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Copyright Melanie Spiller 2011. Do not copy without permission.
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When the Project is Right for You

Youíre starting to get visible: you post on forums regularly, youíre the corporate go-to guy, and your topic-specific blog gets hundreds of hits every day. The phone rings, and itís an acquisitions editor wondering if youíd 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) donít 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, thereís more to consider than thatóexpertise, timing, compatibility with the publisher, and your writing skills.

 

If youíre excited by your topic and write to the forums and in your blog all the time, you already know what community Iím talking about. Thereís a whole subset of the larger population that gets just as excited about your topic as you do. Or, and the most likely, thereís 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 youíre 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 youíre 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 youíre moving around within a company, freelancing, or applying for a new position. Letís say your blog gets 200 hits a day. For the most part, those are the same people over and over, so thatís 200 people who respect your expertise. Maybe 50 people at your company know who you are, so thatís 250 people. You have a couple of former employers who remember you fondly, so maybe thatís 300 people. Of those 300 people, youíll be lucky if five (that's a 1.75% marketing success rate) 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, and then nothing will come of it.

 

Most publishers wonít 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, thatís 175 potential employers, not to mention probable articles, collaborations, revisions, and freelance development that might come of it. Now youíre looking at making a living. Itís not immediate, of course, but itís like getting a college education: the big pay off is a few years down the line, but you canít deny that itís a good investment.

 

Okay, so now that motivations and expectations are out of the way, how do you know that itís 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. Thatís more important than writing skills (horrors!) because your editor can improve your writing.  Youíre on your own with technical expertise. There will be a technical editor, most likely, but theyíre responsible for making sure things work as you say they do, not filling in the gaps in your expertise.

 

To know whether youíre 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 elseís 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-lawís health is stable, whether you have that class reunion to attend, or if youíve already bought tickets for that dream vacation), try to compute how long it might take. If you donít know whether youíre a slow writer or not, write a page to see how it goes. Donít use a large font and donít stop typing until youíre 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 tooófigure out how long it will take to adjust to the publisherís 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 youíve never heard of them, what can you find out? Of their published pieces, how does the one youíre considering fit in? Is it part of a series on related topics? If itís 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 itís your idea, the publisher will respond with indifference if they donít think it will sell. That doesnít mean theyíre right, but if two or three publishers donít like it, youíre probably on the wrong track. Try to get them to explain why they donít like the project so you can adjust your plan.) If you proposed it, what brought you to choose this particular publication or book publisheróthe topics they cover, the way they cover topics, or brand name visibility?

 

Once youíve 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), thatís all you need. But if youíre 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. Youíve 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 youíve written with something youíve 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. Donít try to compare writing payment with development paymentóthe 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.