Writing a book: Process and progress

March 6, 2020
Topics: Update | Writing

I’m not quite sure where the idea for this book started. I have a feeling I was chatting generally about what I might write and said something like “I’ve done a lot of design thinking workshops this year – I could probably do something on that”.

The idea took hold. I thought there was likely to be value to people in learning how to facilitate workshops. And I’d certainly facilitated enough. The thing I wasn’t sure about was – did I actually have any substance to write? I’m entirely a self-taught facilitator. I’ve been standing at the front of groups just about forever, either in a workshop teaching setting, or a design workshop setting. I know a ton of workshop methods. And my workshops seem to go well – I sometimes have a fail, but can usually figure out what went wrong.

So I knew I’d have two challenges writing this book:

1. Unpicking what I did without thinking, to write about it and teach it

2. Making sure I was actually ‘right’ – that what I do is good and worthwhile teaching to others.

The hypothesis

My first step was writing up a background of what the book was. I wrote the context (what the world looks like), a hypothesis (what problem do I think I’m solving) and a description of the book. This also included what the book wouldn’t be (it wouldn’t be a methods book, it wouldn’t be a general facilitation book).

This sounded OK. I didn’t do anything with this other than have it for me and read it occasionally.

I started telling people the idea when they asked what I was going to write and *everyone* was enthusiastic.

So that was a good sign.

The outline

Next step was to knock out an outline. What would the key points be. Note, this isn’t headings, this is key points, then loosely structured.

That also looked OK.

The research

Because I wasn’t confident that I was ‘doing it right’ I thought I should do some research. So I bought a bunch of facilitation books and read them. As I went, I added extra points to my outline.

This was good. There are some pretty decent facilitation books around. There isn’t one that covers what I’m covering. And, turns out…I think my experience is probably better than some of the already published books.

So that was good too.

The hard part: Actually writing

That was all pretty easy, but eventually I finished the easy research-y part and had to do the next step. I actually had to write.

I procrastinated a bit. I rebuilt my website. I built a new website for a seekrit project (one that’s related). I built kiddo a website.

Then I had a call with the publisher, and decided I had better put some words in a line.

I was wondering what kind of tone I would take with this book. Would it be chatty, a bit formal, would I tell stories or just give principles.

You know, the only way to figure this out is to start. So I started.

Time for writing

I start my day with a block of time for writing. Straight after breakfast and before I open any social media on my computer.

Here’s my word count progress:

Progress of writing - words per day ranges between 300 and 2000, cumulative words is close to 10000

I honestly started by putting my fingers on the keyboard and writing.

  • Day 1 I wrote the intro (I did nothing but write for this block).
  • Day 2 I wrote about setting goals (I wrote this straight from my head, then checked a couple of sources to see if I had missed anything obvious).
  • Day 3 I wrote about planning the workshop structure, people and location. 1246 words. 1 hour, out of my head (my outline was really good, so this was easy)

Then I had a couple of week gap while I worked with a client (Yay! Work! Money!). After this I had to change my routine as I had a 7:45am standup with a remote team, and wasn’t going to get up so early that I could write before my client day.

  • Day 4 (of writing) I worked for half an hour and finished the content about planning. I didn’t want to start a new topic, so did some other work.
  • Day 4 I came back for another half hour to start writing about the workshop itself. Smashed through 700 words in half an hour, only to realise that I had written all about managing people instead of the workshop structure. Luckily that was content I needed anyway! But it does show up the disadvantage of my ‘just write it’ approach as I may end up writing stuff I don’t need.
  • Day 5 was pretty decent. I wrote the whole section on workshop structure in 2 sessions – another 1700 or so words.
  • Day 6 was blah – by now we were in COVID-19 lockdown, I hadn’t really left the house for 2 weeks and was not feeling amazing. Writing words was like pulling teeth. But I persisted as I needed to get words onto the page so I could work with them later.
  • Day 7 felt blah – I was still distracted. And I was up to the part about managing people, which was tricky. But somehow I wrote 1400 words in a bit over an hour. I suspect they are not very good words.
  • Day 8. I was very sick of sitting in the same chair, staring out the same window. So I took my laptop down to my bottom balcony (I have 3 lovely balconies that I don’t use enough) and wrote with the laptop on my actual lap, with no internet connection. Best day yet – 1850 words in just over an hour, and I think they’re probably pretty good.

That’s actually the bulk of the first cut of words written. There are a couple of things on my to-read list that I’ll do over the weekend, and next week will be the second writing and making this thing actually good.

  • Day 9: Read a book. Added a couple of points to the draft.

Writing observations

I use the pomodoro technique for any kind of focused work (25 minutes work, 5 minutes break where I get out of my chair, no exceptions, no running tasks into each other). I write easily for about 18 minutes (that’s about when I’ll check I have the timer running), feel clumsy for about three minutes, edit for a couple of minutes. Without fail. I have never been mid-sentence when the timer finished. I know that if I attempted to write in longer blocks, it would just be bad work.

I can manage about 1.5 hours in a block. After that, I feel like I’ve run out of words. I can switch to book-related administrative tasks, but I can’t continue writing. I can attempt another block after lunch (as long as I’ve eaten and taken a good, long lunch break).

First edit

I took a few weeks off to edit the other book I’m writing, and returned for the really hard work in this book – wrangling it into shape. It took me a week, with a couple of hours a day. I moved things around in the structure, rewrote a lot because the structure was different, moved things more, rewrote some more. At the end of it, the book looked like a book, not a pile of rough thoughts. It felt mostly like someone would be able to read from front to back and not feel like it was out of order.

The other thing that happened here was that I realised I had quite a lot of content about planning workshops, which was needed for context and also because the facilitation part doesn’t stand alone (not in a book at least). So the rough title might need to change. But I’ll figure that out later.

Post-feedback edit

I sent the book out to some folks to get their feedback. Feedback is always interesting. The main things I learned were:

  • there are some really good tips and tricks that readers had never considered (it’s good to have great aha moments)
  • I had been inconsistent and a bit confusing about design thinking generally
  • there was something not working with the structure – a couple of places didn’t seem in the right order
  • less experienced folks wanted more around workshop methods

In that period, I also wrote a talk, which helped me think about structure some more. With feedback in the document, I moved a bunch of stuff around in an outline and it looks better.

I had told someone that the thing that always happened when I wrote was that I always started off writing procedurally and sequentially, and when editing, it always re-arranges itself to be structured around principles and topics. I can see that happening with this restructure – it is starting to look a lot better when it’s less procedural, and ideas hang together better (the problem with procedural is where to talk about something – do you talk about it in the ‘planning a workshop’ section and risk blowing that out, or do you talk about it in ‘running a workshop’ and have people miss important ideas when planning).