SYWTWAB 6: Wrandom Writing Wrules


March 12, 2007

This is the sixth of a series of personal notes to people who may be thinking of writing (or who have embarked upon writing) a book. You’ll be able to find them all (eventually) by selecting the tag Writing A Book. In no particular order:

Work Where it Works

Writing is difficult. Part of the trick of writing is to be able to focus on the writing itself—there’s no point making things harder than they already are. So choose your writing environment carefully, and defend it when necessary.

So just what is a good writing environment? You tell me—everyones’ is different. Some folks I know go down the local coffee shop and blitz out chapters. Other people go to the park. Some write in bed while waiting to go to sleep.

I personally look for an environment where I know I won’t be disturbed. It isn’t good enough that I don’t get disturbed—I have to know that the interruptions aren’t going to happen. Without that, part of my brain is constantly scanning the background, waiting for the e-mail ping or the IM window to pop open. So, when I sit down for a writing session, I kill off all my network applications. I put the phone on DND, and I close the door. The risk of being disturbed drops and my productivity rises.

For this same reason I find I’m really productive is on airplanes: I stick the earphones in and I can churn out page after page.

It really doesn’t matter what environment works for you. Experiment until you find one, and then use it.

Stay Out of Lay Out

Many authors claim that they want to see the final format of the book as they write it. I don’t agree. Remember the underlying axiom: writing is difficult. Why make it doubly so by simultaneously worrying about form and content?

Assuming you’re using a decent tool for creating your book, you’ll be using logical markup. You won’t be saying “set this word in Courier.” Instead, you’ll use markup to say “this word represents a variable name.” If that’s the case layout is simply a matter of associating sectioning and character markup with the appropriate layout elements. You book can change appearance many times without changing anything in the content. With this kind of system, your job is to use the correct markup as you enter content. This lets a designer work on the layout in parallel. It’s just another case of separating concerns to make life easier.

A Time to Write

In some ways, writing a book is like going to the gym. It’s hard work and it feels better when it’s over.

To help us go to the gym, most people have some kind of schedule: they go before work, Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; or they go whenever American Idol is on (the latter folks are fit.) Having a schedule means that you feel an obligation to go. It also means you tend not to schedule other things at the same time, which gives you one less excuse to skip a session.

Do the same with your writing. Pick a schedule for writing and stick to it. Some folks like to set their alarm clocks a couple of hours early and write before the rest of their house gets up. Some folks write after everyone else goes to bed. Or you can write on Sunday afternoons and Wednesday mornings. The key things are to (a) agree a schedule with those around you, (b) make sure it is practical to use your ideal writing environment during those times, and (c) to use those times to get some writing down. An entry in a diary doesn’t get you fitter; time spent exercising does.

End at the Beginning

One of the biggest mistakes new writers make is to start their book by entering “Chapter 1: Introduction” into their editor. No one really knows what their book will contain when they start out, so writing an introduction to it is really pretty futile. Make life easy for yourself and write the introduction last.

So, where should you start? Assuming you’ve already written the throw-away prose while finding your voice, I think you’re best off choosing a chapter where you feel at home with the material. Belt it out, and then move on to something else fairly straightforward. Make sure you have the voice business nailed cold. Show what you’re written to some friends. Get into the swing.

Then change gears. You’ve mastered the writing part. Now look at the content. Is there some area where you don’t feel so confident, or where you need to do some research? Now’s the time to get that out of the way. Tackle the difficult stuff while you’re still relatively fresh. You’ll find it easier to do now than later. And, more importantly, you won’t have it hanging over you while you write. Getting the difficult stuff down also gives others longer to review it.

Cut and Paste is Your Friend

No one gets it totally right when they plan a large project. You always discover things that you thought went here, but that work better over there. So don’t get overly protective of your outline.

As you gain experience with your book, take every opportunity to look at your content and ask whether it is flowing the way you’d like. Cut out text that doesn’t fit. If you know where it belongs, paste it into the new chapter. But don’t try to put it in exactly the right place. Instead, paste it at the very top of the chapter and flag it somehow. Then get on with writing what you were writing originally—don’t break your flow. Then, at some point in the future, you can go back and knit the orphaned piece of text into its new home.

I keep a special dummy chapter available for snippets that don’t seem to have a home. As the book developer, I periodically look to see if any of these snippets might add value to any existing content, moving them into place if they do. I’m not particularly sad if I finish a book and find the bucket still has stuff in it: books are ruined by authors trying to add every single idea they have to the flow.


Never, ever, write in a vacuum. Show your work to people: friends, colleagues, reviewers. Check with your publisher to see how they want to handle this, but get feedback early, and get it often. If you work with a publisher who offers a beta book program (where books are released as works in progress), see if you can take advantage of it: releasing your book to the general readership early will generate a tremendous amount of feedback.

Save and Archive Often

It’s almost embarrassing to have to say this, but please make sure you back up your book. When the Pragmatic Bookshelf signs a new book, we create a new project for the book’s files in our Subversion version control repository. As the author creates and edits content for the book, we strongly encourage them to commit these changes to the repository, multiple times a day. That way, if they have a hard drive failure they won’t lose their work: it’ll tucked away securely on our servers.

Other publishers may not offer a Subversion repository for your work. If that’s the case, I strongly recommend you set up something similar for yourself. At the very least, get into the habit of archiving your writing onto some external machine or external media on a regular basis. Ideally, keep the content in a version control system.

Use Cross References as Placeholders

Although I’ve written about this before before, I’d like to mention it again. Use cross references as placeholders for content you haven’t written yet.

Outline the Plot, not the Paragraphs

It’s just natural: people like lists. And all the conventional wisdom tells writers to produce outlines for their books. So many writers take this to heart, producing long, deeply nested notes that tell them what each paragraph in a chapter should contain.

If this works for you, do it. But don’t feel that strict outlining is necessary. When I write, I start each chapter with a simple list of the things I want the reader to learn by the time they get to the end. I then sort them into an order which seems to make sense as a narrative. Then I replace each item with a section or subsection of prose. I find that this scheme gives me the skeleton I need for a chapter, but it also gives me the flexibilitiy I need when fleshing it out.

This list just scratches the surface—there are whole books on writing tricks. As yo’re starting out, ask your editor for their ideas. Search out more experienced authors and see what they do.

Writing a book is difficult. Don’t make it harder than it has to be.