Back to Basics

This past week I found myself slogging through edits of the ongoing book project, not having much fun, to be honest, and feeling like I was missing the overall picture of what the book was doing. My friend Melinda graciously offered some advice on how to get me to look at the forest before concentrating on individual trees. I think I’ve also got a path forward for getting this project finished by the end of the year (Thanks, Melinda!).

Sorting content visually

Melinda’s experience has been different from mine. She’s got a full-fledged Ph.D. as well as a ton of experience writing long-form science articles. So when she offered advice on getting my nonfiction in shape, I listened.

The first thing she asked me was whether I’d put everything on notecards (or sticky notes) and sorted the content on a white board (or wall) to make sure it was where and how I wanted it. I admitted that I hadn’t. All of the content sorting I’ve done to this point has been in a Word document itself with some shuffling of things based on my reading of the Table of Contents.

What she suggested I do is break the content out by section, using different colors of notecards (I opted for sticky notes) for each section, then arrange them either horizontally or vertically on the wall. Either organization works. As you can see by the photo of my office wall, I went the horizontal route–probably based on my imagined “best practice” for sorting. Each row in the array below represents a chapter. The outlier notes on the left side of the array are the section header names (Product, Process, People & Politics, and Professionalism). The notes above and below those sections are introductory or afterword/reference sections. Another suggestion Melinda made was to note missing or content-to-add in red pen. I opted for flagging the pending content with pink flag stickies.

What’s next?

Today I need to re- read each of these sections and take some time to really understand what content is where and in what order it should appear. I might end up shifting to a vertical orientation if I don’t get the clarity I need, but that’s a discussion for another day.

One thing might leap out at the casual observer: my content is currently “bottom heavy,” meaning most of the entries are concentrated in the Professionalism section. Do I need new subject headers? More? Better/more descriptive ones? Do I need to move the pieces around a little more? That’s what I’ll be spending the next few weeks deciding.

Melinda suggested I actually give this process something like one to two weeks (but no more than four) to sort itself out.

And while I’ve been trying to stitch together the content I have now, she suggested that I actually leave the writing alone. The important part is to get your thoughts organized and make certain that each section is saying what you want it to say. Once the order is set, then I can go back and start playing with the writing, one section at a time. Her assessment is that it is entirely possible to get this product in order/submittable shape in six months. I can live with that.

I appreciate everyone’s patience (including Melinda’s) as I slog through the process of translating this blog into a reference book that is useful and hopefully engaging to my audience. Better that I do a lot of work up front to make the reading experience better than dash everything together and deliver a bad product, right?

The process continues. Thanks for reading.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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