8 Things I Learned Working On A Book

In my post discussing the successes and failures of my 2010 goals I mentioned having written a chapter of a book. I thought I’d share a few thoughts about how I came to write that chapter and what I learned from writing part of a book.

At the time of that 2010 post, the book was yet unreleased and I didn’t want to be more specific so as not to interfere with any marketing planned for the book. The book (Smashing Book 2 from Smashing Magazine) is available now and includes a chapter from yours truly.

There’s a free sample chapter (PDF) available, though it’s not my chapter.

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How I Came to Write a Chapter

About a year and a half ago I started submitting my posts to a number of sites in the design community that accept submissions for community news. Apparently my content stood out a little from the usual submissions as several people contacted me to write guest posts for them leading to more people seeing my posts.

Early last year, Vitaly Friedman, the owner of Smashing Magazine approached me to write a guest post for the site. I guess the post went over well enough since I was asked to write another. A month or two later Vitaly asked if I’d be interested in working on a study of ecommerce sites for a project he was thinking of getting started.

That project was put off, but we thought the study would work for Smashing Book 2. There are 2 lessons here.

  • When creating content, create the best content you can
  • No matter how great your content you need to give it a little push to get the attention of others

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The Ecommerce Study

The basic idea was to analyze about 50 ecommerce sites in order to understand how they make use of different design patterns. For example how long is the typical checkout process and how many top level categories are used to organize products.

We looked at a number of different aspects of designing and developing an ecommerce site, recorded the data in a spreadsheet, and grouped the analysis under the following categories

The chapter was something of a departure from what I usually write and I thought it would be an interesting challenge and an opportunity to learn something new.

Some of the data collected was exactly as expected, such as nearly all sites allowing you to search products. Other things like the number of top level categories went against common wisdom.

Illustration of someone wearing a dunce cap writing on a blackboard

What I Learned

Naturally I learned something about how ecommerce sites are designed and developed, though that’s not what I want to talk about here. If you’re interested in what the study revealed you should pick up a copy of the book.

What I want to talk about here is what I learned in general about writing a chapter for a book.

Writing A Chapter is Harder than Writing a Blog Post

Not that maintaining a blog is easy, but writing something much longer than a blog post requires more planning, more research, more writing, more of everything really.

The chapter took quite a bit longer to write than I expected and much of my time last summer was spent working on it. Some days it was the last thing I wanted to do. Fortunately a few deadlines kept me pushing through to the end.

I’m Capable of Writing a Book

Writing a book sounds like a daunting challenge and like I just said even a chapter is hard work. A book is a lot of words to come up with. Writing a chapter was a bridge between a blog post and a book.

I think the final chapter is about 10.000 words, but that’s only because an additional 10,000 were cut. Many of those cut words were a natural part of the editing process, but a few sections were eventually removed for space considerations.

Having written 20,000 words I feel more confident I can write 50,000 or 100,000 or whatever it takes to write a full book.

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Planning is Important

You can’t wing 10,000 or 20,000 words. Well maybe you could, but it’s better to have an idea what you’re going to write before you start.

There were so many different ways the chapter could have been organized. Vitally and I went back and forth a few times deciding what aspects of the sites we should look at for analysis.

Some things that sounded interesting (what platform was the site developed on) were harder to determine than we originally thought, while others though easy to discover (choice of typeface) didn’t really fit with the general idea.

Flexibility is Important

While planning was important, much of what was eventually analyzed only came about after a first pass at analyzing the sites. Each round of data collection led to a few things that we thought would be an interesting part of the study.

About half of what we eventually looked at wasn’t on our initial list and only came about through an iterative process of looking through the sites several times.

We let the research and data collection shape the chapter and allowed it to grow organically.

Blank spiral notebook

The Writing Process Makes for Great Learning

Some things I would have guessed before the study and other things surprised me. Among the later was how many conservative brands are using social sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Even more I learned how to do a study like this and it’s given me ideas for other studies I might put together. I assume I’ll be able to do these studies quicker and easier the second time around.

I haven’t looked at any ecommerce site since quite the same way. The study usually stays with me while shopping online and especially when I’m developing an ecommerce site. Some of the lessons from the study have found their way into my work making me a better developer of ecommerce sites.

Writing for Different Audiences and Formats Expands Your Writing Chops

I’ve written for audiences other than all of you before, but this is the first time I’ve written something this large for print.

There were different considerations for both audience and medium, from something as simple as needing higher quality images to modifying my writing style.

The more you can step out of your comfort zone as a writer (or a designer), the more your skills improve. We all fall into routines and rely on things that have worked in the past. In many ways that’s a good thing, but it also means you don’t grow as a writer or designer.

Copyediting marks

Working with an Editor Brings a New Perspective

For most of my writing my only editor is me. That’s a lot different than having someone else edit your writing. I’ve worked with an editor before on some shorter articles, but not to this extent.

It’s interesting to see how your words aren’t quite as clear as you think at times and it’s something to see large chunks of you writing removed. Parts of the process were invaluable for improving my writing and parts of the process were hard to accept. Overall it was a great learning experience.

An editor will provide much more feedback than you normally receive on your writing and offer a different perspective.

Vitally and the Staff at Smashing Magazine are Truly Great People

I knew this before, but wanted to specifically mention it here. I can tell you that Smashing Magazine is dedicated to creating the best content they can.

You may or may not like everything they publish, but I can assure you their goal is always to produce the best content they can and the people there are a joy to work with.

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Summary

Like I said the book is now available. Most of you probably read Smashing Magazine so I may not be telling you something you don’t already know. You may not have realized I was one of the contributors to the book though.

Writing my chapter was a lot of work. Some days it was the last thing I wanted to do, but I knew I had to push ahead. Overall it was a great experience and one that I’ll be able to draw from while working on a full book, which I hope to get started this summer. Wish me luck.

Hopefully the chapter turned out well. I did my best, though it’s sometimes hard for me to know how my writing will be received. As I mentioned the chapter was also something of a departure for me, which makes it a little harder to know what others will think.

If you did buy and read the book or are planning to, I’d certainly appreciate some feedback. Send me an email and let me know the good and bad so I can do better next time.

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

12 comments

  1. Love the thorough posts, even when the subject matter may not be the most interesting one for me, I find myself reading through it all and always picking up new bits of worthy information. Keep up the proper blogging!

  2. I found this post particularly interesting because I am currently working on a post which argues that one of the reasons why books are important in the age of blogs is the content is more thoroughly developed and edited. Your chapter writing experience is great confirmation of that premise.

    • Thanks David. Good timing on my part, huh?

      I think the same about books. Not to knock blogs, but let’s face it, most blog posts are quick things that are tossed out there with little research or editing, etc.. I tend to write longer form posts and do spend time researching, editing, etc., but it’s still nothing compared to what you have to put in for a chapter or a what I imagine it will be for a complete book.

  3. You’re quite prolific updating this site – surely you have enough blog posts here you could combine into an ebook? Just bang in a new opening chapter and a closing chapter, do a bit of general editing to make the each chapter flow into the other and, viola, you have your ebook! I realize it’s not that easy, but surely you have enough material squirreled away here for one hell of an ebook.

    • Thanks Alex. I try.

      What I was thinking for a book was to take a lot of posts here and use them as rough drafts. Even though I keep saying I haven’t worked on a book at all, I have chosen to write posts over the last year or two specifically because I thought the topic would find its way into a book. I want to rewrite those posts and then add more imagery as example.

      I want to do more than collect the posts and just rewrite them to go together since the people most likely to buy the book would be people who’ve probably read many of the posts. I want to be able to offer something more so no one is paying money to read what’s they might have already read.

      But yeah, the plan is to go through what’s here and use it as a rough draft for what I hope becomes a book.

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