Do you need to know your topic when you start writing a book?

In a recent post, I described how you don’t need to have an idea to get a book. Yes, it can help, but it’s not necessary; there are plenty of books floating around publishers that need an author to have them assigned to. Easily half of my first dozen books were assigned to me by the acquisitions editors I was working with. They’d suggest ideas for books to me. Some of the ideas I said “No” to: I don’t know enough about programming to write programming books, for example. Others just didn’t grab me or didn’t grab me enough with respect to some of the other projects available to me at the time.

But let’s suppose you like an idea that’s been lofted by the ack ed and want to pursue it. They ask you for a proposal, you say “Yes,” they hang up, and you suddenly realize that you don’t really know the product or the software or whatever very well. Are you doomed? No, probably not. And unless you’ve gotten yourself into completely deep water far out of sight of land, chances are that you’ll be okay.

What you’re going to be doing is writing to learn, as William Zinsser described it in his book of the same name. (I recommend that you buy a copy of this and read it, btw. Zinsser’s books are very approachable and really quite entertaining.) You won’t know a great deal about the topic when you start, but you’ll learn an awful lot as you write the book.

My technique for writing on a topic that I don’t know much about is to take it apart and figure out what skill sets I need to master it. Once I’ve gotten the skill sets identified for the topic, I match my skill sets with the skill sets for the topic and do my best to “surround” it. I then start making connections to the remaining skills I need. In the case of software, I frequently will find that I have most of the skills necessary to use the software, but need some conceptual knowledge and a chance to play with the software to get an idea of what I’m doing. (Picking up software quickly has been an essential ability for me.)

Here’s another place where networking is going to help you: it’s a good idea to cultivate friends who know things you don’t so when you have a question or need someone to give you a quick rundown, they’re able to help. And never discount the wealth of resources on the Internet: look for training materials, exercises, documents, and FAQs. Many colleges post their course materials online. Googling for the topic plus “training” or “classes” can produce a surprising number of relevant hits.

You may not realize it, but you’re already writing to learn. If you write technical manuals or magazine articles, chances are that you’ve written about something you didn’t know everything about when you began. You might have known the previous version of whatever or the topic your article was about, but your research and experimentation filled in the holes in your knowledge. That’s writing to learn, too!

As I’m building the outline for something I don’t know very well, I rely on the structure presented in other books, in training materials, and anything else I can find to get an idea of the structure I want for the book. Interestingly, I don’t think I’ve ever run into something that has the same outline and flow that I’d like to use for a topic.

Writing to learn may sound risky. It’s certainly more work than writing about something you’ve already mastered. But it lets you write a book and stretch yourself intellectually while doing so. There isn’t nearly as much risk as you might think, either. You’ll have an early measure of your ability to do this for a given topic: how well you do on your proposal. When you’ve created the detailed outline, you’ll have a feeling for what you can and can’t do. You can then make plans to fill in the holes in the outline and your knowledge.

On the other hand, if the topic’s too far afield and you can’t gain enough knowledge to feel comfortable, the proposal simply won’t happen. The proposal’s kind of a safety release in that way: if you can’t figure out enough of the material to create a good proposal, then you couldn’t possibly create a good book. In that case, apologize to your ack ed and say that you just don’t have enough knowledge on the topic to do well. It’s possible that your ack ed may nevertheless feel that the topic is something you can master (and they can give you some pointers on what you need to learn specifically) or that you might do well with a co-author who’s got product knowledge but lacks your writing skills… in which case, you’ll learn a lot about the product from working with an expert.

Writing to learn works. It takes some extra effort, but if you think about it, chances are you’ve already been doing it for a lot of other writing assignments.

Final thoughts on submitting a book proposal

You can occasionally get a contract by coming up with a killer idea, phoning a publisher, pitching the idea over the phone, and hitting the jackpot… but you’ll stand a much better chance of getting the contract you want with the right publisher by making a planned presentation.

Most publishers let you submit via email or their website, but it may happen that you occasionally submit a proposal via snail mail. This is most likely to happen if you’re including samples of one kind or another that need to be printed. If so, don’t make the publisher return copies of anything to you! Publishers are up to their collective eyebrows in submitted material of various kinds (this bunch of stuff is known affectionately in the industry as “the slushpile”) and they don’t need the hassle of returning anything. Assume that anything you send to them won’t be returned; marking printed copies in red ink on the front page with “May be discarded after review” makes their lives even easier.

Remember that you’re selling your idea and your abilities as an author to the publisher, so it’s important for your proposal to shine. Publishers respond best to an idea if they can see that you’re excited about it, there’s a marketing niche, and that you know what to do to bring the book to fruition. If you think of your complete book proposal as a job interview by mail, you won’t be far wrong. Make sure the proposal is dressed well and looks good when it first meets the publisher.

Documentation plans–Part 2

There are six basic sections of a typical documentation plan:

  • overview
  • marketing
  • production information
  • staffing requirements
  • schedule
  • outline

Note: You can use the same general structure for documentation plans for contract writing assignments, manuals, or online help. The information you include varies depending on the type of writing project, but the overall format is the same.

The overview section states the scope and purpose of the project, defines the audience, gives the relationship to any other projects, and identifies the responsibilities of you and the publisher. It also identifies the general details for the handoff of the finished product (how many copies and in what general form). What you put in the overview is not a binding legal description unless the information is included by reference in the actual publisher’s contract (some publishers may want to do this), but it spells out a lot of details that might otherwise get lost or misinterpreted.

The marketing section identifies ways in which the book can be marketed. (Most publishers don’t expect authors to lift a finger to help them market, so showing that you’re able and willing to supply marketing opportunities may impress them.) Be sure that you can also point to the competition in the field—no publisher wants to walk into a heavily populated field without warning—and how and why this book will beat all of them. Also mention if there are opportunities for co-marketing or bundling with the product. Dan Gookin’s classic book DOS for Dummies was already a bestseller even before Microsoft bundled it with their MS-DOS 6.2 release; in its day, there were millions of copies in print. Riding on a product’s coattails will help you, and can frequently help the product, too. Don’t be afraid to aim high with your marketing ideas.

The production information section discusses what the finished product will look like, and how you intend to get there. What style will be used for the book? What format and page size? Art requirements? Some of this is dictated by the publisher, but you should be able to estimate the number of pages and the type and approximate quantity of illustrations your book will have. You’ll probably also have an idea of what the book should look like overall, so mention this in the proposal.

The staffing section discusses who will be doing the reviews and which kind. It also identifies the technical editor (usually a reviewer with background in the field you’re writing about), illustrator, proofreader, indexer, and other related personnel. At the beginning of a project, most of these are likely to be unknown.

The schedule section lists the proposed schedule along with any assumptions about the schedule. Be as specific as possible. Budget for vacations, holidays, and life requirements (such as doing taxes, birthdays, and so on). Leave yourself as much room as you can near the end of the book to make up time—there’s never enough.

Finally, the outline section presents an in-depth outline of the book. A detailed outline is a requirement for a good book proposal! The editor can clearly identify the focus of your book and offer specific suggestions before you begin writing on how to change or improve the book to better fit the publisher’s marketing plans.

By the way, a documentation plan is best when it’s a living document. As a project progresses, you should make changes to the plan to reflect changes in staffing, schedule, or (most importantly) the outline. Whenever you make a material change, you should also send a copy of the revised documentation plan to your editor so they’re up to date as well.

BTW, don’t worry if this seems a little unclear to you. This is a brief discussion of the general information you need in a documentation plan. If you have a format you like that covers this, then you can use it. If you don’t or you’d like to try something else, I’m going to be posting a detailed series on how to create a documentation plan, including information on how to use it and a downloadable template, as soon as I wrap up this set of blog posts.

Documentation plans–Part 1

The documentation plan is a useful and necessary project management tool before, during, and after a project. It presents information about the book’s scope, purpose, target audience, and goals, the book’s market niche, the standards and styles the book should adhere to, staffing requirements, the delivery schedule, and a detailed outline.

At the beginning, the documentation plan gives detailed information about the project to the publisher so they can make an informed choice about whether or not they want to publish the book. Once your idea has been approved, the plan serves to further clarify your and the publisher’s concept of the project. By writing down and agreeing to the scope and purpose, the goals for the book, and the schedule, you eliminate most of the causes of friction between you and the project editor.

During a project, a documentation plan is an effective scheduling and tracking tool. With each of the sections identified, you can gauge your progress compared to your original estimates. This information is helpful for avoiding writing crunches near the end of a project. With the schedule and outline information, you can also use the documentation plan as a tool for delegating sections of a project to subcontractors or other authors on the book.

Finally, the plan serves as a reminder of the scope, purpose, and goals of a book, a standard against which you can check your work. A documentation plan is essential for a post mortem analysis of the project. You can check your original assumptions and statements of the project against the finished product. By comparing your actual schedule against your estimates, you can pinpoint problems to avoid or plan for in the next project. This information is extremely valuable, as over the course of several books, you’ll learn how to estimate your time in each phase of a project very accurately. This can result in tighter schedules, which in turn can help you plan for more book contracts.

Adding your resume to a book proposal

If you’ve never pitched the publisher before and this is your first book, include a copy of your resume. Like any other job, you need to tailor the resume to underscore skills and accomplishments relating to the book and your skill set. For example, if you are pitching a book on using a particular graphics package and have a background or education in design, make sure that this is featured prominently in your resume.

Unlike a typical resume, though, you’re may have to include information that you wouldn’t typically include on a resume. For example, if you’re pitching a book on cooking safe and tasty desserts for diabetics, you’ll want to demonstrate that you have experience in cooking (and probably baking) and in writing. If your resume doesn’t show those skills, you need to include volunteer work or outside activities that demonstrate your skills. As an example, I have a friend who has a brilliant, readable, and fascinating manuscript that is a cookbook/history of cooking going from Roman times up to the early 20th C. It has over 800 recipes, 100% of which have been tested, with comments about the history and context. She hasn’t been able to get a publisher interested because she’s not a TV chef and has no visible standing in the field. There are ways around this, but it’s an obstacle.

Even if you look very hard, it’s possible that you don’t have a lot of resume credits to point to. You may be a dental technician during the day, but you have mad baking skills and you really can write very well. You may be a great dental technician, but you still need to make the case to the publisher that you, yes, you, are the one to manifest this amazing idea. Your writing samples are a great way to back your claim up, so if you don’t have a lot of experience that’s on-target, provide writing samples that make the case for you. (This is all much like garnering the experience for your first job, or your first job in a new field. Tailor your resume, cover letter, and writing samples to demonstrate your skills in writing the book.)

Including writing samples with a book proposal

Your writing samples should demonstrate your abilities as a writer in general, and, as much as possible, your ability to write on the topic you’re proposing. It’s not necessary to send a copy of a complete manuscript to a publisher (they generally prefer that you don’t, as a matter of fact). As with a job interview, give them a chapter or relevant section and offer to send them the entire manuscript if they want to take a more detailed look.

One of the most obvious writing samples to include may be a sample chapter from the book you want to publish. Although it’s frequently a bad idea to write the entire book before you have a contract (particularly in the computer book field), a sample chapter or two gives the publisher an exact gauge of your ability to write well on your chosen topic. Include sample screen shots/figures/photos, rough drafts of conceptual artwork, and appropriate references to other chapters in the book. (Be sure to put your copyright notice clearly on the bottom of each page. Accidents do happen occasionally.)

Another way to demonstrate your skills is to write articles. You don’t have to do this for magazines, though; there’s a wonderful site,, that’s perfect for this. It’s a DIY site where you can enter instructions for anything, with photos. Take a look at it and see what’s out there. You can write stepwise DIY instructions for anything. In fact, because people can make comments about your instructions, you can also demonstrate your ability to communicate. Who knows, you might even build a following right there! (Want an example of how this works? Here’s a recipe I wrote up for Instructables.)

Creating a cover letter for a publisher

In general, publishers prefer to work with people by email when they first meet them, as it saves time in the long run for everybody. (By the way, unless you know an acquisitions editor from previous experience, just send your proposal to the Acquisitions department at the publisher. They’ll make sure it gets routed to the appropriate people. The publisher’s website has information about making submissions.) Once you have a bibliography, you’ll be able to approach publishers directly, but it’s better to start by email. As such, you’ll need to start your book proposal with a cover letter that introduces you to the publisher, pitches a brief idea of the book you want to do, and sells the publisher on your ability to complete the project in a timely fashion.

The documentation plan (discussed later) gives a detailed explanation of the book, but as part of the cover letter, you need to come up with a brief statement of what the book is about. For example, all of these are probably adequate to get the editor to read more of your proposal if they have a niche for your book:

  • This book introduces the reader to the undocumented features of Windows 7. It will have a conversational style aimed at the intermediate user, with graduated steps to increase their skill level so that they’re able to take advantage of the more powerful undocumented features.
  • This book teaches gardeners how to identify useful weeds and wild plants, and cultivate them as companion plants, or food and ornamentation crops. There will be a reference section in the latter half of the book with line drawings of many of the more common useful wild plants in North America.
  • This book is a tutorial on how to program using the new Adobe AIR language, with an emphasis on experienced developers who are learning this to build AIR applets. The book will contain extensive examples and exercises, and will have links to a website of sample code and a number of open-source and 3rd-party AIR development tools.
  • This book is aimed at intermediate to advanced quilters who want to create their own patterns for their programmable sewing machines. The book will give a brief description of the general features currently available in programmable sewing machines and what to look for if you don’t already have one. It will then discuss how to create effective designs and how to avoid the eight common mistakes made when transferring a paper design to a programmable sewing machine. There will be a special section on creating very large designs and quilting patterns for programmable long-arm sewing machines.

Make sure that your idea is right for the publisher. You can’t sell books on computers to a publisher specializing in books on sailing… but you might sell a book that tells how to use computers when building wooden boats. Having an angle like this is often the best way to bridge the gap into a field of writing in which you have no direct experience.

Radiate your enthusiasm for the project. Refer to the writing samples and the resume items that show your depth of knowledge for this particular topic. Mention anything you’ve written on this subject before (and include it in your samples if at all possible). It’s very possible you’ll get asked for sample chapters of the book you’re proposing, so you may want to write something prior to submitting this. (This also has the advantage of helping you clear the cobwebs out and see what it’s like to start writing the book. It’s amazing how different the book you envision can be from the book you write.)

Also talk about things that you might have done with this topic or field, too. Be ready to sell your credentials here. It’s not enough to show the publisher that you have a good idea; you need them to know that you are the most qualified person to write this book.

Most importantly, you need to sell the publisher on your ability to meet your deadlines. Because of the topical nature of book publishing these days, it is extremely important for book publishers to get books out quickly. If your manuscript isn’t already finished–and it usually isn’t–you’ll need to produce it on a schedule that rarely allows for many delays. Depending on the type of book and the need for speed, the time between getting an idea approved and seeing the book on the streets can be as little as 7 months. Allowing 2 to 3 months for final editing, indexing, production, and printing, you’ll need to write the manuscript in 4 months. Fast work is 4 months from idea to street; really fast work is 3 months. Conversely, a “slow” book is one that takes 9 months or more. Large reference works may take this long, but the amount of time should be carefully documented and justified in the schedule.

It’s worth noting that publishers of types of non-fiction books that don’t deal with technology, politics, or current events—such as cooking, travel, or do-it-yourself books—have differing and more generous schedules than the computer book industry, but all publishers are speeding up their publishing cycles to be the first on the market. Any publisher will be impressed by your ability to turn out a book quickly. Nobody ever seems to complain about work done ahead of schedule.

How to prepare a winning book proposal

The previous series of posts introduced you to the general ideas and concepts for being an author. Now I’m going to give you some details on an important piece of this: how to create a book proposal that gives you the best chance of selling your book idea to the publisher you want.

Preparing a winning book proposal is very similar to bidding on many other freelance documentation projects. In fact, as you read this, keep in mind that you’re going to be able to use this information to create documentation plans with the same information. (At the end of this series, I’ll also be providing a complete template you can use for creating book proposals and documentation plans.)

A book proposal is more than an outline and a schedule. A well-written proposal is a package of material that not only communicates how you intend to do the project, but also demonstrates your writing and organizational abilities. Moreover, a good proposal tells a prospective publisher that you have carefully planned all aspects of the book and that you’re ready to hit the ground running as soon as the book’s approved. And if you are one of several authors being considered for a specific project, presenting a solid, well-considered proposal can frequently be the deciding factor in getting the contract.

There are four parts to a book proposal:

Each of these pieces will be covered in the upcoming blog posts.

Repost: Revenge of the Technical Writer

For Friday, I’m reposting an excellent article titled Revenge of the Technical Writer from When Life Gave Me Lemons, I Made Lemonade… And Choked on the Pulp. It’s very apt.

This coming Monday, I’ll be starting a series on writing a winning book proposal. This picks up from the previous series on becoming an author. This series will show you how to develop a book proposal to pitch your ideas to a publisher. At the end of this, I’ll be providing you a template for creating book proposals.

Here’s the nicest part: You can also use this template for creating really boffo documentation plans as well with very minor changes. Trust me, you’ll love it.