I write books about web design. Since 1995, I have written thousands of book pages across thirteen titles for O'Reilly Media. Honestly, that last sentence is hard for me to believe. Despite all these books, I still identify as a Designer, not an Author. Writing was just never my thing. "College Freshman Jen" would break out in hives at the prospect of writing a two-page paper, and yet here's "Middle Aged Jen" with more than a dozen books under her belt.
Getting out of my comfort zone and into book writing has required some mental gymnastics, and I continue to trick myself into writing books to this day. I've rounded up a few of my techniques that might be useful for conquering any seemingly insurmountable task.
- Write emails to Ted.
I first encountered the World Wide Web in 1993 while working on the first commercial web site, Global Network Navigator, at O'Reilly in Cambridge, MA. I was on the front lines learning HTML 1.0 and basic GIF creation (the only ingredients for a web page back in '93). It was an exciting time! Throughout the day, I'd write long emails to my design colleague, Ted, in O'Reilly's California office, answering his questions about how to do all sorts of web stuff.
When my boss, Edie Freedman [see FUN FACT], suggested I write a book about this new medium aimed at designers, of course I immediately broke out in hives. Then I took a deep breath. Then I thought, "I can't write a book, but can write emails." So my first book was written as a series of imaginary emails to Ted. I'd start with a detailed outline, pick one narrow topic, and say "Ok, today I need to tell Ted how to convert a Photoshop file to a GIF." Write enough emails, and you've got a chapter.
The result is that my books read like advice from a friend, a quality my readers have always appreciated. It turns out I didn't need to be some lofty Author, I could just be me.
Takeaway: Try to find a little comfort zone inside the larger uncomfortable task.
[FUN FACT: Edie is the woman who is responsible for the iconic animals on O'Reilly books.]
- Don't write a Book. Write Chapters.
I still get overwhelmed by the prospect of writing a Book. Writing a Book sounds scary. (It could be because so many of my books top 700 pages!) But it is less scary to write a Chapter. For me to push forward, it is essential that I put blinders on to the larger project and pretend that I'm writing one Chapter.
When I get that Chapter done, I do another one. A few more, and hey look!...a Book!
Takeaway: Break a large chore into smaller tasks and focus on one at a time.
- Trap yourself.
My writing process involves enjoying a brief stretch of "flow" then getting stuck in the weeds. Sometimes I get stuck because I am missing key information. Sometimes it's just because I can't figure out how to get a sentence to say what I mean. These stuck spots are ripe with Procrastination Potential.
When I get stuck, my urge is to get up and walk around. It helps clear my mind and reset the flow. When I'm at home, that little walk could be as quick as checking to see if anything new has appeared in the fridge, but it could just as likely end up with getting in the car to run a few errands that kill the rest of my workday.
I've found the best way to manage the stuck spots is to shackle myself to a table at a coffee shop. I don't want to leave my valuables to walk around, so I'm trapped in the weeds with my broken sentence and no choice but to thrash my way through. For me, coffee shop writing is ten times more productive because there is no escaping the difficult tasks. I also use a device that delivers a mild electrical shock if I open Social Media (just kidding, but that might not be a bad idea).
Takeaway: Set up a workspace that limits distraction and procrastination.
- Don't despair the zero-word-count days.
I come from Alsatian farming stock. The success of a day's work is measured in number of rows plowed and weight of vegetables harvested. I find that I require visual evidence of work completed in order to feel productive, and that includes my writing, design, housework, or just the number of items I cross off my to-do list. (And yes, I've been known to add something I've already done a to-do list just so I can see it crossed off.)
It's easy to feel like I've done nothing with my time if I have no new paragraphs to show at the end of the day. But the fact is the books I write require a lot of research. I often spend weeks on input before I can generate a single page of output. It is easy for my inner Alsatian Farmer to feel like those weeks are wasted, and I need to make a pointed effort to remind myself that research days count as Work. Sometimes it helps to quantify the number of pages I've read if I can't count the number pages I've written. And as I grow older, I'm learning to also count the days I take to rest or have fun with my family as postitively contributing the the finished product of the book.
Takeaway: Give yourself credit for behind-the-scenes work, even self-care.
- Get amnesia.
They say that the love you feel for your offspring makes you forget the pain of childbirth so you'll do it again. I chose to have one child, so I can't verify that, but I do know that once you hold a shiny printed book in your hand, the struggles and stresses of writing fade away. I've managed to get Writer's Amnesia twelve times.
Takeaway: Keep your eye on the prize.
When Alex invited me to contribute a productivity essay for "The Human in the Machine," of course I immediately broke out in hives. I thought, "I can't write an Essay! I write technical books!" But I did write this email to you, while shackled to my usual table at Starbucks.