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From Idea to Print
How to Write a Technical Article or Book and Get It Published
By Roger E. Sanders
MC PressCopyright © 2011 Roger E. Sanders
All rights reserved.
Before You Begin
Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to write and get published. But doing so requires more than knowledge of the basic principles of good writing, an understanding of the elements of style, and the ability to sell both yourself and your work to publishers. To become a published author, you must have a burning desire to succeed and you must possess an unshakable determination — an iron-willed resolve to follow through with your desire in spite of what other people say, think, or do. But, more importantly, you must be willing to persevere when the going gets tough. Because, believe me, it will get tough. Especially if your goal is to write a technical book.
This chapter is designed to introduce you to the less-glamorous side of writing — to the reality that, more often than not, writing is hard work. This chapter is also designed to provide some tips and techniques you can use to stay on task once you decide to embark on the journey to become a published author. It begins by emphasizing that writing truly is a job that requires a significant amount of effort on your part. Then, it presents a list of obstacles that frequently get in the way of writing and explains how most of these obstacles are merely excuses for not doing the work required. Next, it provides suggestions on things you can do to write a lot. Then, it continues with a discussion on procrastination and concludes with some tips on how you can break through writer's block.
Writing Is Hard Work
"If you find that writing is hard, it's because it is hard."
— William Zinsser On Writing Well
Just a few decades ago, it was common practice for people to write long letters to family and friends. But, with the invention and subsequent widespread use of the telephone, and later the cell phone, the practice of writing long letters became obsolete. Today, when we want to communicate with our family or friends, we are much more likely to call them or send them a quick e-mail or text message. In fact, some educators are now teaching students how to write with the short message format that's commonly used with Short Message Service (SMS) text messaging (where abbreviations and acronyms are typically used in place of words). We have become a society that not only looks for, but also teaches, ways to write less.
Writing is hard work, which is one of the reasons why so many of us do as little of it as possible. And, an unfortunate fact of life is that for most people — myself included — writing is always going to be hard work. Your ability to craft well-written sentences will improve with experience and confidence, but the actual task of producing the right well-written sentences and stringing those sentences together to create paragraphs that take the reader on a satisfying journey probably will not get much easier. And, because writing is such hard work, a variety of obstacles frequently get in the way. Therefore, to be successful as a writer, you must learn how to avoid these obstacles.
Obstacles That Get in the Way of Writing
It has been said that there are two great flashes of inspiration in the process of creating an article or a book; the first takes place when the project is initially conceived, and the second occurs when you hold a printed copy of the article or book in your hands. These are separated by a long and seemingly endless time of writing — especially if you are writing a book. Some time after the project is started, inspiration fades and it becomes easy to find reasons not to write. Some of the more common reasons people give for not writing (or for not writing more) include:
"I need_before I can write." (Fill in the blank.)
"I need to do more research."
"I can't seem to find the time to write."
"I can only write when I'm inspired."
A close examination, however, reveals that these are not reasons, but merely excuses. Let's examine each one and see why.
"I need____before I can write." (Fill in the blank.)
"In order to write, all a man needs is paper and a pencil."
— William Saroyan The Bicycle Rider in Beverly Hills
Of all the reasons given for not writing, this one is the weakest. Unproductive writers often complain that they can't write (or that they can't write more) because they don't have a quiet place to work. Or a good computer. Or fast Internet access. Or just about anything else that you can imagine.
The truth is that in order to write, all you really need is access to a computer, some kind of word processing software, and somewhere to sit. (In this day and age, paper and pencil have been replaced with computers and word processing software; thus, the statement Saroyan made is true only if you don't plan on getting your writing published.) This book was written on a 15-inch Apple MacBook Pro using Microsoft Word 2008 for Mac. Most of the time, I worked at a small desk located in a corner of my living room, and I sat in a $99 computer chair that was purchased from Staples. The only other items I used for this writing project were an Apple keyboard with numeric keypad, an Apple Magic mouse, an mStand laptop stand, and a Toshiba 500 GB external hard drive (for Time Machine backups). I could just as easily have worked without the keyboard, mouse, and laptop stand, since the MacBook Pro comes with a built-in keyboard and trackpad, but I like the feel of a "normal-sized" keyboard, and I'm more comfortable performing cut-and-paste operations with a mouse.
Although you don't necessarily need this in order to write, it's also a good idea to have some kind of backup media at your disposal (assuming you are doing your writing on a computer). And you should back up your writing often so you don't run the risk of losing your work. (A friend of mine once lost several chapters of a book in progress when the computer she was working on failed; unfortunately, because she didn't have backup copies of her work available, she was forced to rewrite everything she had lost.) Any time I am working on a writing project, I back up all my work to a USB drive on a regular basis, and when the project is over and done with, I burn everything to a CD or DVD for permanent safekeeping.
As you work on your manuscript, if you decide to delete a significant a mount of text from a particular file, make a backup copy of that file before you perform the deletion. If you discover later on that you need some of the text that was deleted and you have a backup copy available, retrieving the deleted text becomes a simple process. (For this reason, many writers prefer to keep multiple versions of their files to maintain a "running history" of significant changes that have been made to a particular document.)
"I need to do more research."
At first glance, this statement seems reasonable. After all, the development of most technical articles and books requires you to perform some amount of research. If you're an expert on the topic you plan to write about, the amount of research needed may be minimal. On the other hand, if your knowledge of the subject is limited, a significant amount of research may be required.
However, when it comes to technical writing, your research should consist of reading, outlining, and performing any testing and data analysis that is necessary to generate text. Start by studying what's already in print, then turn your attention to what others have overlooked. More specifically, look for important resources that other writers have ignored. (Keep in mind that editors don't want and can't use information found in other publications; they're looking for fresh ideas and new material or material that's presented from a unique point of view.) Find out as much about your subject as possible; when you sit down to write your article or book, you will find that it is far better to have too much information than not enough. But, keep in mind that you don't have to know everything there is to know about a particular subject to write about it.
One of the biggest pitfalls writers must avoid when conducting research is falling into the trap of doing nothing but research. It's not uncommon for writers — especially beginning writers — to spend so much time researching their topic that they never get around to writing about it (which is why "I need to do more research" is a popular reason people give for not writing). One way to avoid this trap is to establish an end point for your research before you begin. When this end point is reached, put your research material aside, gather your notes, and turn your attention to the task of writing.
Some authors prefer to conduct their research in discrete units, say one chapter at a time, and complete the writing for that unit before continuing. There's nothing wrong with this approach, provided you don't fall into the trap of letting your research efforts prohibit you from finishing the entire writing project.
"I can't seem to find the time to write."
In today's fast-paced world, time is a precious commodity, so it's easy to believe that this is a credible excuse for not writing; it's reassuring to think that circumstances are beyond your control and that you would write more if only you didn't have such a hectic schedule. But, if you're under the impression that you can write only when you can find the time, you'll never do a lot of writing. Why? Because finding time to write is a destructive way of thinking — instead of finding the time to write, you have to make the time to write. Successful writers make time for writing and then use that time to write (or re-write).
Over the past fourteen years, I have authored twenty-two books (most of which are over 600 pages in length) and numerous magazine articles, tutorials, and technical white papers. And, although all of the white papers and eight of the books were written during normal work hours as part of my job, the bulk of my writing has been done after work, on my own time. So, how do I make the time to write? When I'm under contract to deliver a manuscript, I limit phone use, I cut out all leisure reading, and I drastically reduce the amount of television I watch. In other words, I avoid doing anything that can impede my productivity and make me less focused on the task at hand.
According to a Nielsen study conducted in November 2009, the average American spends four hours and forty-nine minutes each day watching television. (Some people may only watch one hour, while others may watch nine, but on average, Americans stare at a TV screen for almost five hours a day.) This means that, after subtracting eight hours for sleep and another eight hours for work, Americans spend over half of their free time in front of a television! Add in the time spent surfing the Internet, which The New York Times recently declared is approximately one hour per day, and you have almost six hours every day that the average American could spend doing something else. I choose to spend a large part of that time writing.
Once you have allotted time for writing, make sure you use that time to write! This is not the time to answer e-mail, browse the Web, or play a few games of Solitaire because you "just can't seem to get started." Eliminate distractions that will interfere with your work (turn off or mute your phone, disconnect from the Internet, move to a quiet room and close the door, tell others that you do not want to be disturbed, and so on) and concentrate on generating text.
If you force yourself to write on a regular basis, over time, writing will become routine and you'll discover that it's much easier to make the time to write.
"I can only write when I'm inspired."
Some people believe that they can only write when they are inspired to write; that they must feel like writing before they can produce any material worth reading. However, in 1982, Robert Boice, a member of the Department of Psychology at the State University of New York at Albany, conducted a study that has profound implications for writers who believe that they produce their best work only when they are inspired.
Boice began his study with a call for participants who had difficulty completing writing projects. Of those who volunteered, twenty-seven individuals were selected — all had earned doctoral degrees and held academic appointments, all had authored or co-authored at least one professional publication in the preceding three years, and all produced evidence that they were currently working on at least one unfinished writing project that they wanted to complete and submit for publication. The individuals selected were asked to schedule five writing periods each week for the next ten weeks (a total of fifty writing sessions) and were given the following instructions:
"Do all your writing in one comfortable and undistracted location. Do nothing but writing in that location, and try to do it at the same time each day. Inform others that you do not wish to be disturbed during these writing times."
Additionally, all participants in the study were asked to chart their writing output and log any creative ideas they had that would help with their writing efforts. Logging was to take place at the outset of each writing session.
Nine of the participants were then told to abstain from doing any writing that was not absolutely necessary during the scheduled writing sessions (but to perform the charting and creative idea-listing activities). These participants served as a control group, and the feedback they provided was used to identify conditions that might have caused the other participants to write during the allotted time.
The remaining participants were divided into two groups of nine, and initially both groups were instructed to write during the scheduled sessions only if they "felt like it." Members of the first of these two groups were also told that their initial writing endeavors would be part of a "baseline phase" and that they would remain in this phase for a minimum of ten scheduled writing days and until they had produced no written material for at least three consecutive days. Upon completion of the baseline phase, all members of this group were asked to establish a goal of producing three written pages per writing session, and a strong motivator was established: each participant was asked to supply five $15 checks (to be drawn from their own personal funds) made out to an organization they despised. On any day that the agreed-upon level of writing output was not met, one of these checks would be mailed to the designated organization by a third party. Each member of this group (referred to as the contingency management group) would remain under this contract for at least thirty scheduled writing sessions (six weeks).
After fifteen scheduled writing periods had passed, members of the second group (referred to as the noncontingent group) were told that, although they could continue writing when they felt inspired to do so, it was time to begin writing more and that they might accomplish this by trying to do at least some amount of writing during each scheduled writing session. For the next twenty scheduled writing sessions, they were encouraged to write daily, whether they felt like writing or not, but no daily quota was established and no reinforcers were used.
All twenty-seven participants met with an investigator for one ten-minute session each week, usually in the participant's office. The purpose of these meetings was to keep the participants engaged in their uncompleted writing projects and to update and validate records of their output and creative ideas logged; reported daily writing productivity was verified by perusing written pages completed during the previous week. Table 1.1 summarizes the writing output of the individuals in all three groups in the periods before and after the onset of more sustained writing; Table 1.2 summarizes the idea generation reported.
Excerpted from From Idea to Print by Roger E. Sanders. Copyright © 2011 Roger E. Sanders. Excerpted by permission of MC Press.
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