The Right Writing Project

(Original post:

You’re starting to get visible: you post on forums regularly, you’re the corporate go-to guy, and your topic-specific blog gets hundreds of hits every day. The phone rings, and it’s an acquisitions editor wondering if you’d like to contribute to a book project or write a white paper. How do you know whether this is the right project for you?


First off, just forget the idea of making a fortune from your writing. Very few technical writers can make a living by writing alone, and even fiction writers (who are rumored to get substantial advances) don’t make a living this way unless they churn out best sellers every couple of years or so.


So what kind of motivation do you need? There are two good motivations for writing: to contribute to the community and to market yourself. Of course, there’s more to consider than that—expertise, timing, compatibility with the publisher, and your writing skills.


If you’re excited by your topic and write to the forums and in your blog all the time, you already know what community I’m talking about. There’s a whole subset of the larger population that gets just as excited about your topic as you do. Or, and the most likely, there’s a group of people out there contending with the same issues you are and they seek the advice of experts and the comfort of knowing someone understands their problems. You are just as happy that they write questions and solutions as you are writing them yourself.


Writing for the community is a pretty good motivation. But even if you’re only writing a four-page article, you will have to lose time with your family and friends, you will be frustrated and annoyed much of the time, someone on the receiving end will have entirely different ideas from yours, and everything will take longer than you expected. If you’re writing a book, that little expedition into writing lasts six months or more, and you may need more than altruism to keep you going.


When you think about your future, marketing yourself becomes important whether you’re moving around within a company, freelancing, or applying for a new position. Let’s say your blog gets 200 hits a day. For the most part, those are the same people over and over, so that’s 200 people who respect your expertise. Maybe 50 people at your company know who you are, so that’s 250 people. You have a couple of former employers who remember you fondly, so maybe that’s 300 people. Of those 300 people, you’ll be lucky if five will want to pay you good cash money to help them out of a pickle. Unless you command a staggeringly high rate, good luck living off of that. More likely, only or two one of those fans will express interest, but nothing will come of it.


Most publishers won’t consider publishing a book unless they think it will sell 10,000 copies or more. Even if you use the same measly 1.75% figure as your existing marketing techniques, that’s 175 potential employers, not to mention probable articles, collaborations, revisions, and freelance development that might come of it. Now you’re looking at making a living. It’s not immediate, of course, but it’s like getting a college education: the big pay off is a few years down the line, but you can’t deny that it’s a good investment.


Okay, so now that motivations and expectations are out of the way, how do you know that it’s the right project of the many that are peeking around the corner at you?


First, you need to decide whether you are an expert on the subject. That’s more important than writing skills (horrors!) because your editor can improve your writing but you’re on your own with technical expertise. There will be a technical editor, most likely, but they’re responsible for making sure things work as you say they do, not filling in the gaps in your expertise.


To know whether you’re an expert, make a quick outline of the topic at hand. Try to gauge how many pages are necessary for each heading, and maybe drill down a little, to see if you can find holes in the process. If you can do this without referring to someone else’s work, you may have sufficient expertise.


The next thing to look at is whether the timing is right for you. If the publisher has given you a deadline, being realistic and adding in time for worst case scenarios (not just your system crashing and eating everything, but also whether your father-in-law’s health is stable, whether you have that class reunion to attend, or if you’ve already bought tickets for that dream vacation), try to compute how long it might take. If you don’t know whether you’re a slow writer or not, write a page to see how it goes. Don’t use a large font and don’t stop typing until you’re on page two. You should be able to extrapolate, accounting for bobbles in productivity here and there, about how long the actual writing portion will take.


You know from your development experience that the actual coding is a small portion of the full task at hand. You can use the same algorithms to figure out how much time it will take to write, including planning, researching, retooling, error handling, fact checking, and getting stumped here and there. The packaging is important too—figure out how long it will take to adjust to the publisher’s template, to read and understand the guidelines and style sheets, and to negotiate a contract.


The next criterion for taking on a writing project is compatibility. Is the publisher a reputable publisher, or if you’ve never heard of them, what can you find out? Of their published pieces, how does the one you’re considering fit in? Is it part of a series on related topics? If it’s the first of its kind, what kind of confidence do you have (based on your product knowledge) that enough people will find it sufficiently interesting to buy a copy? Did the publisher approach you with this idea (usually a good sign that there is sufficient interest to warrant this project), were you referred by a colleague, or did you propose the topic? (If it’s your idea, the publisher will respond with indifference if they don’t think it will sell. That doesn’t mean they’re right, but if two or three publishers don’t like it, you’re probably on the wrong track. Try to get them to explain why they don’t like the project so you can adjust your plan.) If you proposed it, what brought you to choose this particular publication or book publisher—the topics they cover, the way they cover topics, or brand name visibility?


Once you’ve gathered this kind of data, you can extrapolate into the kind of marketing effort you can expect, if any. If they think your piece is relevant to their publication (a magazine or topical Web site), that’s all you need. But if you’re looking at a book, you may want to know that it will be present at conferences, used in courses, or packaged with other products from the same publisher.


Finally, examine your own skills. You’ve already established that you have the technical expertise, but can you actually write well enough that anyone will want to read it? If the last time you wrote anything was like pulling teeth, you need to spend a lot of time reading my blog. J Once writing seems less daunting, compare something you’ve written with something you’ve seen in print that you liked. You can go ahead and use that page you wrote after figuring out the timing issues. Is it easy to reread, or would you just as soon not? Do you feel invited further into the subject, or do you want to just go on a bender and sleep it off? Is the language natural and interesting, or is it laced with marketing-speak, jargon, and history lessons? Can you see what to fix, or does it just seem too big a task to pursue?


These are all subjective issues, of course, and how much the payment will be is relevant. Don’t try to compare writing payment with development payment—the scales are unrelated. But do consider whether meeting your commitment to the writing project might interfere with your earning capabilities, and put that into your considerations.


You can find these blogs, a little information about my editorial services and me, and a collection of pages about my “real” life on my Web site,


Posted: September 24th, 2005, 3:57pm CEST by Melanie Spiller

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