What it was like to write a book (part 2)
Note: This is part 2 of a short series about the experience of writing my book, Inclusive Design Communities, out on October 4th.
I wanted to write more about the writing process and what worked for me. I’m not a confident writer; my brain tends to go faster than my hand can write or type. In design work, my brain connects and notices patterns, but as I write, not all patterns make it down in the first go. I tend to lose the reader and end up feeling like that meme of Charlie Day attempting to solve a crime while looking forward wildly.
There are a few things that I noticed or learned while writing.
Different tools for different needs
Initially, I wrote everything in a few notebooks by hand and usually at my usual coffee shops. The outline I originally submitted for my proposal and random paragraphs were in my notebooks. Then the pandemic hit. For ideas, I wrote in Notion. I like writing in Notion generally and find the clean UI helpful in staying focused on ideas. Plus, it’s on my phone, too, so I could jot down ideas and make to-do lists while walking my dog. I also had endless links on another Notion doc that was easy to reference. When they started taking chapter section forms, I moved them into Word (through Office365). Finally, I used here and there Grammarly just when I was editting: before turning in a draft or the final stages. Grammarly plus Word, though, were very buggy, and Grammarly couldn’t support extensive docs (and neither could my CPU). Notion’s web app and Grammarly’s browser extension were probably smoother.
Separate building and editting
A lesson about writing is also true about the design process: There is a phase for building the core concepts and another stage for editing and making everything flow together. My editors and publisher knew that, but I hadn’t made the connection with design. I wish I could recall where I heard something decades ago: that design was about 90% planning and problem-solving and 10% of design software. The software didn’t solve the problem or make the design good. It was for composing the other 90%.
In design, if we made things pixel perfect from the start, we’d take forever to get anything done. When you’re working on putting something together, that’s not the editting phase. It’s like sculpting or ceramics; the details aren’t there at the start, they’re a part of the final stages, and the first parts are clumpy blobs building the structure. The clumpy blobs are good. That’s where the story is. When the story feels like it’s got all the pieces, then we can edit. This process also helped with imposter syndrome because I wasn’t focused on language when I needed to focus on the idea. English trips me up a lot.
Understanding the process
I asked a small number of authors I knew or admired what it was like for them. And everyone’s experiences were uniquely different. I also wanted to know more about what to expect; I’m the person who studies a restaurant menu before she goes in. What courses was I going to eat on this journey?
I read two books in particular that helped me understand the process:
- Before and After The Book Deal: A Writer’s Guide to Finishing, Publishing, Promoting, and Surviving Your First Book by Courtney Maum. I read Maum’s book very early in the process, and it helped outline what to expect in the book process from start to finish. I found the bookends of the process most fascinating since I didn’t know much about book deals and promoting books.
- You Should Write A Book by Katel Ledû and Lisa Maria Marquis, both at A Book Apart and such brilliant people to work with on this process. I read Katel and Lisa Maria’s book once I was already getting into the editting, or copy stage, of A Book Apart’s process. It is clear how much they care about their authors, and they focus a lot on the everyday thoughts authors feel through the process. Their advice in the book is as supportive as they are in person/remotely. There were endless times I felt like giving up or that I wasn’t good enough, and these two kept me going.
Besides these two, I reread a handful of books I enjoyed that were non-fiction and books about race to understand how authors varied in their voices as a way to find mine. It took until one of my editors, Sally, wrote me an email that included edits for a manuscript and that she sensed the speed difference between my head and my hand. She shared what she thought my intention was and asked me if that was accurate. It was. To have someone see something you couldn’t put into words suddenly clears the fog. The voice I was looking for was already in me: a combination of friendliness but not mincing words and urgency and patience simultaneously. I wanted to be honest but not scare people away, and I wanted them to know that the time is now while also giving them space to figure it out.
Thanks for reading this part of the series on the writing process. We’re just a few days away from October 4th, when my book will be out in the world! It’s on sale here at A Book Apart.