations, but the tool can help build response and reflection into any performance.
Presentations and other performances put you on display, suggesting a one-way delivery of information. But excellent and impactful presenters know that the best presentations are a shared experience by which both audience and presenter learn something. If anxiety inhibits your ability to deliver a best-level presentation, tools like words-to-time can help.
I loved Elizabeth Gilbert's Instagram post on the top-ten of effective writing.
Of her successful, audience-tested suggestions, a few merit special attention, especially #1: Tell your story TO someone; #4: Don't worry if it's good, just finish it; and #9: What gets you [to keep going on a writing project] is not pride but mercy.
Although Gilbert's expertise is in memoir and memoir-adjacent genres, every writer I know (including me) can benefit from the reminder that a story is always for someone. If you haven't yet determined their identity, it's you. Sometimes it makes sense to tell yourself your story, but the choice of audience will rigorously shape your delivery, so don't abrogate the power.
Of course, it's easy for a bestselling author to tell us that we shouldn't worry if our work is good. But Gilbert is right: Perfectionism is the enemy of good; the challenger of completion; the rival of fulfillment. Getting the words down on paper is often the hardest thing writers do, but words can be revised, refined, and rarefied. Simply put, if you can't get the words out, you can't make them good. End of story.
Because getting the words out is so hard, writers do well to show themselves and their work mercy. Writers often write in spite of the difficulty and weakness of words, in spite of their inevitably truncated expressions. But writers who learn to view their efforts as temporary rather than permanent failures are better prepared to view revision as a compulsory part of their work. Unlike the writer motivated by pride and tripped up by missteps, a compassionate writer already understands that their words will never be quite good enough: They aim instead to make the words as resonant and meaningful as possible.
Writing is hard, but as Gilbert intimates, it can also be easy: Just pick your story, your listener, and your words...and then keep going until you've reached the end.
The internet can be wild and wonderful marketplace, but it can be wily and—let’s get real—wretched, especially for an emptor who is not expert at cavere. Evidently, scams flourish in a personless exchange.
Most prospective self-published authors know to exercise caution when vetting publishing, marketing, or promotional schemes. But most will (and should) spend relatively significant sums on hiring help to write, edit, design, format, convert, print, market, promote, and distribute a book.
According to a recent NetGalley Insights post, reporting on a joint NetGalley and Independent Book Publishers Association survey of author-publishers, “the majority of authors spent between $1,000 and $6,000 on their books”:
Self-published authors may expect a front-end expense to actualize their ideas as books, but traditionally published authors can (and should) allocate funds for their books, too.
Traditionally published authors will receive an advance and/or royalties for their work, and these are more likely when an author has a finished (and excellent) manuscript in hand. Of course, completion takes time, and time, as discussed in a prior post, is discrete and therefore valuable.
While the advance (and/or royalties) can offset costs, it rarely compensates for time already spent, much less extras such as marketing and promotion beyond that offered by a traditional publishing house. That’s why traditional authors can benefit from building in a line item for marketing and promotion expenses, too.
Not all traditional authors will need or even want to spend money on a PR or other promotional plan, but quantifying the expense in a book budget can help make good on the time already invested.
Whether you subscribe to the manager’s lament that time is money or consider the matter more poetically, writing a book requires a budget—in terms of cash and commitment.
Most people know that writing a book takes a lot of time, but—ironically—foreknowledge doesn’t make reality less surprising. This is particularly true for authors who have been mulling over their ideas for years, have reached the now-or-never precipice of action, and are ready to work.
In the case of a book, the "work" is often slow and circuitous. It can take a long time to think of and test out ideas, outline and draft and revise and outline and draft and revise again, solicit readers and reviewers and editors, and efficiently integrate the best and most applicable feedback.
That's why our nonfiction authors take nine months to two years to develop an idea into a book that can be pitched to and secured by a traditional publishing contract. On average, our nonfiction authors who begin with an idea but not a draft work sixteen months before they are ready to approach publishers.
For memoir writers, the timeline can be longer. This might be because memoir writers, although they frequently arrive with a draft in hand, must do strategic work to identify and understand their audience. Further, unlike argument-based nonfiction, the parameters of memoir writing are nowhere near fixed. An author must decide which of the almost infinite moments that make up a life will meaningfully move readers.
The point of this post is not a reality check, though, I swear! Whether or not authors keep their expectations realistic is a moot point: The difficulty of finding time to write and then actually writing makes reality almost impossible to avoid.
The point of the post is to develop your book with a plan that budgets not just money (which I’ll discuss next) but hours, days, weeks, maybe months, possibly years. When you enter a line item for time, you make a wise investment.
In The Moves that Matter: A Chess Grandmaster on the Game of Life (slated for November release), Jonathan Rowson calls chess a meta-metaphor. He means that chess—in its constrained freedom, broad competition, and negotiated relationships—provides a library of comparisons to help us think deeply about life. But Rowson also claims that there’s a sense in which the metaphor of chess “has greater reality and resonance than the game itself” (13).
Rowson’s point deserves unpacking, which he capably does in his book, but it’s his identification of a metaphor’s practical power that matters here.
In etymological terms, metaphor breaks apart into meta-, for change, and phor, for carrying. It’s typically consigned to the literary, but it’s used powerfully (also pitiably) in public and political discourses—think of Trump’s expedient invocation of a “witch hunt” or his specious claim to “drain the swamp.”
While politicians know that well-chosen metaphors influence people’s opinions, research confirms that metaphors change behaviors, too. In the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers present a study focused on the continuation of preferred behaviors after goal completion. What, for example, helps people continue eating healthfully after completing a diet program? Or, what helps college students keep at their study habits after they've aced the test?
What did researchers find? The metaphor matters. Participants who considered their attainment of a goal as part of "journey" were more likely to continue the behaviors that brought about achievement. The two other participant groups—one of which considered goal attainment a "destination," and one of which applied no metaphor at all —demonstrated no such likelihood of continuing preferred behaviors.
While metaphors will almost always add panache to your work—be it a speech, an article, or a book—it turns out that they also help us reflect on our lives and, according to recent research, live better ones.
Last week, I mentioned the important communications processes that help keep tech writing projects running smoothly. This week, I want to reiterate their importance by rationalizing their use.
For most project participants (and general readers, too), communications processes are basic logistics management: They're in the background, they're boring, and they feel inconsequential.
However, if you’ve worked on a tech writing team (or any writing team), you know that projects often fall (gently or painfully) apart. Project managers forget to reply-all; SMEs miss their interviews; writers edit old versions; proofreaders fail to update and send out style guides.
Most of the time, the problems can be traced back to ineffective communications processes.
A successfully completed multimember team project (where “success” equals an excellent product and the mutual respect and good will of team members), requires a project lead, weekly team meetings, uniform file-naming system, and general team investment in the efficacy of the communications processes.
An identifiable and self-identified project lead updates everyone and holds everyone accountable. Without a recognizable lead, it's hard to identify a "team," and a project may not even get off the ground.
Weekly team meetings that are written into the project calendar make the project an obvious priority. Ad hoc meetings theoretically work, but the work calendar self-populates at a rigorous rate, and it’s almost always impossible—especially with far-flung team members—to schedule a meeting tomorrow that everyone can attend.
The utility of a rigorously used file-naming system is obvious. But it requires use and enforcement. If a project lead doesn’t establish and apply it, a file’s dead versions are resurrected and important updates get lost.
Boring? Maybe. But most definitely consequential. If you work on writing projects (or aspire to), do yourself a favor by establishing the communications processes that will make your project a success.
Partly because they’re team-based, partly because they’re produced over an extended period of time, and partly because production is iterative, tech writing projects require rock-solid communications processes to ensure completion.
Communications processes refer to the ways that team members provide reviews, comments, revisions, approvals, and updates. Sounds (somewhat) simple, but a typical white paper often includes a client, a project lead, one or two writers, two or three subject-matter experts, and an SME liaison (sometimes affectionately called the “wrangler”). This 7- or 8-person team may start their project on the same page, but when a file is misnamed or misplaced, or an SME interview is missed or mis-scheduled, the project can easily run off track.
Wayward writing projects stretch scope, but they also stretch the patience of participants, which can be even more frustrating.
To help mitigate mishaps associated with files or individual schedules (because they can never be completely avoided), establish a sound communications process while setting the project scope. This means:
Next-level communications processes include ensuring team members cc the communication lead on all emails, putting Zoom or other conferencing info numbers and links in all project-specific emails, and sending out a weekly project calendar with relevant updates.
Implementing and practicing effective communications processes can be arduous, but by helping to navigate the pitfalls that throw projects off track, rock-solid communications ease the load and lead to quicker completion.
If you’ve ever looked to produce a yearly report, a white paper, a series of tech sheets, or any other project that falls under the broad and rather complicated category of “tech writing,” you’ve probably felt overwhelmed and unsure about where to start. This post can help.
Approaching and efficiently delivering any tech writing project is a big job. However, it’s a job worth learning more about because it can encompass many different projects, can be enormously beneficial across a range of business, and can resonate with a variety of audiences.
In this post, I’ll discuss some of the best approaches to effective and efficient tech writing. In posts to follow, I’ll identify useful tools to aid execution and completion.
Starting and finishing tech writing projects depends on setting scope, communicating progress, soliciting feedback, and submitting or publishing the final work.
Setting a rigorous scope constitutes the first step, and it is key. When you set a scope for a tech writing project, you determine:
Although tech writing projects are built to suit, with a prefigured topic and audience, it's still important to explicitly identify every project's topic and readership.
The identification is necessary because most tech writing projects are produced by a team, often with an outside writer. Ensuring that every team member knows what they're writing about (and for whom) ensures consistency. It also helps project leads get as specific as possible about their marketing objectives: After all, a tech-based Q&A offered as a download on a business’s website reaches a different audience than the same content published through a trade organization.
Setting scope also requires identifying subject matter experts (SMEs) who can contribute objective and evidence-based material. Designating SMEs before a project begins—and often bringing them into the process of setting scope—can gain their timely and invested participation.
Finally, setting scope requires a calendar and schedule. There’s really no way around the fact that tech writing is an iterative process, and each iteration requires review. Identifying the team and gaining their early buy-in can help manage touchpoint fatigue (aka, “You need me to look at this again?”). Creating a granular schedule can ensure maximum efficiency. When SMEs and others can anticipate the commitment required from the jump, they can better rise to their role.
Setting scope is the most important step in completing tech writing projects. Sharing the scope ensures that objectives are met, that SMEs understand and anticipate their commitment, and that the project moves along as efficiently as possible.
English PhD, former arts administrator, obsessive cook, native East Coaster, mom to two rabblerousers.
English PhD, former high school teacher, obsessive organizer, native Midwesterner, mom to three troublemakers.