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Learnings from writing my first book

I’ve been writing a book recently. More of a training manual than a great novel of our times but the process has been intense. It’s been about six months worth of regular work, spread over a period of 15 months and it’s been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

It’s certainly not been a journey of linear progression but eventually I’ve made it. In case you’re planning something similar or want to know what it all entails, here’s how I got there and the key lessons I learned along the way. It’s out very soon by the way and if you’re into learning UX design and skilling up you should check it out.

The initial surge

Book writing progress 1

I had wanted to write a book for a while, even if only as one of those big audacious goals to aim for. It’s always good to set these things up as a target to keep you hungry. It took a few things to come together at the same time to make me think I could actually do it.

Firstly in mid-2014 I discovered and read Nathan Barry’s book, Authority. An ebook about how you can make real money from self-publishing ebooks and his process for successfully doing so. He heavily promotes the idea of teaching what you know as if it’s useful, people will want to know about it.

Secondly I had recently begun teaching an occasional workshop at this point, entitled Data-Driven UX Design on a Budget. A workshop I put together from scratch about the processes I learned as a sole UX designer in a rapidly growing start-up. It was going down well with students but it was only taught in-person in London. I figured it would be something that more people would want to hear about and a book was a good way of doing this.

Thus I had my subject and I was ready to get writing. Nathan promotes the idea of writing every day to quickly build up the words. The idea is to plan the structure out and then get down whatever you feel about writing about that day, without stopping to correct things. It was June 2014 and this actually turned out to be pretty easy. With the combination of my girlfriend being halfway round the world for three weeks and light summer mornings, I was able to get up before work and write for half an hour a day.

I made good progress and after being on holiday in July I had got up to about 20,000 words by August. I was aiming for 30,000 and so was on course for my rough target of getting it done by the end of the year.

The loss of steam

Book writing progress 2

Summer turned to Autumn and the initial enthusiasm waned. My writing slowed down and whilst I managed to reach the 30,000 word mark sometime in October, I was writing less and less. The book now felt so big and I hadn’t even said everything I wanted to say. Somewhere along the way I had lost the thread of book and it was hard to know what I should be writing next.

The subject matter was pretty broad with a lot to cover and I was no longer sure exactly who I was writing this for. This was lesson one learned: be clear throughout who your audience are and have them in your mind when writing. If you lose track of who they are and their ability level then your instructions can become muddled. This had happened and it would take me a while to solve it.

On top of this life gets in the way as other things become priority, work gets busy, events and personal things pop up etc. Of course this is always a challenge but becomes more so when you don’t have a deadline to work towards. So lesson two: if you actually serious about doing a project like writing a book, you need a plan and a structure. My landing page had picked up a paltry seven interested people. So I bumped the launch date to ‘early 2015’ and the book fell onto the back burner to hibernate for winter.

Slimming down

Book writing progress 3

Roll on spring 2015 and I change in my work situation. I started freelancing in April and one of my aims in doing so was to release this book and give myself more time to work on these kind of projects.

Not a whole lot of work happened in the first couple of months as setting up a business means doing a lot of little tasks and context switching. This is not conducive to writing. I did print off everything I had done up to that point in an attempt to come at the project afresh and try and understand how to structure it.

At this stage I made a big product decision, which formed lesson three. Up until this point the book covered how to use quantitative data, qualitative data, and A/B testing in UX design. I was finding there was a lot to say about each of them. I decided to take the MVP approach and I realised that if I was to actually get something out I should streamline it, so I decided to write a smaller book tackling the first third of quant data. This also gave me the benefit of turning my book into a trilogy and who doesn’t love one of them? I was already more motivated at achieving this.

Around this time Nathan Barry re-released Authority so I decided to make a commitment that I was going to complete this and paid for a consultation with him to get his experienced eye on what I was doing. Two more key lessons came out of this. The first (or lesson four) was that name for the book had got a bit vague. For some reason I was calling it ‘Data Enhanced Design’, which he pointed out wasn’t that snappy and and failed to tie it to the workshop. The other (and lesson five in total) was that I should stop working on the book and I should focus on building an audience or I wouldn’t have anyone to sell to. I knew this was important but was kind of hoping it would take care of itself, when it is in fact probably the part that needs the most work.

I had just started blogging weekly at this point and my mailing list stood at 50 people. I wanted to launch in September and I would need a much bigger audience to give myself a chance of selling a copy or two. I knew I needed to find my voice in blogging so I was writing all sorts to see what got good traffic (including articles about celebrity websites...). Encouragingly the articles featuring content from my book were out-performing everything else. I finally realised what I should regularly write about was my practical advice on actually doing lean, data-driven, and remote UX design and this would grow an audience interested in the same.

Getting to launch

Book writing progress 4

With the mailing list picking up and blog traffic growing, in late July 2015 I began once more working on the book. At this point my girlfriend has been invaluable at copy editing and bringing a fresh eye to the content. She’s written a Phd so has experience with long technical writing and she’s also good at making sense of my messily constructed sentences. So lesson six is find someone willing to read and critique your content to help you strengthen it.

I also had just finished teaching the General Assembly part-time UX design course and realised the students here were the kind of people who could be the audience for my book. They understood how the UX design process worked and several of them now wanted to learn how to add data to the mix. I had finally landed on a tangible audience I could refer to when thinking about whether what I was writing made sense (see lesson one).

However, getting a self-published book over the line features a lot of tasks. On top of printing off the content again to double check the structure and formatting there was designing the layout in iBooks Author. I also made sure to get some interested people to test read the content and give some honest feedback. Then there was the sales side, which involves registering with a payment provider, writing up a sales page, copy-checking the sales page, building the sales page, and continuing to promote it. Lesson seven would be give yourself time to work on the non-book writing tasks. I set aside two weeks to do these things and it easily filled it.

Finally I also wanted to offer a complete package. Something as training-based as this felt natural to have a version with videos showing how to do the practical steps I write about. It’s valuable to have it all written down for reference but some people will learn better by watching. Planning, recording, and editing screencasts to provide this content to those who wanted this extra level of help was another important task.

To conclude, I’ve made it and I’ve made something I’m proud of. It’s released on 29 September 2015. Fortunately I’m not put off doing this again and I plan to complete the trilogy. In fact I want to do it better next time. I have no idea how many hours I spent working on this book so my efficiency-obsessed side wants me to repeat this in a much more structured way. I’ll definitely have it out in less than 15 months! If you're interested then sign up to my newsletter to hear how that one comes along.

Last updated on 5 April 2017

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