In Their Own Write: Web Books and their Authors
The currency of written communication — words on the page, words on the screen — comprises many denominations. To further our ends in web design and development, we freely spend and receive several: tweets aphoristic and trenchant, banal and perfunctory; blog posts and articles that call us to action or reflection; anecdotes, asides, comments, essays, guides, how-tos, manuals, musings, notes, opinions, stories, thoughts, tips pro and not-so-pro. So many, many words.
Our industry (so much more than this, but what on earth are we, collectively?), our community thrives on writing and sharing knowledge and experience. 24 ways is a case in point. Everyone can learn and contribute through reading and writing — it’s what we’ve always done.
To web authors and readers seeking greater returns, though, broader culture has vouchsafed an enduring and singular artefact: the book.
Last month I asked a small sample of web book authors if they would be prepared to answer a few questions; most of them kindly agreed. In spirit, the survey was informal: I had neither hypothesis nor unground axe. I work closely with writers — and yes, I’ve edited or copy-edited books by several of the authors I surveyed — and wanted to share their thoughts about what it was like to write a book (“…it was challenging to find a coherent narrative”), why they did it (“Who wouldn’t want to?”) and what they learned from the experience (“That I could!”).
Reasons for writing a book
In web development the connection between authors and readers is unusually close and immediate. Working in our medium precipitates a unity that’s rare elsewhere. Yet writing and publishing a book, even during the current books revolution, is something only a few of us attempt and it remains daunting and a little remote. What spurs an author to try it? For some, it’s a deeply held resistance to prevailing trends:
I felt that designers and developers needed to be shaken out of what seemed to me had been years of stagnation.
Or even a desire to protect us from ourselves:
I felt that without a book that clearly defined progressive enhancement in a very approachable and succinct fashion, the web was at risk. I was seeing Tim Berners-Lee’s vision of universal availability slip away…
Sometimes, there’s a knowledge gap to be filled by an author with the requisite excitement and need to communicate. Jon Hicks took his “pet subject” and was “enthused enough to want to spend all that time writing”, particularly because:
…there was a gap in the market for it. No one had done it before, and it’s still on its own out there, with no competition. It felt like I was able to contribute something.
Cennydd Bowles felt a professional itch at a particular point in his career, understanding that
[a]s a designer becomes more senior, they start looking for ways to scale the effects of their work. For some, that leads into management. For others, into writing.
Often, though, it’s also simply a personal challenge and ambition to explore a subject at length and create something substantial. Anna Debenham describes a motivation shared by several authors:
To be able to point to something more tangible than an article and be able to say “I did that.”
That sense of a book’s significance, its heft and gravity even, stems partly from the cultural esteem which honours books and their authors. Books have a long history as sources of wisdom, truth and power. Even with more books being published each year than ever before, writing one is still commonly considered a laudable achievement, including in our field.
Challenges of writing a book
Received wisdom has it that writing online should be brief and chunky and approachable: get to the point; divide it all up; subheadings and lists are our friends; write like you’re talking; no one has time to read. Much of such advice is true. Followed well, it lends our writing punch and pith, vigour and vim. The web is nimble, the web keeps up, and it suits what we write about developing for it. It’s perfect for delivering our observations, queries and investigations into all the various aspects of the work, professional and personal.
Yet even for digital natives like web authors, books printed and electronic retain an attractive glister.
Ideas can be developed more fully, their consequences explored to greater depth and extended with more varied examples, and the whole conveyed with more eloquence, more style. Why shouldn’t authors delay their conclusions if the intervening text is apposite, rich with value and helps to flesh out the skeleton of an argument? Conclusions might or might not be reached, of course, but a writer is at greater liberty in a book to digress in tangential and interesting ways.
Writing a book involves committing time, energy, thought and money. As Brian Suda found, it can be tough “getting the ideas out of my head into a cohesive blob of text.” Some authors end up talking to themselves…
It helps me to keep a real person in mind, someone who I’m talking to as I write. Sometimes I have the same conversations over and over in my head.
…while others are thinking ahead, concerned with how their book will be received:
Would anyone want to read it? Would they care? Would it be respected by my peers?
Challenges that arose time and again included “starting” and “getting words on the page” as well as “knowing when to stop” or “letting go”. Personal organization problems and those caused by publishers were also widely mentioned. Time loomed large. Making time, finding time. Giving up “sleep and some sanity” and realizing “it will take you far, far, far longer than you naively assumed”. Importantly, writing time is time away from gainful employment: Aaron Gustafson found the hardest thing about writing a book to be “the loss of income while I was writing.”
Perils and pleasures of editing
Editing, be it structural, technical or copy editing, is founded on reciprocity. Without openness and a shared belief that the book is worthwhile, work can founder in acrimony and mistrust. Editors are a book’s first and most critical (in every sense) readers. Effective and perceptive editing makes a book as good as it can be, finding the book within the draft like sculpture reveals the statue in the stone.
A good editor calls you out on poor assumptions and challenges you to really clarify your thinking. Whilst it can be difficult during the process to have your thinking challenged, it’s always been worth it — for me personally — in the long run. A good editor also reins you in when you’ve perhaps wandered off track or taken a little too long to make a point.
Andy Croll found editing “all positive” and Aaron Gustafson loves “working with a strong editor […] I want someone to tell it to me straight.” But it can be a rollercoaster, “both terrifying and the real moment of elation”. Mixed emotions during the editing process are common:
It was very uncomfortable! I knew it was making the work stronger, but it was awkward having my inconsistencies and waffle picked apart.
It can be distressing to have written work looked over by a professional, particularly for first-time book authors whose expertise lies elsewhere:
I was a little nervous because I don’t consider myself a skilled writer — I never dreamed of becoming an author. I’m a designer, after all.
Communication is key, particularly when it comes to checking or changing the author’s words.
I like a good banter between me and the tech editor — if we can have a proper argument in Word comments, that’s great.
But if handled poorly, small battles can break out. Rachel Andrew again:
However, having had plenty of times where the technical editor has done nothing more than give a cursory glance, I started to leave little issues in for them to spot. If they picked them up I knew they were actually testing the code and I could be sure the work was being properly tech edited. If they didn’t spot them, I’d find someone myself to read through and check it!
A major concern for writers is that their voices will be altered, filtered, mangled or otherwise obscured by the editing process. Good copy editing must remain unnoticed while enhancing the author’s voice in print. Donna Spencer appreciated the way her editor “tidied up my work and made it a million times better, but left it sounding exactly like me.” Similarly, Andrew Travers “was incredibly impressed at how well my editor tightened up my own writing without it feeling like another’s voice” and Val Head sums up the consensus that:
the editor was able to help me express what I was trying to say in a better way […] I want to have editors for everything now.
At the keyboard, keep your friends close, but your editors closer.
Publishing and publishers
Conditions ought to militate against the allure of writing a book about web design and development. More books are published each year than ever before, so readerships elude new authors and readers can struggle to find authors to trust in their fields of interest. New spaces for more expansive online writing about working on and with the web are opening up (sites like Contents Magazine and STET), and seminal online web development texts are emerging. Publishing online is simple, far-reaching and immediate.
Much more so than articles and blog posts, books take time to research, write and read; add the complexity of commissioning, editing, designing, proofreading, printing, marketing and distribution processes, and it can take many months, even years to publish. The ceaseless headlong momentum of the web can leave articles more than a few weeks old whimpering in its wake, but updating them at least is straightforward; printed books about web development can depreciate as rapidly as the technology and techniques they describe, while retaining the “terrifying permanence that print bestows: your opinions will follow you forever”.
So much moves on, and becomes out of date. Companies featured get bought by larger companies and die, techniques improve and solutions featured become terribly out of date. Unlike a website, which could be updated continuously, a book represents the thinking ‘at that time’.
Publishers work hard to mitigate these issues, promoting new books and new authors, bringing authors and readers together under a trusted banner. When a publisher packages up and releases a writer’s words, it confers a seal of approval and “badge of quality”, very important to new authors.
Publishers have other benefits to offer, from expert knowledge:
My publisher was extraordinarily supportive (and patient). Her expertise in my chosen subject was both a pressure (I didn’t want to let her down) and a reassurance (if she liked it, I knew it was going to be fine).
…to systems and support mechanisms set up specifically to encourage writers and publish books:
Working as a team means you’re bringing in everyone’s expertise.
As a writer, the best part about writing for a publisher was the writing infrastructure offered.
There can be drawbacks, however, and the occasional horror story:
We were just one small package on a huge conveyor belt. The publisher’s process ruled all.
It’s only looking back I realise how poorly some publishers treat writers — especially when the work is so poorly remunerated.
My worst experience was when a publisher decided, after I had completed the book, that they wanted to push a different take on the subject than the brief I had been given. Instead of talking to me, they rewrote chunks of my words, turning my advice into something that I would never have encouraged. Ultimately, I refused to let the book go out under my name alone, and I also didn’t really promote the book as I would have had to point out the things I did not agree with that had been inserted!
Self-publishing is now a realistic option for web authors, and can offers “complete control over the end product” as well as the possibility of earning more than a “pathetic author revenue percentage”. There can be substantial barriers, of course, as self-publishing authors must face for themselves the risks and challenges conventional publishers usually bear. Ideally, creating a book is a collaboration between author and publisher. Geri Coady found that “working with my publisher felt more like working with a partner or co-worker, rather than working for a boss.”
So, after meeting the personal costs of writing and publishing a web book — fear, uncertainty, doubt, typing (so much typing) — and then smelling the roses of success, what’s left for an author to say? Some words, perhaps, to people thinking of writing a book.
Donna Spencer identifies a stumbling block common to many writers with an insight into the writing process:
Having talked to a lot of potential authors, I think most have the problem that they haven’t actually figured out the ‘answer’ to their premise yet. They feel like they are stuck in the writing, but they are actually stuck in the thinking.
For some no-nonsense, straightforward advice to cut through any anxiety or inadequacy, Rachel Andrew encourages authors to “treat it like any other work. There is no mystery to writing, you just have to write. Schedule the time, sit down, write words.” Tim Brown notes the importance of the editing process to refine a book and help authors reach their readers:
Hire good editors. Editors are amazing thinkers who can vastly improve the quality and clarity of a piece of writing.
We are too much beholden to the practical demands and challenges of technology, so Aaron Gustafson suggests a writer should “favor philosophies over techniques and your book will have a longer shelf life.”
Most intimations of renown and recognition are nipped in the bud by Joe Leech’s warning: “Don’t expect fame and fortune.” Although Cennydd Bowles’ bitter experience can be discouraging:
The sacrifices required are immense. You probably won’t make it.
…he would do things differently for a future book:
I would approach the book with […] far more concern about conveying the damn joy of what I do for a living.
The pleasure of writing, not just having written is captured by James Chudley when he recalls:
How much I enjoy writing and also how much I enjoy the discipline or having a side project like this. It’s a really good supplement to working life.
And Jon Hicks has words that any author will find comforting:
It will be fine. Everything will be fine. Just get on with it!
As the web expands effortlessly and ceaselessly to make room for all our words, yet it can also discourage the accumulation of any particular theme in one space, dividing rich seams and scattering knowledge across the web’s surface and into its deepest reaches. How many words become weightless and insubstantial, signals lost in the constant white noise of indistinguishable voices, unloved, unlinked? The web forgets constantly, despite the (somewhat empty) promise of digital preservation: articles and data are sacrificed to expediency, profit and apathy; online attention, acknowledgement and interest wax and wane in days, hours even.
So: a book.
Ever thought you could write one? Should write one? Would?
I’d like to thank all the authors who wrote their books and answered my questions.
- Rachel Andrew · CSS3 Layout Modules, The CSS3 Anthology and more
- Cennydd Bowles · Undercover User Experience Design, with James Box
- Tim Brown · Combining Typefaces
- James Chudley · Usability of Web Photos
- Andrew Clarke · Hardboiled Web Design
- Geri Coady · Colour Accessibility
- Andy Croll · HTML Email
- Anna Debenham · Front-end Style Guides
- Aaron Gustafson · Adaptive Web Design
- Val Head · CSS Animations
- Jon Hicks · The Icon Handbook
- Joe Leech · Psychology for Designers
- Christopher Murphy · The Craft of Words, with Niklas Persson
- Donna Spencer · Information Architecture, Card Sorting and How to Write Great Copy for the Web
- Brian Suda · Designing with Data
- Chui Chui Tan · International User Research
- Andrew Travers · Interviewing for Research
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