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The Process Of Writing A Book: Creating And Gathering Content (Part 2)


This is the second in a series of articles about how my husband Andrew and I wrote the Bike Touring Survival Guide. See the other parts here.

When we decided to write a book, we had no idea how complicated the actual writing stage would be, and how many different components it would have. Here are the various stages we went through:

Creating A Table Of Contents – This was a crucial first step. By creating a solid Table of Contents (ToC) we were able to weed out exactly what did and didn’t belong in the book, and we had a plan for which chapters to write. Without a ToC or draft outline, it would be too easy to get distracted, writing things that weren’t really necessary. Drafting a ToC took about a week. Every day we would come back to it, change a few things, compare with other books, and then step back and take a break from it again.

Writing Chapters – With a ToC to work from, we were ready to start writing. Whenever we had time to write, we picked a topic from the ToC and focused on that section. We didn’t write the book in order, but chose chapters as we felt inspired to write them.

Soliciting Additional Content – As we wrote, we were constantly on the lookout for writing by other people that fit the same themes in our book. When we found a quote or story that was particularly good, we would write the person and ask permission to quote them in the book. We did the same for photographs. In all cases, we promised full credit, including a link back to any relevant website. No one ever declined our requests and most people openly expressed willingness to help. By gathering so much content from many different voices, we felt we were building a much stronger book.

Content Review (stealth) - Inspired by Nina Simon, we often used our blog, Facebook and Twitter groups as a sounding board for ideas or chapters that we were struggling with. We would post about the topic, and see how readers reacted. This helped us decide which topics were particularly important to readers and often a reader would offer a tip, angle or situation that we hadn’t thought of.

Content Review (solicited) – No good book is written by the authors alone. Behind the book is a whole crew of editors, graphic designers and publishing professionals. As self-publishers, we didn’t have the muscle power of a big organisation behind us but we did approach other people who we respected to review the book and share their thoughts. Even though some of these people could be considered as competitors, they were all incredibly helpful and in all cases we felt people went further than we expected. Often, we would ask them only for feedback on one specific aspect of the book, but they would read the whole thing and return to us with many helpful tips and suggestions for improvements.

Finding Photographs – In most cases, we had enough photos from our own bike touring stash that we could use in the book but occasionally another photo would speak to us, or there was a topic we couldn’t illustrate on our own. In this case, we once again turned to the power of the internet community. We used Flickr and the Compfight tool to identify relevant Creative Commons images with a license for commercial use. If we wanted to use a photo that didn’t have the appropriate license, we contacted the photographer and asked for permission. Sometimes we also wrote companies and asked permission to use a corporate photo or diagram that was particularly helpful. These requests were almost always granted.

Editing - Editing was almost as challenging as writing the book. Chapters that we thought were perfect seemed full of errors and loose writing when we returned to them weeks later. It quickly became clear to us that editing our book would take a significant amount of time (about 3 months as it turned out).

As we edited, we tried to question everything we had written to make sure we had examined all the angles, and that we hadn’t written anything based purely on our own assumptions, rather than fact or experience. We also tried to read the book out of order because by this point we were so familiar with that it if we read a section from start to finish, the reading process was too automatic – we didn’t see the errors.

Sometimes it helped to read the book out loud to ourselves because this forced us to think about every word. Editing also meant shortening several paragraphs, and making sure we hadn’t said the same thing in two different places.

General Writing & Editing Tips

As we wrote, we learned a few things about the writing process that helped us to be more efficient and write better. If we could give you some advice about writing, we’d tell you to:

1. Set Aside Special Writing Time – To write well, you have to make time to do just that. This means getting away from Facebook, Skype, Twitter, screaming kids, television and anything else that might distract you. Have a day where you only write, and if people ask you to do other things on that day, tell them you’re booked. Otherwise, your book will keep getting pushed to the back burner and never be finished. On writing days, Andrew often fixed up Friedel’s computer so it couldn’t connect to the internet. The distraction was gone, and a lot more got done!

2. Get A Notebook – Ideas will come to you at the strangest moments, and usually not when you are at the computer. Keep a notebook handy and write them down as they pop into your head. If you don’t have a place to write them down, you’ll lose them by the next time you sit down to write.

3. Don’t Edit As You Write – Leave any editing work until you have a complete draft of the book. It’s more important at first to just get your ideas down. When you have all the gaps in the book filled in, you can then start to rearrange content, cut down certain chapters and add things like bold titles or bullet points.

4. Save, Save, Save Your Work - It should almost go without saying but a book is a huge undertaking and you don’t want to lose it! Save your work constantly and back it up somewhere other than on your computer (we used Dropbox and our own server as two back-up places).

5. Stay Organised – As you gather more and more material, it’s easy to create a little pocket of chaos on your computer, with photos, half-finished chapters and outlines of ideas. Be religious about organising these things into folders. We had one for each chapter, with a subfolder for images related to each chapter. Staying organised doesn’t only help while you are writing. It also become critical during the layout process.

6. Have A Firm Date As A Goal – Decide when you want to finish your book and circle that date on the calendar. This will help keep you focused. Of course, you don’t want to be so rushed that you do a poor job of writing but without a date, a book is likely to drag on forever. Having a date also allows you to plan other things around the book launch (promotions, reviews, etc..) and forces you to think if a certain time of year might be better than another to launch your book. For example, we choose April because it is the time of year when a lot of people are getting ready for summer bicycle tours.

What Next?
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