When my publisher’s very smart and talented publicist suggested I post about my book weekly for four weeks, I decided to do one better. Or nine better, really. “I’ll do one post about each chapter,” I confidently said to my kanban board. This turned out to be great advice that I wish Past Ben had.
I don’t know how much of an effect it had on sales. The feedback loop is far too long there. But even if I’ve tapped out the buying (and sharing) power of my network, the thought process is useful. I wish I had done it before I started writing. If you can’t explain a chapter’s value in 240 characters, is it worth including?
When you’re writing a non-fiction book, you’re in a bit of a race against time. Particularly in tech, the longer it takes you to write the book, the more likely it is that the earliest content is out of date. One of the ways to keep the writing time low is to not include material that doesn’t matter. If you can concisely express why a chapter (or section, even) matters, it’s probably good to include it. If not, you either need to cut it or think a little harder about why it’s important.
One suggestion that my editor gave me early in the process is to state a problem that each section solved. This was mostly for the reader’s benefit: it told them why they should care about a particular section. But it also made me think about why the section should be included. More than once, I cut or reworked a planned section because I couldn’t clearly express a meaningful problem.
When working in a group, you may sometimes struggle to get the group won over to your way of thinking. It’s a challenge. Sometimes you can’t state your case in a compelling manner. Sometimes your idea is terrible. Sometimes the group just won’t listen. But there’s a shortcut you can use to give your opinion a head start: write it down.
Blank pages are scary. They contain infinite possibility. It turns out that infinity is a really big, daunting concept. People don’t like them. This makes the blank page your opportunity.
Undoubtedly, the team will edit your draft heavily. It may get to the point where nothing remains of your original work. That’s okay. By having your opinion be the starting point, you give it some extra weight. You’re framing the discussion. If you’re particularly sneaky, you can even go a little beyond your actual position so that when it gets edited more toward the “middle”, it lands where you wanted.
This isn’t a fool-proof method by any stretch of the imagination. But you’re giving your idea a little bit of a boost. Even if your position isn’t the one the group settles on, being willing to write that first draft sets you apart. It doesn’t particularly matter if it’s good or not, because it’s going to be revised and revised and revised. So do you yourself a favor and just write the damn thing.
Over the years, I’ve received a lot of feedback on my writing. Some of it has been helpful, some less so. Little of it has coalesced into rules that I could easily share, but once piece of advice stands out: delete the last sentence.
I first received this advice when I was in high school. A young and idealistic NJROTC cadet ensign, I wrote several memos to our commanding officer about various incidents. I had a tendency to close with a request that he take the action I desired. Ryan Brown was remarkably kind and mature for a high school senior — instead of ignoring it or getting angry and dismissing me out of hand, he took me aside. “Cotton,” he told me, “the next time you write a memo, delete the last sentence.”
I thought of this again recently when I was replying to a message on a community mailing list. I don’t remember what the person wrote, but it was off-topic. I was going to say “This is off-topic for the devel list”, which is benign on its face, but didn’t really add anything except an implied “fuck you, go away”. My experience is that the last sentence in a reply like that is almost always inflammatory.
I get it. When you’re writing something, you want to have a good close that really drives your point home. I catch myself doing that all the time. But if you’re writing well, particularly in email, you don’t need a punchy ending because you’ve already made your point. In the above, other parts of my reply already indicated that the message wasn’t suitable for the list, and I explained why. Repeating myself there didn’t add any value to my reply, it was just repeating myself for the sake of repetition.
I have a confession: I am a compulsive favor-doer. When someone asks for my help, I have a hard time saying “no”. Since there’s only so much Ben to go around, this gives me a tendency to over-commit. I recognize this as a problem, but I can’t help myself. It’s in my nature to be helpful.
So how helpful should I be? My wife works at the county library, and last week a gentleman was checking out a book about Linux. In the course of small talk it came up that he’s trying to dual-boot Ubuntu and Windows 7. Angie mentioned that I run Linux at home and he wrote down his phone number and e-mail address for her to give to me. I’m not mad at her for it, she hasn’t committed me to anything, but it got me wondering.
My initial reaction was to e-mail the guy and introduce myself. After all, I’m a nice guy and that’s what I do. Then I realized that this would probably make me his go-to support. I don’t mind helping people, but an open-ended commitment isn’t exactly what I’m in the market for. I already do a fair bit of free work for strangers. I answer questions in the #fedora IRC room, on LinuxForums.com and on Serverfault. Additionally, I write this blog, and I write documentation for the Fedora Project. Maybe I don’t do as much as others, but I’m definitely contributing back to the community.
So maybe, I thought, I should set a rate and charge him for help. That seems like too much effort, though. I’m not really interested in doing enough consulting/contract work to make it worth the trouble of filing the appropriate paperwork. Besides, I have such a hard time asking for a reward for being nice.
Where does that leave me then? I have no idea. In the meantime, I’ve gone with the head-in-sand approach. I’ll just pretend like this never happened. Perhaps someday I’ll be able to solve this quandary.
Recently, I began writing a regular weather blog for the local newspaper. I’m not getting paid for this, so people may wonder why I’m giving free content to a for-profit organization. I asked myself this very question, and the answer is that I don’t find the terms sufficiently objectionable. Although the blog appears on the Journal & Courier website, they likely don’t make too much money off the ad revenue. And while I don’t make any money either, I get the chance to refine and showcase my writing skills for a different audience than I currently have, and I get the chance to bring a little bit of traffic here (maybe I should start selling ads). Of course there’s always the joy of sharing my knowledge, proving a public service, and keeping all of that meteorology I learned in school in my head a little longer. Finally, I’m a compulsive favor-doer.
More than any of that, though, I am philosophically in favor of sharing information. The vast majority of the writing I do is released under some form of the Creative Commons licenses. The Fedora Project requires me to use the CC-BY-SA license, which does not prohibit commercial use. In that sense, writing documentation for Fedora and writing my weather blog both could result in people who are not me making money off my work. That’s fine, because I’m not doing it for money (although if someone wants to leave an envelope of cash on my doorstep, that’s okay). In both cases, I consider the free access to my effort to be fair trade. My Fedora work is my way of contributing to the project that provides me with free (both gratis and libre) software that I use on a daily basis. The writing I do for the Journal & Courier I see as contributing to the betterment of my society (or at least the lowering of my blood pressure. Weather-related stupidity angers me quite effectively). The fact that one is a non-profit and the other is for-profit is not a consideration for me.
I am a firm believer in freedom for users, but I also believe that content creators should be free to license their works as they see fit. Copyleft licenses like the GPL are preferable to more restrictive licenses, but if someone wants to put a restrictive license on his work, that right should be available. In each case, a decision must be reached as to what is and is not acceptable. In the cases I’ve discussed here, I have determined that, for my own criteria, the terms are acceptable. The nice thing about volunteer work is that if I determine at some point that the terms are no longer tolerable, I can simply stop contributing. In the meantime, I hope as many people as possible enjoy the fruits of my labor, and I look forward to enjoying the works of others.
At least, I hope there isn’t. If there’s an upper limit to the amount that a person can safely blog, I might run up against it soon. It’s been an exciting week in FunnelFiascoLand. In addition to all of the storms we’ve been having, and a sizable to-do list both professional and personal, I received some news. The first news is that I’ve been selected for the LISA ’10 blog team. In November, I’ll be off to cloudy San Jose, California where I’ll be writing multiple posts per day for the duration of the conference. Additionally, I’ve been told I might have a few writing assignments in advance of LISA in order to help promote the event.
A bit earlier in the week, I was asked by the Managing Editor of the local newspaper if I would be willing to write a weather blog on their website. Since I am incapable of turning down requests for more work, I readily agreed. This is a voluntary/slave labor/public service matter, but I’m trying to finagle a fedora with a “press” tag out of the deal, or maybe I can score press credentials to outdoor events. The thought process behind my willingness to do this, and some discussion of licensing issues involved, is a blog post that will probably appears in the next week or two. In the meantime, my “Weather Watch” blog starts on www.jconline.com/blogs today. I plan to update it twice per week, on Mondays and Thursdays.
It seems my writing is starting to get noticed, and that pleases me greatly. I’ve still got a long way to go until I catch up to my great uncle Ralph, the New York Times best-seller and a Pulitzer nominee, but it’s exciting to know that there are people out there who care about what I have to say. (Of course, I know my loyal ones of readers here have always cared about my thoughts. You guys are awesome). What this means for me is a fair deal of extra work, but it’s exciting and I’m really looking forward to it.