My office today is reminding me…

…of Peregrynne’s Law: “Kibble increases as the cube of available floor space.” I’ve had some success with debriding some rampant piles of paper on the desk but they’ve rallied and fought back. There’s also a pile of hard disks–my desk currently has about 6TB of storage on it–that need to be installed in the RAID server, along with the RAID card that will drive them. However, the overall quantity of stuff has been somewhat reduced and the things that are here at the moment are work more than anything else. Hot diggety. 🙂

Is technical communication the job for you?

Every so often, I get asked about being a technical communicator, mostly by people wondering if they should sign up for college classes to learn to become a technical communicator.

I like it a lot for a lot of reasons, but this is one of those “It all depends” situations. I’m going to tell you about all the good and all the bad I can think of to give you as complete a picture so you can make a fully-informed decision.

What Is Technical Communication?

Before anything else, I want to try and nail down the idea of “technical communication” (or “TC” just to save my wrists) so we’re talking apples and apples.

The first thing that most people think of for TC is technical writing. Technical writing is creating product and user manuals, online help, FAQs, tip sheets, product spec sheets, maintenance documentation, knowledge bases, quick reference guides, training materials, APIs and programmer references, and installation instructions. You can work in any number of industries doing any number of things, too. The software and hardware industries are big users of technical communicators, but there are many other kinds of technical writing. Here’s a sample of technical communication in a variety of industries:

  • automotive–those manuals that come with your car, maintenance manuals
  • medical–retail and professional medical supplies packaging and instructions, medical equipment operation and maintenance manuals
  • consumer electronics–installation, operation, and maintenance manuals
  • industrial equipment–operation and maintenance manuals
  • manufacturing–documentation for car seats to beds to stoves to plumbing fixtures to sewing machines
  • food–someone has to write the recipes on the back of cake mix boxes
  • government–anything the government produces, from tax instructions to drivers license manuals to landscaper training materials

As you can see, TC covers a lot of ground. Any time you see words in a row that describe how to do something, it’s TC and some grown person somewhere got paid to do that. (Even when you don’t see words in a row and it’s just graphics, such as with IKEA instructions or airplane safety cards, it’s still TC and some grown person got paid for it.)

What Are Technical Communicators Like?

Technical communicators (TCers) are an odd bunch. For one thing, there’s a high percentage of TCers with Asperger’s Syndrome. Not as high a percentage as, say, programmers, but enough that you’ll notice the lack of a sense of humor in some of your compatriots. In addition, the majority of TCers are introverted, which is neither good nor bad, but it’s important to be aware of. (Old joke, equally true of technical writers and programmers: “How can you tell a technical writer is introverted?” “He looks at your shoes when he talks to you.”) If you’re an extrovert (like me), you can either assume that your jokes aren’t going to always be understood or that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. Both are equally true.

Good TCers tend to be very focused on details and have at least fair organizational skills. Most TCers do not do office politics well, in large part because they don’t read people as well as they might.

As a final comment, I’d like to point out that Tina the Brittle Tech Writer in Dilbert is a real person. No, I don’t mean she’s real like we all know someone like that, I mean that Tina is modeled after one, specific, live human being who you could actually meet in person. There’s a story that hangs on this as you might well imagine and it’s not my story to tell and I’m not gonna. (So there!) But she really is real. And she really is exactly like what you see in Dilbert.

What Kind of Educational Background Do You Need?

Some TC jobs require specific skills; for example, if you’re documenting medical equipment, you may need to have specific training or background. On the other hand, you might not need any background at all except for the ability to write. Taking writing courses is pretty much always a good idea, as there are basic planning, writing, and organizational skills that every TCer will benefit from.

If you have no background in TC, look for a TC certificate program at schools in your area. You can also take remote classes in TC from a number of colleges and universities, either as single classes or as part of a TC Certificate program. Check out the University of California, Riverside Extension program for both live and online classes. They have a great certificate program, too.

In my experience, the best TCers have come to the field from other places: people who were chemists or accountants or musicians or whatever. The additional life experience gives them background to work with, particularly if they’re doing writing in the field in which they have personal experience. There are many TCers who have degrees in TC specifically, but it’s not necessary. The person I talked to that sparked the idea to write this post has a background in industrial engineering, organizational management, writing training materials, doing training, and several other things in general business environments. She’s going to be a dynamo as soon as she gets even a few good technical writing courses under her belt.

Note: You don’t necessarily have to have any training at all to be brilliant. I’ve got a high school diploma. I attended college briefly but I was a complete washout academically. The most important training I received after high school was a CETA program that taught me to type, how to use a variety of office equipment, the basics of accounting, and entry level programming. From there, I got a couple dozen temp jobs, then became a programmer, then started writing documentation, became a technical writer, and things just sort of blossomed from there. So by way of reference, I’ll stack my career up against anyone’s at this point, but I don’t have a college degree or writing training. (Damn, I’m good. I ain’t humble, but I’m really good!) I can’t honestly say that I’d recommend doing it this way–it’s hard at times!–but it’s possible to do it if you wish.

What’s the Money Like?

The money’s not bad. If you’re working captive for a company, you can get anywhere from $40-75K as a TCer. Freelance writing can get you anywhere from $25K-$100K or even more depending on the type of writing and how good you are at marketing your skills. (If you’re looking for more money in a technical field, consider programming, which earns as much as $100K captive and as much as $150K freelance.)

Do Technical Communicators Get Respect?

There is very little respect to be had in TC. I don’t care how many degrees you’ve got or how fast you can whip stuff out; TCers don’t get respect. Part of this is related to the introverted personality type of TCers, but a lot of it is situational. Here’s how it works.

Most jobs in a company are vertical. Sales, Development, Marketing, Testing, and Support are all vertical with tightly defined relationships. Work flows in from and is handed off clearly specified people or positions. Technical Publications, on the other hand, is horizontal. Technical Publications cuts across all the other groups of the company. Work can come in from anywhere in the company and be handed off to anyone in the company… or even outside the company. It is possible that a single TCer could talk to a shipping clerk, the receptionist, a developer, and the company’s CEO in the same day for the same project. (Think about it and I’m sure you’ll be able to think of a scenario yourself.)

Because TCers talk to everyone, TCers are the ones that hear that the product Development is creating, which leans sideways and is painted green, is being eagerly anticipated by a Marketing department that has been telling everyone that this thing stands on its head and is painted blue. Because TCers are the first to identify these disconnects in a company, TCers are also the ones who have the painful obligation of pointing out these disparities in goals. And TCers, ultimately, are the ones who are ritually slaughtered as the bearers of bad news. (In “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” you never hear what happened to the little boy that points out the Emperor’s nakedness after the story ended. TCers know from personal experience.)

As a result of all this, there’s a situational problem with getting respect on the job. And that’s okay, you know: if you’re aware that you’re unlikely to get respect, you won’t be looking for it. Unfortunately. many TCers get wrapped around the axle about why there isn’t respect and start making waves to get validation. That’s their choice, but there’s just no winning in this situation. Respect is not a coin that TCers get paid in. I’m fond of saying that, if you want a career with respect, you should become a nurse or a school teacher, because both those professions get a lot more respect than TC.

What’s the Career Path?

Typically, you progress to senior writer, group lead/project manager, writing manager, and possibly even director of communication. There are many offshoots from basic technical writing leading to related fields such as technical marketing writing, web content development, corporate communication, executive presentations and white papers, user experience expertise, and training. TC is noted for having a very thin glass ceiling; generally, the higher up you go, the higher the ratio of women to men.

Other Types of TC to Consider

Besides manuals and documentation as I’ve already described, you can try your hand at non-fiction books (which you’re probably already interested in, because that’s what this blog is about) and magazine articles. There’s lots of material about books elsewhere in this blog, but I want to mention that magazine articles pay very well for a relatively small amount of work… and they’re fun. (I’ll talk more about writing magazine articles in a later post.)

If you have a business background, you can try being a business analyst. Business analysts go into companies and figure out what needs fixing and how. The skill sets for business analyst and TCer are about the same, but there’s something you should know about business analysts: they tend to make a lot more money than TCers and they get treated with lots of respect. Yeah, they’re probably the bearers of bad news, too, which doesn’t make sense; that’s just the way it is. But it’s fascinating work if you’re interested.

Freelance Opportunities

TC has many opportunities for working freelance. Virtually all the jobs I’ve described can be done remotely and/or freelance from the pleasure of your own home office.

Are You Interested or Still Not Sure?

I’ve tried to present many of the pluses and minuses of TC here without spending too much time doing it. (And I’ve probably gotten a few things wrong, too. Comments are welcome.) I certainly like it: writing is a fun way to make a living. The hours are tolerable and there’s no heavy lifting.

If you’re interested at this point or would just like some more information, I encourage you to hang out at a few meetings of the local chapter of the Society for Technical Communication. Chapters vary dramatically in size and focus, but you can rub shoulders with people who do this for a living and see if you like it.

Buffalo wolves

Many years ago, I went to Wolf Haven in Tenino, WA. It’s a great place: they provide sanctuary for captivity-born wolves, raise awareness about wolves, and provide protection for wild wolves in a variety of ways. While I was there, I saw a buffalo wolf.

Buffalo wolves, we were told, are “triply extinct.” (It makes me sad to write this, even now.) Their habitat’s gone (the plains), their food source is gone (buffalo), and at the time I saw them, there weren’t enough left to form a viable captive breeding population. If they’re not gone from the Earth now, they will be soon. But that’s not the point of this story.

Buffalo wolves (canis lupus nubilus), also known as “Great Plains wolves,” are a subspecies of gray wolf. They hunted buffalo. Buffalo, in case you aren’t familiar with them, don’t take garbage from anyone. Bulls can weigh a ton or more. They stand 5-6′ high at the shoulders. They’re incredibly agile and they can sprint at 30mph. They can jump over a 6′ fence from a standing position. They are tough dudes.

Nevertheless, buffalo wolves would hunt, kill, and eat buffalo regularly. This went on for thousands of years (before humans came along and screwed things up). How did they do that to an animal that could kill them just by stepping on them? The answer is that, like other wolves, buffalo wolves hunted in packs. They didn’t need to face down a buffalo single-handedly. No one wolf had but a fraction of the strength and power of a buffalo, but a lot of them together were able to whittle a buffalo down, kill it, and eat it.

This story gives me heart and hope. I’ll never be as strong as a buffalo myself, but the buffalo wolf has taught me that I don’t need to be. I just have to be part of a big-enough pack of other buffalo wolves focused on bringing down that particular buffalo and we’ll win every time. It’s a very appealing image.

Office supplies

I wanted to talk about office supplies for a moment.

As writers, we collect a lot of office supplies. It’s not just “pens and paper.”  It’s everything:

  • staples
  • markers
  • highlighters
  • rubber bands
  • push pins
  • Scotch tape
  • pencils
  • paper clips
  • Post-it notes
  • note pads
  • stamps
  • return address labels

I could probably spot 50 different items on my desk right now that count as “office supplies.” (Admittedly, it’s a large and somewhat cluttered desk, but still….) Mind you, this doesn’t count the paper products in the office: reams of papers (three-hole punched, cheap bond, expensive extra-bright bond, granite finish, cover stock, colored papers, and a big carton of stuff printed on one side that I use for drafts where I just need to see something on a page before I recycle it), a dozen kinds of envelopes for letters, an equivalent number of manila and padded envelopes, stacks of legal pads, notepads, transparencies, blank CDs and DVDs, binders, folders, specialty papers… and that doesn’t even begin to get into the label stock!

For any number of years, I tried putting things on shelves or areas of the desk, but the small items were difficult to deal with. They spread too easily, sometimes on their own. Office supplies tend to breed and multiply as badly as hangers when you’re foolish enough to look away. And I know that I will bring more home, too: every conference I go to has pens (I’m a sucker for giveaway pens; they’re easy to carry and always useful), customized Post-it notes (including some beautiful cased sets of Post-its of sizes and colors), and note pads (hard to have too many notepads).

Over the years, a lot of the stray conference giveaways, such as pens that light up, bouncy toys, erasers, funny pencils, novelty pencil sharpeners, and squeezy toys, would end up being given to the kids next door or across the street. At the moment, I’m without a good destination for these things, so they’re stacking up until I find a suitable destination for them again.

Surrounded by an increasingly tall and unwieldy stack of office supplies, I finally hit on a multi-pronged solution that works very well for me. On the desk, I have:

  • A collection of pens, highlighters, markers, the letter opener, scissors, and a couple of screwdrivers that get pressed into service frequently when working on the computers are all in a couple of large pencil cups on the desk.
  • Small things that both accumulate and spread quickly–paper clips, rubber bands, small bulldog clips, and push pins–are in small glass apothecary jars.
  • Larger typical desk-y things: a stapler, a Post-it note holder, a small wooden tray that holds 3″x5″ cards that was a gift from someone I’m very fond of at one of my publishers years ago, and a small vertical file that holds sheets of address labels, postage stamps, and a small collection of notepads.
  • A few cakebox containers of blank CDs and DVDs of various types, and one cakebox for work-in-process backups.
  • A brass bowl and large yogurt container with undifferentiated kibble: things like the sewing kit, sun glasses, dental floss, and packets of Emergen-C. I also have a container for spare change, which always seems to accumulate up here for some reason.

For all the rest of the small office supplies, I purchased a six-drawer supply cabinet at IKEA in the late 90s that fits neatly under the desk. It’s a lovely little blue metal unit on casters a smidgen more than 2′ tall on casters with 6 wooden drawers. The one I bought is no longer available, although they have something similar, even if it’s not as pretty. All of the small office supplies go in this and it’s right there when I need it. The drawers are labeled clearly and it’s all kinds of convenient. (Question: How many pens can you squeeze into a drawer 11″ x 4″ by 7″? About 350. How many pencils? Only about 150, but that’s because the Post-it notes, sharpeners, and erasers go in the same drawer… and I rarely use pencils, anyway.)

Dedicated shelves work pretty well for paper products. I’m currently occupying a couple of 4-shelf pine bookshelves, but I recommend that you also try a bunch of the stackable trays for small quantities of special papers, label stock (such as address or CD labels), transparencies, notebook dividers, and so on. They make things easy to see and you don’t keep having to straighten the shelves because you pulled something out of the middle of a stack. Remember, though: you don’t need to have things like paper products in the same room if you’re not using them that frequently. When I had an office in my last house in Seattle that was 26′ by 14′, I still kept the paper products in another room.

You may not have the love of office supplies that I do, nor, if you’re just starting out as a writer, will you have the zillions of oddments that inevitably seem to accumulate. But I guarantee you that you will sooner or later. [insert maniacal cackling laughter that fades off in the background here.]

A quick intro to mind mapping

I told you in an earlier post that I’d tell you about mind mapping. A mind map is a diagram that starts with a central word or concept, then spreads out to show how you visualize other words or concepts (or project tasks or images or anything else) connected to that. Mind maps are inherently non-linear, with the focus of the mind map in the center of the page and then everything connected to it moving out from there.

Mind maps are visual, so here are several examples of mind maps to give you a better idea of how they work. Note that these are mind maps about mind mapping, so they’re illustrating the connections between the core concept of mind mapping and the concepts and tasks associated with it. (Be sure to check out the source websites for additional information and resources on mind mapping.)

I’m impressed with the graphics on these; when I do a mind map, it’s usually much more sparsely illustrated, something like the following example:

Sample rough mindmap from Wikipedia

As you can see, thought, the things that make mind maps most effective are to use lots of color and lots of illustrations. You not only have words and key concepts to hang your memories on, but the color and graphics make them easier to remember and make the concepts and relationships stand out. The right side of your brain thinks in pictures and colors far more than in words, so this technique gets both sides of your brain involved, increasing the depth of the associations on a subject.

In addition, you should put your thoughts down without trying to squeeze them into place in an arbitrary linear hierarchy. Mind mapping is a technique for getting your thoughts down on paper on a subject while recognizing that many concepts are not inherently linear. There are certainly many concepts that are dependent on other concepts, things that are linear and stepwise, but you don’t have to make things fit an outline that moves chronologically from A to Z just because.

In fact, if you think about it, outlining is most relevant for books or printed manuals… but if you’re creating an online help system or a web page or something else with hyperlinking and non-linear navigation, outlining presents a false structure. Mind maps are far more radial in their symmetry, frequently without a specific starting point from the central concept. The colors and graphics may give some clues, but it’s also possible that one starting point is as good as any other. Because the purpose of the mind map is to use visual and graphic elements to highlight relationships, the first two examples give a lot of information through the weight of the graphics.

Tony Buzan invented contemporary mind mapping. While there have been many pictorial record systems going back at least 2300 years, Buzan has popularized mind mapping in several books, such as Use Both Sides of Your Brain and The Mind Map Book. His techniques have also expanded on the connections between left and right brain activity and rung in software as well, for all of which is he richly deserving of credit.

Some other links worth checking out:

  • Wikipedia (there’s always Wikipedia)
  • A list of mind mapping software, both free and paid. (I don’t tend to use mind mapping software because I’m usually mind mapping when I’m taking notes or brainstorming on paper, so the process of doing the software takes too much effort that I could be using to write things down, leaping from concept tree to concept tree with a pen, but you may like it.)
  • Information about FreeMind, the mind mapping software package I do use when I use one. (Here’s where to download FreeMind if you want to try it.)
  • Information about Freeplane, another good mind mapping product (and a download link for Freeplane as well).

Mind mapping isn’t the tool you’ll want to use for everything, but it’s a great thing to know for breaking the bonds of a heirarchical outline. In fact, I will frequently mind map something first and then, with the concepts and relationships down on paper, I can start assigning weight, order, and presentation methodology in a linear outline. Try it out on some small piece of writing, such as an article or a blog post and see how it works for you.

Final tip: if you’re sweating too much over what goes where on the page, you’re putting too much thought into it. Mind mapping should be as light and quick as possible. Mind maps are usually a lot more fun than an outline because your right brain gets a chance to participate. If your pen is hovering over a section of the page too much, you’re probably stuck on something, so go do something else in another part of the mind map until whatever you’re trying to place pops up again.

Repost: How to sell lots and lots of your books

Speak Without Interruption, a blog worth following, recently had an interesting article about how to sell lots and lots of your books. This article briefly discussed how to use the Internet to sell your books by providing samples on your website and elsewhere.

I wanted to add that this is a major thrust of Amazon’s marketing, where they have the “Look inside this book!” option that lets you thumb your way through the TOC, the index, and a few pages to give you the flavor of what you’re getting. Not every book has this, but I’d wager that a majority of books in print do because it’s a smart way to go.

My upcoming book, being a book for a specific audience (still can’t say at this moment), will have a sample chapter available in PDF format from a number of venues (again, I can’t say specifically yet) that interested readers can download and review. If the book looks like it’s worth it at that point, they can buy it. I’m probably going to peddle it through Amazon, even though they take a 50% bite of the action, simply because it’s worth the exposure.

Harper’s has a morals clause in their publishing contracts now

This is not likely to affect most of us, but Harper’s is now including a morals clause. This says that Harper’s has the right to cancel your publishing contract if “Author’s conduct evidences a lack of due regard for public conventions and morals, or if Author commits a crime or any other act that will tend to bring Author into serious contempt, and such behavior would materially damage the Work’s reputation or sales.” This is, IMO, over the line.

There’s a lovely article at the Book View Cafe (a lovely site for authors, btw). You can also read the original blog post by Richard Curtis on this topic here.

Typing or dictating?

34 years ago, I had to learn to touch-type as part of a CETA program. FWIW, I hated the idea of having to learn this, but they said, no, you’ve gotta learn to do it. (grump grump grouse pout stomp stomp!)

Okay, I enrolled in the typing class. And I went from 0 to 48wpm in about 2 months (40 was all they required of you to graduate from that class.) Within a couple years, I’d gotten to 75wpm and 30-some years later after all these books and manuals, it’s now 130wpm when I’m really cruising. Mind you, to do that, I need an Avant Stellar keyboard, which has hard plastic keys with a wide channel, a deep stroke, and a click at the bottom of the keyboard (just like the old IBM AT keyboards). They’ve also got the function keys on the left, just like God intended, and you can reprogram the keyboard to do anything. They automatically include keycaps to put the Ctrl key, the Alt key, and the Caps Lock back where they’re supposed to go, so all those Ctrl + F-key combos are something you can do with one hand without looking. But don’t take my word for it; go look at them here. They’re expensive but they’re totally worth it to me. And they last.

I discovered on my very first book that once I’d sunk into that creative reverie that makes writing so much fun, I was thinking ahead of what I was actually typing by a couple of paragraphs. It was a magical experience for me: I was sitting there watching the screen and the fingers were blazing away and I was thinking of how this was all going to unfold. My hands were feeling like spooled devices, like printers: I’d have a paragraph or so in the mental buffer waiting to get out and the hands would work independently to catch up with things as fast as they could. It was biggedly cool. I enjoyed it enormously then and whenever it’s happened since.

This thinking ahead and letting the hands run on automatic is why I strongly prefer using keyboard commands to mouse commands when I’m working. Keyboard commands can be injected into the stream of things the hands are doing. Doing commands to make a correction or what not is probably a real-time operation as opposed to something spooled, but even so, I don’t have to move the hands from the keyboard, I don’t really have to watch the screen too much, and I don’t have to break my thinking. Picking up the mouse and manipulating the cursor is very much a real-time operation that uses a whole different set of reflexes and is, frankly, just a little distracting.

This “spooled vs. real-time” distinction is a lot of why I don’t dictate my books. I know a lot of people who use Dragon NaturallySpeaking software to dictate to their computers. Dragon NaturallySpeaking is really good software in many ways and everything I’ve heard about it suggests that it’s a product you really want to consider if you need to dictate. But it’s just not feeling like it’s something I’d want to use. Talking the book doesn’t feel right because it’s a real-time operation. I can’t really think ahead when I’m dictating. I also don’t know if I can talk for 6, 8, 10 hours a day. Shoot, talking on the phone for a couple hours a day is difficult enough at times. And there’s also the problem of not wanting to talk early in the morning. It takes more energy than fluttering my fingers. And on top of all of that, I like to have background noise like music or the idiot box, which’d be a problem.

But today I heard about a great use for dictation that I’m going to have to try. Aila Accad, president of LifeQuest International, told me that she dictates into a digital recorder, which she then inputs to the Dragon NaturallySpeaking software. The software inhales the digital information, turns it into text, and voila! I need to give this a shot, because when I’m on the road, I could in fact write notes, ideas, and other things. I could even practice some of my presentations and get transcriptions.

And who knows? I might get in the habit of dictating more and use it here when I’m home, too. But I’d have to turn the music down, so first things first.

The “Chapter 6” phenomenon

I’ve touched on the idea of recording your process when you’re writing in “Writing the book–during,” but I want to talk some more about it.

Long, long ago (1984), in a software environment far, far away (DOS 2.0 using Wordstar 3.3), I had just started my first tech writing job. I was documenting accounting software at a company that has been gone for about 20 years. I had gotten this job after being a programmer/analyst writing accounting software and I was rather nervous because I didn’t have any formal training writing software manuals.

And I froze; at least, that’s what it felt like. I couldn’t get words down.

It was frightening: I was worried that I have having impostor syndrome and I’d hit the wall. I kept trying to document something and I couldn’t. I’d poke at things and nothing would happen. I finally said “Well, if I can’t write this, I’ll do things that need doing and see what happens,” so I set up physical files for the chapters, I looked at the software, and did a lot of little things, and eventually, the words started flowing. A lot. I got done with the manual on time and even won an award for it: my first manual and it was an award-winner! Hurrah!!

Next manual comes in, I’m ready to rock and roll and… I froze again. “Okay, we’ll poke at things and set up files and see what happens.” And after a while of poking and playing around with the software, I wrote another award-winning manual. And so it went.

I soon discovered that what I was seeing was not freezing, it was my process. The first thing I’ve found I need to do when writing something big seems to be not write about it. I need to do almost anything but that still gives me exposure to the thing I’m writing about so I can let the ideas percolate in the back of my head. After a certain amount of time (for some varying value of “certain amount” that I can usually gauge based on a variety of esoteric factors such as the size of the project, its technical complexity, and the card you have in your hand there), I usually start writing and everything’s fine. This applies to manuals, to books, to magazine articles… almost everything, really.

Similarly, I discovered by the time I’d done my third book that I suffered from what I called the Chapter 6 phenomenon. The Chapter 6 phenomenon is that I’ve been cruising along nicely, spitting out chapters regularly until I hit Chapter 6 (or thereabouts) and it becomes The Thing That Would Not Die or, perhaps, more accurately, The Chapter That Would Not Live. The chapter goes on and on and on… and on. And on some more; nothing I can do seems to bring it to an end. When I finally get done with the chapter, it becomes apparent why I was having this problem: Chapter 6 is generally two or even three times as long as the preceding chapters, so the fact that it was taking two or three times the time to finish it isn’t surprising. Most of this is structural: Chapter 6 is about where I’m shifting the focus of the book after having laid down the basics, so I’m starting something new and there may be a considerable amount of conceptual pump-priming going on. But in the middle of the chapter, it’s impossible to see that. I have no visible perspective when all I can see is Chapter 6 from horizon to horizon. These days, all I can say to myself is “Oh, yeah, I’m Chapter 6-ing.” (Chapter 6 is kind of like a big cork, too; once I’m past it things go back to being easy again.)

I also mentioned recently in “Prison and Writing” that I had trouble near the end of the project. This is part of my process, too: maybe not as subjective as some of the others, but an important part of my process that I can expect and need to plan for. Buckling down at the last helps me get the book out, when I’d much rather go play.

The thing is, I would not have known about any of these things if I hadn’t been keeping a day log. A day log is a private file (I usually just open a flat file in Word, my word processor of choice) in which I record notes and comments about how I’m feeling, what’s going on, and so on. (Look for more about day logs in an upcoming post.) If I feel like the chapter I’m working on is taking forever, I say so. If it’s going swimmingly, I say that, too. But equally importantly, you probably won’t know what your process is the first time you write a book. Even if you’ve written a bunch of manuals before, your processes when writing a book may be very different.

You also won’t necessarily have the same experiences I do. One of my co-authors observed that she never seems to have Chapter 6 problems, but another has it on most of the books we wrote together. It happens. You may have other personal reactions to various stages of the book that I don’t. The message here is: whenever you’re writing a book, keep a steno pad or a Word file with notes about how you’re feeling a couple times each day. You won’t have enough data to draw conclusions during the first project, but at the end as part of your post mortem, you may be able to match feelings with productivity and even identify some patterns that let you predict what will happen the next time you write a book.

The Journal of Universal Rejection

If you feel you need practice handling rejection, I’d like to suggest that you submit to The Journal of Universal Rejection. They accept nothing. Everything is rejected.