I remember it as if it was yesterday. It was 2000 – 2001. I was working at Lucent (Bell Labs) at the time when the telecommunications bubble burst and I was laid off from my job. Along with thousands of others across the industry.
Lucent had a development center on the campus of NC State here in Raleigh, NC. There were ~300 folks that worked there and we were all let go.
But it was a protracted departure, as the process took about 3-months for everyone to pack up and leave the building in waves. I was one of the leaders who stayed until the very end and turned off the lights. Lucky me.
I had a lot of idle time and I started to write a book to fill that space. It wasn’t something I’d planned, but it was a topic that I had some passion around (and thoughts to share). The book became Software Endgames, which was eventually published by Dorset House in 2004.
Since then, I’ve self-published three books related to agile topics. One of them, Scrum Product Ownership, is in it’s 3’rd Edition.
People often ask me for advice around writing. Usually, it’s related to how to get started. Sometimes the discussion is around their ambition to write a book. While I don’t consider myself an expert in either space, I decided to share my learnings in this 3-part article series. I hope you find some value in it.
Why I started writing?
But first, let’s start with why I began writing. I’ve often told people this, but it’s a little embarrassing to make it so public.
My primary reason for starting to write is that…I basically sucked as a writer. I was a manager/leader in organizations and an introvert. So, my verbal communications in groups was a struggle. And to compound things, my business writing skills were terrible.
As is my style, I like to confront my weaknesses. Therefore, I began to speak in public in the late 1990’s and I also began to write.
Fast forward to today and I still feel my speaking is only above average and my writing has moved slightly beyond mediocre. But I keep doing both and (I believe) I keep getting a little bit better every year.
Now let’s explore some advice that I hope inspires you to figure out your own why and then inspires you to write!
Need to be Expert?
One thing I want to assert is that you don’t have to be an “expert” to write.
Sure, you have to have some experience in the subject matter you’re writing about. And yes, you’ll need stories to share. But I think there’s this notion that – I can’t write a blog, article, or book until I’m “expert” in the subject. And that will take me forever to achieve.
I believe this is a form of Imposter Syndrome that is trying to prevent good people, with solid experience, from writing and sharing.
Don’t fall into that trap!
I can’t tell you how many people I run into who ask me about writing a book. And one of the first things I tell them is that – it’ a LOT of work. You have to translate your passion and ideas into a committed stream of effort that in effect keeps you writing.
I believe I once heard a figure that out of every 100 folks who start to write a book, only 1-2 actually complete it. This resonates with me. I also suspect there’s an even larger number who talk about writing a book and never actually start.
And forget about writing a book, just getting started writing anything can be a struggle.
I think one of the keys is to start. Just start. And then see where things go.
Related to simply starting to write is somehow getting into a place where you can gain momentum. In other words, turn your writing into a habit.
I don’t think it’s effective to sit down and write large swaths of content at a time. My personal strategy is to write a little each day. Sure, I may miss a day here or there, but in general, I write approximately 500 – 1500 words a day. Every day.
I focus less on the quality of the prose and more on getting my ideas down on paper. Then I iterate on things. Before I know it, I have lots and lots of content. In one sitting I may edit something I’ve already written, change the flow of another piece, and then write/extend some content.
Point being—I’m always writing.
Writing, no matter how experienced you are, is a creative process. Given that, you need to generate (brainstorm, capture, percolate, refine, imagine) ideas.
Lots of them. And the ideas build on each other.
I’ve found no other way to ideate than to journal. I do a combination of:
Writing in my (paper) journal.
Keeping a running idea Word document for fieldstones (see note below).
Send email to myself with references / links / ideas I’ve gathered from my reading.
Sending myself text messages.
Create a list of research topics I need to explore.
To keep the ideas flowing throughout my writing.
And don’t ever procrastinate in capturing your ideas. There’s no worse feeling than having a great idea and then forgetting what it was…
The late, great Gerry Weinberg write a book called Weinberg on Writing: The Fieldstone Method. In it he talks about your finding and collecting fieldstones as your writing. These are ideas, themes, collections, points of view, stories, etc. that sort of stand along.
Then, as your collection of fieldstones increases, you can start putting them together into larger pieces of prose. I think Gerry’s ideas compliment my own and you may want to digest his book for inspiration and techniques.
In parallel with working out my writing muscles on a daily basis, if I’m planning on writing a book or a longer article/piece, I like to produce a map or outline of where things might go.
Sometimes, I just do a detailed outline. Listing each potential chapter or section, and then a few sentences describing what I’d cover within each. I’m also fond of mindmapping and often use it to visualize the depth, breadth, and coverage I plan for a book or longer piece.
I don’t think I over plan. But I do think having a high-level idea of where you’re going is useful before you actually start.
This also helps me if I have word targets for a piece I’m writing. Very early on I can tell if the article idea has enough meat on the bone to make the writing worthwhile. So, direction finding is also useful to determine breadth and depth of content.
Reacting to my – “just write” advice, I believe you have to look at your writing as a highly iterative endeavor.
Don’t (do not!) try to get your prose perfect the first time. Instead, simply write as much as you can.
Then go back later and re-read it and edit it. Do that several to many times. Weaving in new content, removing content, changing the flow, adding a story, etc.
I probably revisit my writing (blogs to books) from 2-3 to 10 times or more. I also like to leave time in between for me to think about the writing. Letting it percolate in my head a bit to see what new ideas might sprout.
I know there are authors/writers who basically do their writing completely in one-pass. That’s wonderful if you can do it, but I’m not one of them. I recommend a much more iterative approach.
Sounds agile, doesn’t it?
Allow for…cooking time
Related to the iterate advice, I wanted to expand it a bit.
I find that allowing for cooking time on your ideas always refines them and makes them better. And it’s related to ideas you’ve already gotten down on paper.
Walk around, sleep on them, take a few days off (a break) and see what thoughts surface related to your recent writing. You’ll be surprised by the creativity.
I also bounce the ideas off of my friends and colleagues. You probably know that I’ve recorded a long-time podcast with my friend Josh Anderson. I can’t tell you how many ideas I’ve refined during my Meta-cast conversations with Josh. And I don’t believe he’s even known I was doing it.
In a word, always sleep on your writing.
I’ve run out of word count for this post. Look for additional guidance for your writing in Part-2 of this series. Until then…
Stay agile my friends,