How to Plan & Execute a Book Project?

 By John McGhie - Reproduced from a newsgroup post, by permission of the author. John McGhie is a technical writer who has written and coordinated many a long document project in Word, including several of 3000 pages or more. Here are his unvarnished thoughts on the process.

The thing that usually goes wrong when writing a book is that authors or coordinators don’t allow enough time. Project Sizing is a thorny subject, but here’s a rule of thumb that is very reliable and enables you to refine your size estimate as the project progresses. Throughout, “pages” refers to Letter/A4 sized pages of finalized text in PDF format ready for the printer, and to “end-to-end full-time equivalent effort” for the entire project, from concept to press-roll.

  1. Allow 30 pages and 15 graphics for each level 1 (chapter) heading.
  2. Or: Allow eight pages and four graphics for each level 2 heading
  3. Allow two pages and one graphic for each level 3 heading
  4. Allow one day of author’s time for each 2-1/2 pages of new text.
  5. Allow one day of author’s time for every ten pages of existing text.
  6. Allow one day of author’s time for every two graphics.
  7. Allow six hours of productive effort per day
  8. Allow 200 productive days per year.
  9. You cannot produce a baby in one month by impregnating nine women. Do not attempt to assign units of less than a chapter to each author!

Using the above rules, a typical book of seven chapters or appendices will run about 200 pages and will take six months of elapsed time to create, provided the author is doing nothing else. If you don’t have six months before your deadline, you know before you even start Word for the first time that you are going to either write a smaller book, use more existing text, or find more authors. An experienced technical writer working in a field they know well with a mature project team might plan at twice that level of output using various techniques to compress the schedule. (Alternatively, they will plan it so that their contract expires and they leave before the project is due at the editor’s.) Any kind of person attempting more than five pages a day will run out of time and produce rubbish. A “mature” project team is one that is productive, organized, and efficient, and you know this because you’ve worked with them before...

An author writing a book for the first time, with a project team that has never worked with a technical writer before, in a company that does not have documented and refined technical writing processes, will be lucky to produce half a page a day of finished, correct, publication-standard text.

Save Formatting Until Last

Word enables all aspects of document design, page size, layout, margins, fonts, leading and styles to be defined and re-defined at any time before printing. Experienced technical writers in a workgroup would normally determine these things before writing begins. However, increasingly people are taking advantage of Word’s ability to do the formatting last, and this will save a lot of time for people doing things for the first time: until they have the text finished, they have difficulty knowing how they want it to look. Until they know exactly how many pages, they may not be able to determine the output media.

Either way, encourage people to leave formatting and pagination until last, otherwise it simply has to all be re-done each time. Many professionals have a “Draft style” they use during text creation and editing. The body text is usually at 12 points so it’s easy to review, the leading is often at double line height to give the reviewers room to write, sometimes they use a very wide right margin for the same reason, and usually they use different coloured text for each heading level so you can see what level you are at in the document structure at a glance while working in Normal View. They switch to the publication format just before printing.

When dealing with an inexperienced team, particularly in a publication that has a large number of reviewers who are not used to working to deadlines or budgets, it helps to produce all of your review text in a single font and size. You bold the headings, but otherwise, send everything out in Courier New or some other generic font. This forces the reviewers to concentrate on the contentrather than driving you silly with addle-brained comments on spelling, grammar, layout, typography etc. Slightly more sophisticated teams can be told that the spelling standard was set by the CEO, so if they do not like it they may wish to pay the CEO a visit and put them right on that point; and that the grammar standard is set by the Editor, who is large, bad-tempered, and has a drinking problem, so if they wish to debate that they should see him out the back of the bar. Another way of saying this is to tell the Software Team Leader that he’s welcome to change your grammar if he doesn’t mind if you shift some of his lines of code around so the code looks nicer on screen. Software developers who “don’t have time” to properly review material can be offered the alternative of not reviewing it at all: “just sign this Production Release form, right here by your name. It states that you accept personal responsibility that the manual is completed and correct and the software works exactly the way the manual says it does. When the customers sue us, I am sure the lawyers will see the fact that you “didn’t have time” as a complete defence. Shall I ask your boss to sign on your behalf? Or would you rather take a quick look at the content before signing?”

Similarly, when dealing with an inexperienced reviewer, you will run out of time unless you create a Review Policy, signed-off by the Project Owner. One that works well is allowing only three reviews. In the first review they may comment on or change anything. In the second review, they may comment only on paragraphs that were changed in the first review. In the third review they cannot change anything: only deletions are allowed. If you do not do this, you will get variations on two themes: senior reviewers won’t read it at all until the last review: when asked to sign it off, they will try to write a new book! Inexperienced reviewers will drive you mad with afterthoughts: I had one recently who did 17 change cycles on a single picture! When a four-hour picture turns into a 2-1/2 WEEKS picture, your book just doesn’t ever get printed.