Posts tagged tool
How to Select A How to Book Writing System: Understanding What’s Available
Video 3 of 4
Now that we know our needs, what is available. Again we’re going to create a framework but this time we’re going to try to place the available systems on that framework.
First off systems fit somewhere on the line from unstructured to structured. By this I mean that the system imposes a structure on you. Or to put it another way, creates an acceptable structure as part of it’s functioning. Unstructured means that the system won’t create a structure at all. It’s focus is on other things. It presumes that you, as the writer, will impose a focus.
The second dimension of importance is cognitive or non-cognitive. Think of cognitive as ergonomics for the brain. A cognitive system uses the brain’s own way of functioning to accomplish it’s purposes. A non-cognitive tool simply does what it needs to do without regard to how the brain works.
There are four basic tools or systems in use:
- Speed Writing
- Outlining aka the school system
- Structured cognitive
Speed Writing is a system developed by journalists to help them generate small articles very quickly. Pick 3/5/7 words that describe the subject. Then write for 5/10/15 minutes as quickly as you can, without stopping, without editing and without interruptions. Then stop. This system is non-structured and non-cognitive.
Outlining is the system you learned in school. Write down in order what you will write about. It is non-cognitive however it is structured although arguably not completely.
These are the two most common systems on the market.
Mindmapping (and to a lesser extend brainstorming) is the next most common system in use. It is a cognitive tool which involves drawing a circle for the concept and then lines for the ideas which grow from the concept. In more generic terms it is called a (single node) semantic network diagram. It is excellent for getting ideas out of one’s head and documenting the relationships between ideas. However, like the brain, it really doesn’t function well as a sequential organizer of facts.
Both of the non-structural systems have a problem in that neither is capable of organizing the facts appropriately for a complex piece of writing like a book. Therefore many of the systems built on the speed writing or mindmapping patch on outlining/school techniques to the end of the system. However, the core of the system remains the initial technique.
All of the three systems mentioned so far have a serious problem in that they are partial systems only and require extensive input by the writer. Effectively, they depend on the writer’s skill to perform their functions. As a result they are limited when functioning for increasing complexity. However, they are flexible and are capable of providing assistance for whatever type of writing (time or fact) being done.
Cognitive structured systems, on the other hand, are complete systems which help guide the writer to a successful conclusion. Unfortunately, because they are comprehensive they are not flexible. When selecting a system it is imperative for the writer to choose one based on the type of writing (time or fact) which they will be doing. They function well over the whole complexity dimension however, they shine in as the writing becomes more complex.
Cognitive structured systems are based on one of two tools. Time based systems use a time line and tend to be more complex with other tools being incorporated. Fact based systems tend to use a structured mindmapping tool. The LearningCreators’ system is an example of this type.
So over the last two weeks I’ve talked about the four types of books and why the Content Mapping System works for them – or doesn’t.
While the system isn’t a panacea and it doesn’t work for all books, it does work in most cases for how to books and why to books. In short, most non-fiction.
This is true because most non-fiction books are fact based regardless of their organization. Even if they are a simple collection, they still need to be organized. If they are a how to, they still need to be organized. So it doesn’t matter if they are sequential, fact-based or collections, they are still a set of facts that need to be organized. And the best system to do that is the Content Mapping System you can find here in video form (for free) or here in book form (not free).
A minor exception to the above rule is sequential based books. With sequential or process based books you need to add pretty pictures. In other words, flow or process diagrams. But the basic Content Map system works quite well and does allow for adding this type of information. (Yes, believe it or not it is a function of the tool. We don’t talk about it very much but it is part of the proper use of the tool.)
The major exception to the above are time based books. These are histories, (auto-)biographies and fiction. Because they are time based they need a tool which is time based … in other words a time chart based system. Sorry but the Content Mapping system just isn’t the right system for those books.
A couple of final comments.
First, an historical analysis is not a time based book. It is primarily a fact based book. Having said that you may want to use a time chart to help document the occurence of the actions which you are analysing. This leads to the second comment.
The system allows you to use pictures and diagrams when they communicate the information better than words. Don’t be afraid to use them! After all a picture is worth a thousand words. This also applies within your book. Sometimes words are not the best tools to communicate with. Sometimes pictures are. Never be afraid of diagrams. And don’t forget to use boxes … those little quick fact summary boxes you see in some books or at the side of articles. They help to seperate the book and to emphasize key facts.
So enjoy the Content Mapping System and learn to write books in less than 24 hours. Just remember that the system doesn’t work for all books, just non-fiction. It works great for how to books!
Enjoy, learn & get earning.
& the LearningCreators team
Have you wondered why we constantly repeat variations on the phrase
Writing How To Books
when we refer to our system?
There really is a reason.
When I originally looked at the different types of books, I categorized them into two types – fact & time. As you can tell from the first post in this series there are more. But fact & time are the two major breakdowns.
Most non-fiction books are fact based.
Fiction, on the other hand, is time based.
If you tell a story, which is what fiction purports to do, then you are describing something that takes place over and through time. This happened then, this happened now and this will happen.
Much of which is causally interrelated. (Hey, I like that phrase … one thing leads to another is SO overused don’t you think?)
Most non-fiction but not all. Histories and biographies (including auto-) are time based. They take place over time and while you may need to link the parts or explain the pieces or even make an argument, the defining characteristic is time.
Because fiction, histories and biographies are not a collection of facts but rather time based they require the use of a different tool.
Yes, the same issues exist. Information comes out of your brain in a disorganized fashion. It needs to be organized. The best way is with a structured brainstorming tool. So far cool. Exactly the same as fact based.
The difference is that the tool needed is a form of timeline (rather than Semantic Network Diagram). Why? Because you need to organize around the timeline and it’s interrelationships. Think of it as a Timeline Network Diagram with a few added bits. Why added bits? Because you still need to organize the facts you’ll state, and the arguments you’ll make.
That’s why we try to be so clear around our system. While the process itself is the same, the tool used is not. The tool we used is based around fact organization not time and facts.
So the question often asked is “Can you use the Content Map to design a fiction book and a biography?”. Surprisingly enough the answer is YES … Are you confused yet????
You see, the content map only works for part of the job (remember the added bits?). It isn’t the best tool for the job. A timeline based tool is.
That’s why we constantly say for Writing How To Books.
It’s not that the system doesn’t work for others … it’s just not the best system available. So why use it? Wouldn’t you rather use the best system for what you are doing? We would rather you did!
The obvious solution if you want to tweak WordPress themes (looking like everyone else is kind of cheesy) is to buy a software package that generates themes.
Sounds great. And there are some out there that do it.
But again there’s a big variation in the quality of both the artistic and programming sides.
So that means you are going to have to spend some time evaluating the packages. Do they meet your needs? Can you select all the different formats you need? Can you add new formats? Do the menus work? Does the display work for all browsers?
And once again you’ll need to evaluate. Am I better spending programmer and artist time cross checking the package. Or would I be better developing a package myself?
Lesson Learned #3:
Custom – Package; Custom – Package; Only your developer will know for sure
There are a lot of tool packages out there to design WordPress (and other) themes. And a lot of tool packages to design.
Unfortunately, a lot of them are pretty pathetic. Both in flexibility and quality – technical and artistic.
But for $100 or so it may just make sense.
Unfortunately, you will still need to evaluate the quality of the theme. So be prepared to spend money to have a developer evaluate the package output for you.
Also don’t forget to review your requirements. Specifically can the package be customized (either through plug-ins or widgets) to implement your requirements. If you need 3 sidebars and the package only allows two you are going to have a problem!
And be sure to check the price of doing it according to Lesson Learned #2. You may find that getting it done once professionally may be cheaper than modifying the package output.
So I’ve gone looking through all these themes and what do I find?
Lots of really talented web designer/artist types. With zero ability to develop web programs.
I also found (almost) zero theme’s that matched my needs — artistically or functionally.
In fact, the only theme I found that I liked was so limited that I couldn’t use it and couldn’t adapt it – at least not without a major rewrite.
And while it’s nice … it ain’t got that special thang!
So I’m going to end up going through this process all over again. Fortunately, not as extensively.
So what’s the solution?
First break the problem into two parts. After all, it’s going to take two different specialists to solve the problem. The artist/designer to look after the overall graphics look. And the web developer who makes sure all the php and xhtml and other bits and pieces actually work. Especially the menus.
WordPress is very powerful. It’s very flexible. But it does do only one thing and does it in a particular way. There’s only so many choices that make sense. Unless of course you are really creative in your business. And the truth is there’s no point. This is a business tool not a personal toy.
That means that there are perhaps 1/2 dozen different variations on layouts for the WordPress theme. Plus a half dozen or so menu possibilities.
Spend some time, identify the ones you like and will use. For example, all the ones that have a left sidebar are out. Why? Because Google doesn’t like left sidebars. So there’s no point designing one. (Yes, there are exceptions — this is an example only).
You’ll end up with a selection of basic templates. You should also end up with a basic set of requirements/needs. Hire a web developer and have him/her develop a theme for each of those templates you may want to use. You may find that you end up with only one or two templates.
Then hire an artist/designer to design the overall graphical look. Have him design several screens. Don’t forget to include both static web and blog type pages. Once those designs are converted to CSS, you should be able to plug the design into the theme you’ve chosen.
Result. You’ve now got a quality theme with a look that shouts “BUY FROM ME!”
Lesson Learned #2:
If you’re going to do this regularly … spend some money and get some designs done in advance.
It’s a lot easier/faster to get a site up if you don’t have spend time figuring out which theme is best. And then have to test the theme to make sure it actually works.
So better to spend some money. Get a developer to put together a basic framework or three. Keep it flexible. Keep it simple. Make it easy to modify.
Then hire an artist to put together a number of pages for you (meaning colour schemes, background art, and banners. All the graphics you will need).
Then when you start a new business or change an existing one, just select the form, select the theme and put them together.
Nice, easy, simple. In the end cheaper too!
Okay. It’s no secret that I’ve long decried the quality of tools available to the P/C programmer.
But after this last bit of nonsense I’m not sure who is to blame. The tool manufacturers, the people who work for them or their customers!
Now I’m not the world’s best art director. My wife, the artist, would probably argue that I can’t match socks let alone colour schemes. Successfully I might add. I’ve been married for 18 years — she always wins arguments like that :D
But what I am is reasonably capable as a web developer (aka programmer).
So when we converted to WordPress I made the (wise ????) decision that I wasn’t going to design my own theme. I would go looking for a theme that looked good and then tweak it to have the sidebars & widgets that I needed & wanted. Should only take an hour or so right? WRONG!
What I found when I went looking is that there are a lot of really skilled web designers out there. Some real artists.
And not a blasted one of them can program!
Virtually every theme I liked had at least one major flaw. I can’t tell you how many theme’s I checked where the menu didn’t work. And that’s not counting the number where they didn’t even try to get it to work! (Yo … Note to artists … the reason WordPress allows a structure with pages is that multiple levels are a pretty common technique for organizing what you’re doing).
Of course, every once in a while I ran into a theme that worked well. It was obvious that another developer had put it together. Very obvious. But it was well structured. The only problem is that spending three days trying to understand “pea, pea, where’s the pea?” style coding just doesn’t turn me on anymore. Some day I”ll figure out how to change the framework to display the way I want … but don’t hold your breath.
I could go on with other examples but I won’t.
So what does all this come down to?
Lesson Learned #1:
Find a theme you like and then just live within it’s limitations.
At least initially. Just get the site up with the basic theme as given. Trying to tweak a theme is a study in frustration. Don’t worry about being unique. Don’t worry about it having all the elements you need. Just get it up as written. Do the best you can. Then AFTER you’ve got it up, if you’ve got the time. You can always try to improve/tweak/fix it later.
For those of you who were hoping I’d start keeping this blasted blog up to date …. sorry.
So what’s happenin’ now?
We’re changing again. We’ve updated the TrainingNOW site to better capabilities and are now going to host LearningCreators.com on it.
Why? Mostly because the site we have now is a proprietary blog tool (DOTEASY provides it) and is actually located in a different location. So Google et al. thinks this is a seperate site.
We, on the other hand, think it should be part of the main LearningCreators.com site.
By moving this site over to the upgraded TrainingNOW site, we get to use WordPress (much more powerful) and also to include it inside the LearningCreators.com site.
But of course, there’s a heck of a lot of work involved. So that’s my focus over the next week. New blog entries need to wait until I can move the site over.
But I will be back …. probably with some comments on spending money.
Keep Learning & Get Earning
Glen Ford & The LearningCreators team.
While using a secretary is a luxury most of us can’t afford, and using a computer to do transcription sounds rather sci-fi, there is a technique that is affordable and practical.
If you are one of those people who are unable or unwilling to type, then recording your book is a practical possibility.
This technique involves recording your voice using a digital recorder (or a tool like Audacity). The recording is then copied to the computer and emailed to a service like Inteliants or Production Transcripts or a number of other services.
There are three big problems with these types of services. The first is the cost. Generally these services charge from $1.00-$2.00/min.. For a normal ebook, that means they will be charging in the area of $1,000 to $2,000 or more. Less than a secretary but still quite expensive.
The second issue is the turnaround time. Most services run 2-3 day turnaround. One day turnaround is sometimes available but usually at a higher cost.
The third issue is that these services often use foreign transcribers and/or computer transcription to reduce their costs. The transcriptions are therefore often filled with errors and mistakes — not all the result of poor recordings.
This last issue means that it is mandatory that you review all transcriptions very closely and carefully. The errors that are made will quickly brand you as an amateur.
Despite these issues, this technique can be quite successful and can represent a major improvement in efficiency.
So for those of us writing a how to book without the advantage of royalty and money what are we going to do? You know those of us who stir our tea with stainless steel spoons and who don’t have secretarial staffs to write our latest romance for us!
Don’t worry we’ve got a secretary too! A cheap one (YAAAYYYY! I like cheap.) It’s called a computer.
I’m talking about voice recognition software. There’s a lot of it out there. Dragon Naturally Speaking comes to mind as the most well known. But there’s also e-Speaking and IBM’s ViaVoice and WhyType and julius and CMU Sphinx … you get the idea. Of course there are new ones appearing and disapearing on a regular basis (IBM ViaVoice for example).
This software translates the words you speak into a microphone into words that appear on the screen in a word processing program. In fact, some Word processors come equipped with built in speech recognition/voice recognition software.
The big advantage is that you are entering words at almost twice the speed of typing.
The disadvantages have to do with the need to train the software. And the need to correct the result. Training the software can take an extended amount of time and be very frustrating. The big frustration, however, is looking at your manuscript and finding all the mis-translations after all the effort in translating.
The second disappointment comes when you realize that you can only speak in bursts. While we speak faster than we type, we think even faster still. That difference is used by many writers to figure out what they are going to say next. A difference that reduces severely when speaking. As a result we tend to speak in bursts rather than at the full speed we have available.
Despite the sci-fi feel, speech recognition/voice recognition is a viable tool for writing and worh trying. Unless of course, you’re old fashioned like me!
Hey, I finally decided to jump on to Twitter. You can follow PMPsicle (me) by clicking here.
I don’t know if it will be worth my time to maintain it. But I’m amazed at the number of people who are following me already. So I can understand why people say it is such a great marketing tool
By the way, PMPsicle is the moniker I’m using on Techrepublic. If you are interested in project management or consulting come and check out my comments.