How I went from a 5-line, 11-word outline to shipping an ebook in 12 hours
I shipped a new ebook yesterday. It's called Reboot Your Inner Software Engineer: A winning basic strategy for crafting an effective and sustainable career in software engineering.
I wrote it in one mega 12-hour session, starting at 10pm Friday night and finishing at 10am Saturday morning. I got the book written and edited to the best of my abilities, and dozed off several times while uploading it and setting up the final auto-responder email.
I started with the following outline:
- your journey
- redefine yourself
- praise science
- solve any problem
- ignore recruiters
12-hours later I had completed a 44-page ebook. True story.
Want to know how I did it? I used the process I learned from Amy Hoy & Alex Hillman. Check it out:
I did my research
They call the never-ending-research process Safari. It's not "read stuff and take notes" research, it's a systematic process for identifying pains that people feel. Once you can really feel their pain, you can start to think of ways to fix it. This is in stark contrast to the "zomg I have an amazing idea that the world will love" process which I followed for years, which led to lots of wasted time.
I wrote the pitch first
Again, straight out of 30x500. This is so hard to wrap your head around at first, but you get better the more you practice it.
Whether you charge for something or give it away, you have two basic steps: make the thing, and offer the thing. I want to be confident in the thing I'm offering people, so I want to make the thing first. That way I know what I'm offering people.
It turns out, people don't care about the thing. They care about themselves. It makes sense - what's more important to you? Yourself, or an ebook that some random dude on the internet wrote. Stupid question, right?
Writing the pitch first means I'm not focused on the thing. It means I'm focused on YOU. Maybe not you specifically, but it's certainly not focused on me. It's focused on the "you" that I identified as part of my research process. It's focused on the "you" whose pain I feel and know that I can help alleviate.
If I've done my job right, when people read that pitch page, they respond with either "meh" or "AWESOME!!". That's downright beautiful.
If my pitch page doesn't resonate with you, I want you to move on. I don't want to waste your time. I want you to look at a different page on a different site that helps you. Better yet, I want you to go outside, or spend time with your family, or write a cool new computer program. I certainly don't want to send something to your inbox, have you slog through a 44-page ebook, and THEN say "meh". So let's get the "meh" out of the way as fast as possible so we can both go about our lives.
If my pitch does resonate with you, however, you know it right away. There's no mistake that I'm talking about YOU, and that I made this for YOU, and I want YOU to have it - and that's why I'm giving it to you for free. I know it will help you, and I want you to have it, and I want to know what you think when you're done with it.
At this point, I still didn't have an idea for what the thing was. I just knew exactly who it was for, and how it could help them. Once I had that, I made that 5-line, 11-word outline you saw earlier. That's all I needed to get going.
I would not have been able to produce that outline, or that ebook, if I were simply thinking about how to help people. I had to sell them on it first - show people that I understand their pain, that I've experienced it, and that I can help them. Getting my act together in demonstrating who, how, and why I can help is what allowed me to then brainstorm the specifics of helping them. Which as you can see, did not require much detail.
I worked fast
I had two huge things going in my favor for this:
- I knew my audience, what their pains are, how I could help, and that they would care
- I've written 132 blog posts spanning nearly 8 years. I don't need to hem and haw. Homie can write.
#1 allowed me to stay focused and motivated. When I don't know who I'm writing for, I lose track of what I'm doing. I lose confidence and focus. I waste a lot of time. Knowing my audience gave me a stupid simple way of evaluating every word I wrote - if they don't care, I axe it. Because I had done my research, the words poured out and I could evaluate them on the fly.
When I say I know who I wrote it for, I mean that I could tell you the names of the exact people that I wrote it for. But I won't, because that wouldn't be cool. If you Safari the same watering holes that I did, and you read the pitch page, and you read the book, I wouldn't be at all surprised if you could identify the exact people I wrote it for.
#2 gave me the confidence to Just Flippin Do It. I've shipped 132 blog posts over nearly 8 years. I don't even want to think about the number of mailing list messages I've written. I have tons more unpublished stuff on my computer. I never had to stop and worry how people would feel about my writing, or if I'm really a writer, or any of that nonsense. I knew what I had to say, and that I've practiced putting what I have to say in writing for at least 8 years. Am I a great writer? Hardly. I'm not not a writer though, and knowing that was key for me.
I didn't set out to write a 44-page ebook
I am pretty amazed at what I did. I don't claim that it's a great book, or a world-changing book, or anything like that. I know for a fact that it's an honest book, and that it can help people who read it. I'm amazed that in 12 hours I was able to produce and ship an 8466-word ebook that I know can help people. It actually kind of blows my mind, and makes me super excited for what I can produce in the future.
I wrote from that 11-word outline. I pasted it into my text editor and got to work. I didn't bother with chapters, or sections, or organizing stuff. I iterated on the outline, writing phrases here and there, cutting and pasting things around until I had some key phrases in each section. I just kept going until I was done.
I knew I wanted it to be a PDF, but I thought it would be a little workbook around 3-5 pages long. And maybe it could have been, but that's not what I ended up making.
Had I said to myself from the outset: "I want to write a 40-50 page ebook" then I would have set myself a writing schedule. I would have planned to write 500 words per day, and I wouldn't have shipped it for at least two more weeks. And because at that point it would be a project I'd committed to for two weeks, I would have been much more careful and sensitive with it. I would have delayed the shipping even further, and I probably would have ruined it.
I doubt anyone in the world would know that I produced the whole thing in 12 hours if I didn't tell anyone. Nobody would have written me an email saying: "dude this was obviously a rush job, it sucks." I knew it was a quality piece of work as soon as I finished it, and I'm proud to say that. It wasn't perfect - I got about 20 errata reports from Jon Kern who is a total badass and sent me live errata reports as he read through it. I read each of his emails and fixed the issues and uploaded new versions. Within an hour or so of Jon downloading the book, I had published 5 or 6 updates that fixed major readability issues. Now I'm even more proud of it.
Jon, for those who don't know, is a co-author of the Agile Manifesto, which is one of the most significant documents in my life. He's said some pretty amazing things about the ebook. You can bet your ass that getting that kind of feedback from a co-author of this inspiring, influential piece of writing has me pumped to get back to work. I get that feeling today, as opposed to two weeks from now or potentially even longer.
You can do it too
I've always believed that if 1 other person in the world is doing something, then I can do it too. I believe that even if 0 people are doing something then I can still do it, but 1 example is the black swan.
The same goes for you. If I can do this, so can you. If you want to make stuff that people care about, nothing's stopping you other than some suboptimal thinking going on in your brain. You can fix that with some work.
I've shared a bit about the mindset I had when producing this ebook. I will tell you straight up though: I still have no idea what I'm doing. I'm just running experiments and learning from them. Amy & Alex know what they're doing though, and they can give you a process to run the same sort of experiments that I've been doing.