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So You Want to Write a UX Book


We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t think UX was a dynamic field, with enough subject matter to fill many books. Maybe you want to write one of those books yourself, but you’re daunted by the prospect. Understandable; a book is a formidable undertaking, especially on top of a full-time job, family, and other obligations. It also might just be the best thing you’ve ever done. Ready to take the leap? Some veteran RM authors offer tips that may help see you through the process and bring your book to its your ship date.

Write something every day (or nearly)

And keep track of your progress. While writing UX Team of One, Leah Buley jotted down each day’s work onto a big flip-chart calendar she kept in the kitchen. “I could look back and see when there were big chunks of time when I’d been writing diligently or when I’d simply been writing nothing. Each was motivating in its own way.” Sometimes she wrote on her CalTrain commute, happy to arrive at the office with the day’s writing already done.

Daily writing ignites momentum, and that, says Kevin Cheng, is “the only thing that matters.” Dabbling once a week, “it takes hours to get back into the swing,” says Cheng, author of See What I Mean. “When I started working daily, I could find myself with ten minutes before a bus came and still make noticeable progress, because the entire book’s status was in my head.” Once he got into a regular groove, the “runner’s high” kicked in and made it easier to keep going.

Cloister yourself

To throw down on Why We Fail, Victor Lombardi spent a week in a beach house off-season. “That allowed me to escape all other home and work distractions, and to research and write three chapters in that time,” he says.

Cloistering also was huge for Cheng. He finished his first draft in a cabin in the redwood forests of northern California, where he stowed away his phone and disabled all time-telling devices so he wouldn’t watch the clock. “I found that I was able to enter flow almost immediately,” he wrote in a blog post about the experience. “I got a lot more done in a shorter period of time than I normally would have.”

Don’t cloister yourself

What’s that? You don’t have the time or wherewithal to hunker down in a remote cabin? Not to worry; plenty of RM authors penned their books in crowded, noisy environs. Andy Polaine, who lives in Germany, worked on Service Design on long train journeys to and from Switzerland. “Personally, I work better in crowded spaces—trains, cafés—than I do in silence,” he says. “In solitary silence, every tiny thing is a distraction. In crowded places, my writing is the distraction.”

While cloistering may work for the heavy lifting of a first draft or cranking out copy for a deadline, Peter Jones finds it too confining for reviewing and revising. “A secluded office can lead to over-focus, making me hypercritical, and I end up wordsmithing meaning to death.” But he cautions, “Be careful following my advice; Design for Care took forever to write.”

Make It So co-author Nathan Shedroff finds cloistering helpful for certain tasks of book production, such as sorting research material, creating outlines, and indexing. But at other phases, solitude is counterproductive. “I find that writing is, at times, so confounding that being cloistered actually makes me less focused and more of a procrastinator,” he says.

If you’re collaborating with others, of course, some human contact will be necessary. The authors of Service Design—Polaine, Ben Reason, and Lavrans Løvlie—live in three different countries. Skype, Basecamp, Dropbox, and other tools helped immensely, but about halfway through, says Polaine, “we really needed a couple of days in a room together to nail the re-structuring. There’s nothing like having stuff pinned up on the wall.”

You won’t get everything in

You have a ton of material, yet UX changes all the time. How do you cover everything in such a way that it won’t be old news by the time the book’s published?

You probably can’t. Accepting that fact helped Sara Wachter-Boettcher move forward with Content Everywhere. “If I stick to a limited scope and do it well, my book will inspire further books and articles that tackle the topics I didn’t get to, or that dive deep into something I barely skimmed,” she says. “Getting stuck on the idea that you have to be exhaustive about your topic is a failing proposition: You will never finish that way.” If it just kills you to leave out certain stuff, well, blogs are lovely for that sort of thing, aren’t they?

Go analog

Ditching the laptop and writing on paper helped Buley drop “a work-y/email-y voice” and tap into “a different voice that was more intimate and conversational, which is the voice that I really want to share with readers.” She wrote her entire book on paper, then used dictation software to get it into digital form. “Probably not the most efficient method in the world, but it worked for me.”

Avail yourself of others.

Make It So co-author Chris Noessel says presenting material at conferences while he and Shedroff were writing the book “put pressure on us to find out what works, what doesn’t work, and get suggestions on improvements.” Other authors echoed this sentiment. Don’t be afraid to ask for input, they say; most people will be glad to offer some.

But before anything, you gotta produce some words. Other people can help with this too. Joining a “Shut Up and Write” meetup in San Francisco helped Aga Bojko plow ahead on Eye Tracking the User Experience. Her favorite sessions are weekend marathons held in a coffee shop, during which members write for ninety-minute sprints—no talking, no phones—broken up by thirty-minute breaks for eating, drinking, and socializing. People in her group work on everything from screenplays to poetry to dissertations. “The main idea is to get together and, thanks to peer pressure and encouragement, get a lot done,” says Bojko. “And we do get a lot done!”

A support system of trusted friends or colleagues, says Wachter-Boettcher, can help battle “the soul-sucking beast” of impostor syndrome: I’m not smart enough to do this. Everyone will laugh at this. “These are normal feelings but remember that they don’t reflect reality,” she says. And don’t be shy about drawing the line on outside input. Says Noessel: “Instruct your friends to not ask how the book is going. It’s the polite thing to do.”

And some other stuff.

Shedroff: “Take long flights and don’t watch the movie.”

Cheng: “Sometimes, momentum can be lost on the other end (after the book is finished) because the editors or other support people are busy with their schedules or other books. It’s as much up to you to keep the momentum going and not let that be an excuse for you to go, ‘Well, I haven’t heard from them. …”

Noessel: “It will take longer than you think.” “You have to build authority in the text, not presume it.” “The book will (should?) change the way you think. This is awesome.”

Buley: “Some people have what they want to say in their head at the beginning, and some people figure out what they want to say through the process of writing. I’m in the second camp. Once I realized that … I didn’t feel so bogged down by imposter syndrome or the slow guilties.” Also: “Get pregnant! A due date makes for a very formidable deadline.”

Wachter-Boettcher: “Write your heart out, do your damnedest, and be rigorous. But don’t drag your feet. After all, anyone can write. Authors ship.”