Writing a Technical Book, Part 2 - Authoring
Writing a Book
This is the second in a series of posts on my experiences writing my first technical book, Backbone.js Testing, published in July, 2013. In this article, I reflect on the task of authoring the core of the book - from writing the first pages to finishing off the last round of technical edits and submission of the full draft of the book to my publisher.
A rough overview of salient tips and experiences from this part of the book-writing journey includes:
- Make sure to have a reliable backup of your work - expect to lose all your files (and your computer).
- Before writing anything, plan and outline everything.
- The writing process will take much longer than you think it will.
- The writing process is also tiring, stressful, and boring.
- Technical review will bruise your ego and leave you with a much better book.
- Once you get most of the way through the drafting process, you (the author) hold the power in your relationship with your publisher.
Where we Left Off
In my previous post on starting a book project, I discussed how I got roped into writing a technical book and the process from initial contact from the publisher to signing a book contract. As part of the negotiations, we agreed on the following ultimate chapter outline (with estimated page count and due dates):
- Setting up a Test Infrastructure (10 pages) - Jan. 8, 2013
- Creating a Backbone.js Application Test Plan (8 pages) - Jan. 16, 2013
- Test Assertions, Specs, and Suites (20 pages) - Jan. 28, 2013
- Test Spies (7 pages) - Feb. 4, 2013
- Test Stubs and Mocks (15 pages) - Feb. 11, 2013
- Headless Web Testing (12 pages) - Feb. 19, 2013
As a spoiler for the rest of this post - I came nowhere near making most of the chapter deadlines.
Starting on the Book
After signing the contract in mid-December, I found that I suddenly had my first chapter due Jan. 8 and subsequent chapters following quickly after that. Shortly thereafter, I dug in and started getting my authoring and coding tools set up, enhancing my book outline, and dove into writing the first chapter.
Nuts and Bolts - Storage and Backups
- Provide a disaster recovery solution if my laptop dies.
- Provide “checkpoints” to go back to earlier versions of my work to find cut text and alternative previous drafts.
The source code samples were going to be released as an open source project and were pure, usable source code, so the storage and backup solution was quite obvious - Git and GitHub. You can find the ultimate home of the code samples at the book’s GitHub repository.
For the book’s textual sources however, Microsoft Word documents typically don’t play well with Git, and I the book’s text as an open source project. Nonetheless, after reviewing a lot of alternative storage systems (Dropbox, Amazon S3, etc.), I decided to go ahead and use Git with a private repository. My rationale was that Git still provided checkpoints to early MS Word document drafts, even if I couldn’t use all of the normal Git tools with the documents.
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of backups when writing a book, and preferably something that checkpoints drafts. There are a variety of bad things that can happen to both your computer (crashes, etc.) and documents (like MS Word files becoming corrupted). In my case, I had my laptop stolen in May during the middle of the authoring process - I didn’t lose any of my book progress (code or text) as I was able to easily restore my existing work on another computer with just a few downloads.
Planning and Outlining
Turning to the substantive end of kicking off the book, I began reworking and expanding on my detailed book outline that I had begun as part of the book scoping and negotiation process with Packt.
The original outline had about one page of bullet points per chapter. I turned this into a series of sections and sub-sections for Chapter 1. Then, I filled in as many substantive bullet points as I could for each section and sub-section to essentially write the structure and outline content for the entire first chapter before diving in and actually writing text.
I strongly recommend detailed outlines for any large writing project as it forces you to collect your thoughts, hone the overall message and protects you from writing lots of text in directions that will later be cut in the editorial process. Or, putting in software development terms, you don’t start a large web application by writing code top-to-bottom - instead, you create a general design and architecture first (say, model-view-controller or something), and then you plan and implement the parts. The same goes for writing, if you want your end result to be cogent and well crafted.
This was also a chance for me to revisit the vision for the book as a whole, as the first chapter will really start limiting and focus the world for the book. My book was about using testing technologies (frameworks, assertions, and fakes) for a specific web framework, Backbone.js (with models, views, controllers, and other framework components). The big decision made in the original outline was to split chapters by different test technology, and not by web framework component.
At the same time, I needed to weave each testing lesson back to the Backbone.js framework (the book title is, after all, Backbone.js Testing), so I decided to create a reasonably complex Backbone.js sample application to use throughout the book. The application is a simple note-taking web page, named Notes, and I tested different parts of Notes in each chapter using the specific chapter’s test technology.
I think this approach was ultimately successful in unifying the test concepts with Backbone.js application fundamentals, but it also required a lot of upfront work, as the Notes sample application essentially needed to be coded and tested very early on, before most of the chapters were written.
And Off We Go (The First Chapter)
With the Chapter 1 outline prepared and Git repositories ready to go, I started writing the first chapter, “Setting up a Test Infrastructure”. The chapter essentially comprised downloading all of the libraries needed to run and execute the book samples and create a “Hello World”-ish test infrastructure.
Chapter 1 came together reasonably easily on a fairly relaxed scheduled, as it wasn’t due until the first week of January. I had time to create the example application and tests that would be used throughout the entire book. I had a little bit of acclimating to formatting the document per required guidelines and generating acceptable screenshot image files, but it wasn’t too bad.
I turned in the chapter draft on the scheduled due date, and thus started my first milestone for actually writing a book!
Digging In (The Other Chapters)
Delivering the first draft of Chapter 1 on time and in reasonably good shape did feel like an accomplishment. However, even at that point I realized that the original negotiated schedule was going to end up being far too aggressive in light of having a (more than) full time “day job” and trying to keep some semblance of a life outside of technical-related matters.
As it turns out, an outside factor then ended up blowing the schedule away. During the time I was writing the first chapter and after signing on to the book project, my wife interviewed for, and accepted, a new position in Seattle. When everything was finalized, I suddenly was faced with a cross-country move from Washington, DC to Seattle, WA in mid-February.
I raised the issue with my publisher upon turning in my first chapter, and we agreed on a revised schedule, effectively spreading out the due dates for chapters 2 and 3 through the end of February. We left the rest of the chapter deadlines as more of a “cross that bridge when we come to it”-type thing.
Over the next few months, I dug in and cranked out the chapters in my nights and weekends (with a generous interruption for moving to Seattle). The writing was relatively straightforward in terms of subject matter and getting it down on paper, but the process itself was quite difficult and taxing.
If I were to categorize the toughest parts of writing out the initial chapter drafts during this big push, the top items would be:
- Exhaustion: I was pretty tired when writing. I started working on the book many nights after 10:00 pm or before 4:00 am. It’s hard to think when you’re tired, and harder to write.
- Scope Creep: The chapters ended up being longer than originally anticipated, making the work take longer. I tried to keep to the proposed outline’s estimates, but there were some topics that just couldn’t be covered in the expected number of pages.
- Reviewing Work: Authoring a first draft is not the end of your work. After a chapter submission, the publisher would forward the chapter draft to the technical reviewers, who added comments or made suggested changes. Then, the publisher would present their work back to me for chapter revisions. There was no real schedule for this, and it wasn’t factored into the underlying schedule of chapter first drafts, yet ended up being a significant portion of work.
- Time Zones: The majority of the publisher’s editorial staff was based out of India, meaning that communication almost always took a full day and was a half-day out of sync.
At the end of the day, writing a book is tedious work and not always that fun for these and other reasons. The most important traits and tendencies I found to counter these obstacles and difficulties include the following:
- Write and Review Quickly: I can write reasonably well-organized text fairly quickly. Despite my lofty hopes of an erudite tome for the ages, the real goals for a technical book is something that is correct, accessible, and not horrendously dry. (The exception to this rule is Larry Wall’s “Programming Perl” book, better known as the “Camel Book”, which is probably the most humorous and well-written technical book I’ve ever read.) From my experience, when I could actually get the time to write, I was able to reliably crank out drafts and revisions to my chapters.
- Don’t Get Bored Easily: The subject matter of technical books is fairly dry. And, given how long you will spend engrossed in a single topic, it’s bound to be quite boring at times. It thus helps to have really good focus on a single topic and being able to push through in a methodical manner. I do pretty well with the latter - the topic of my book wasn’t always engrossing, but at least in chapter-long increments, I was able to always move forward and continue.
- Detailed-Oriented: My publisher didn’t have the absolutely best reputation for the textual quality of their books. Apparently repeated, grievous editing mistakes and oversights somehow find their way into at least a number of the final published books, if the Amazon book reviews are to be believed. In my case, I made it my duty to proofread the heck out of everything I wrote and again at every review opportunity. My personal preference for proofing was to print out paper versions of each chapter, and attack it with a red pen, old-school style. However you slice it, it is ultimately the author’s responsibility to keep the book in good shape. And, as the next series in the post will discuss, it is also important to keep an eye on your editor / publisher to make sure they’re not adding errors.
One of the benefits of working with a publisher, as opposed to self-publishing or the like, was the recruitment of some very capable and smart technical reviewers. Packt found two software developers well known in the community for Backbone.js and frontend testing generally.
After I submitted each first draft chapter to Packt, they would assign the chapters to the technical reviewers to add comments and make suggested text changes. Then, I would receive the in-draft and separate comments from the reviewers and rework each chapter into the second draft.
Going through technical review is a humbling process - not only did my reviewers point out all of the errors in the chapter text, they also gave qualitative ratings for each chapter, many of which were quite low for my first drafts. One reviewer in particular was often quite critical in overall assessment and the numerous comments he would pepper my drafts with. Yet, I couldn’t have been more happy with all of the ego-bruising / “this is horrible”-type criticism – the feedback was invaluable for correcting errors, getting a sense of my overall message, and knowing that at least two highly intelligent developers had worked through the text.
As far as work went, simple errors and omissions pointed out by the technical editors were easy to correct. However, some were quite extensive to revise. For example, a reviewer suggested that I should re-organize the entirety of my example code’s file structure. Evaluating the comment, I realized that he was right, and spent a good deal of time retooling everything in the code and in the book examples and text. I think the book ended up much better overall for the change, but at the time it was really a pain to change.
Getting Through the Editorial Process
I managed to get drafts of the first four chapters submitted by mid-March. After my submission of Chapter 4, my publisher notified me that my editor was changing roles in the company and that I would be assigned a new editor.
Right out of the gate, the new editor notified me that my chapters had deviated from the estimates in the outline and that I would have to cut down my previous chapters. The new editor presumably reviewed all the chapters submitted up until that point and figured it was time for house cleaning.
I replied rather strongly that to try and go back and retrofit already completed work at that time would be time-consuming, difficult, and likely make the overall book worse for the changes. At the time I was writing Chapter 5, and the notion of stopping everything to go back to old chapters was just dreadful.
As an aside here, it’s worth mentioning the power dynamics of the author and publisher. In my situation, Packt essentially provided no money upfront, a quite meager advance on the completion of the entire book, and was essentially relying on my good graces to finish the thing. Although technically they could take my partially finished work and have another author pick it up mid-stream if our relationship truly went south, the practical logistics of them being able to actually go through with that would have been very difficult.
My intuition is that many book projects similarly set up to mine fail midway through the process due to external constraints or pressures. Put another way, if something came up on my end, there was really no way for my publisher to force me to finish. And, once I was over halfway through my first draft of the book, the publisher had strong incentives to see me complete it.
So, when I pushed back on the new editor’s extensive rewrite proposal with an alternate plan, Packt was quite amenable and the editor backed down pretty easily.
To address with the overall size of the book, I cut the planned Appendix (a survey of related technologies to by book’s core subject matter) instead of revising existing chapters. The Appendix was already going to be a pain to research and write, and figured offering it up as a “sacrifice” to reclaim page count would be the best way to speed things along.
I submitted the final drafts of all chapters at the end of April 2013. I also finished and submitted meta-level drafts of things like my biography and the preface to the book.
As a foreshadowing event, I also reminded my editors that they had agreed to change the title of the book from “Backbone Testing” to “Backbone.js Testing” (just adding the three characters “.js”).
The editors accepted my submission and gave me a rough outline of the process that would unfold from there on out to actually publish the book, a story that we will dive into in next post in this series.