Episode 129 of The Informed Life podcast once again featured my friend Steve Portigal. Steve is an independent user research design consultant and the author of Interviewing Users and Doorbels, Danger, and Dead Batteries. Steve and I both have new books, so we thought it’d be fun to compare notes on writing non fiction.
This was the second part of our conversation. The first part, which came out two weeks ago, focused on our motivations for writing. Our second episode focused on our processes — how we actually went about writing our books.
Specifically, we honed in on the part of the process where you’re trying to make sense of the material; the ‘morass,’ as I called it. Organizing ideas is a big challenge, especially when you’re starting from scratch. At one point of the conversation, I recommended assuming you’ll write at least two full drafts of the book, with the first serving as a way to get your thoughts out before committing to a structure that works for the material in the second draft.
That said, Steve rightfully called out that each book demands a different approach. For example, second (and subsequent) editions come with a “first draft” built-in, in the form of the existing version of the book. As he put it, “writing this second edition [of Interviewing Users], the book was there so I could revise the structure as opposed to coming up with the structure.”
Both of us agreed that the beginning of the process can be intimidating. It helps to get something down you can react to. Steve uses word processors (e.g., Google Docs) to capture and outline his thoughts. I use virtual whiteboards (e.g., Tinderbox and Freeform) to make two-dimensional matrices of sticky notes. We explored the differences between these approaches.
And this led to highlighting a key principle: different people think differently. What works for Steve might not work for me and vice-versa. As an author, you must find what works for you — especially, what makes the process joyful. Writing a book requires having the discipline to put in the work on a regular basis. It’s gonna be harder if you’re forcing yourself to use tools and processes that don’t make you happy.
And that led to the last part of our conversation, where I talked a bit about how I’m using LLMs as part of the writing process. I wrote the bulk of Duly Noted before ChatGPT came out, so it didn’t play a major role in producing this book. But I’ll almost certainly use AI as an assistant for my next book.
If you’re considering writing a (nonfiction) book, these two conversations might be useful. As always, I hope you find value in the podcast. (And if you do, please won’t you leave a review and/or rate the show? It helps other folks find it.)