Writing a book

As you might have noticed, things have been kind of quiet around here on the Electronic Museum blog.

Two big things have been occupying me recently and form the basis for my non-blogging excuse. One: I just co-organised a ridiculously exciting mobile conference in Bath called The Big M. I won’t talk about this more here – if you’re interested, go have a look at the conference blog over on http://blog.thebigm.mobi. But needless to say, it has been eating up most of my spare time in the last few weeks.

Two – and the thing I want to just quickly write about here – is that after more than a year of writing I’ve finally submitted the last draft of my book to my editor. Hurrah.

Here are a few slightly random observations that I’ve take away from the whole experience. These are my observations about my experience, by the way – I’m not suggesting they’ll be right for you…

1. This hasn’t felt like childbirth*

You know those loooong projects? The ones where you get to the end of them, send the final email / go live / etc – and then swear blind that you’ll never do that EVER again as you take up smoking and cry over about 10 pints of cider?

That hasn’t been the case for me in this instance, at all. This has been one of the most sustained things I’ve done for a while – writing every single day for more than a year – and yet I can say with my hand on my heart that I have enjoyed the entire thing – and not only that, I very much want to do it again. This has come as some surprise to me.

(* disclaimer: yes, I’m being facetious; no, I obviously don’t know what childbirth is like; yes, I was there; no, it didn’t hurt…)

2. Being disciplined is absolutely key

When I started writing I took the unusual step (for me) of deciding to be totally regimented with my approach. Here’s what I did – and please promise not to laugh – it worked for me ­čÖé

Right at the beginning, I knocked out a quick Google spreadsheet which calculated how many days remained between the current day and my deadline. I then simply divided things up so I ended up with a “how many words you need to write today” figure for all the time remaining. I also did a bit of maths to show what percentage of this daily target I managed to write on each day.

This did two important things for me. One, it meant that my big fear of an end-loaded panic a month before my deadline was easily avoidable. Two, it meant that I could bust a gut on some nights and knock out way more than my “quota” and then relax at the weekends and not do any writing at all.

As I said above, this kind of discipline isn’t natural to me, but – more by accident than design – it really worked. I’d recommend it.

3. Software matters (a bit)

Much as book writing is obviously all about content, the process by which that writing happens can obviously be helped along by the technology. I had the good fortune to discover a piece of desktop software called Scrivener (used to be just Mac, but now PC as well). It is specifically designed for people writing long scripts – and lets you do things which are very clumsy in “normal” word-processing software like Word: shuffling blocks of text around, comparing one block from one chapter with another, finding and replacing, section word counts and so on. There are probably other ways of doing this, but I for one couldn’t imagine the horror of working on a 60,000 word document in The Beast that is MS Word…

Secondly – it’s an obvious one but always worth re-iterating – backup, backup your backup and then backup the backup you did before you did the backup… I’m a huge Dropbox fan, and trust it implicitly, but that didn’t stop me making copies and FTPing them into hidden folders on my web hosting, emailing them to my mum, putting them on a CD, etc, etc. The disaster of loss was too much to countenance…

Thirdly – although this came as no┬ásurprise, it turns out my publisher doesn’t use any of the tools that would actually make their lives very much easier: in an ideal world I’d have had a shared Dropbox folder with my editor, compared documents on Google Docs and so on. The reality – of course! – was email + Word with tracked changes. What a missed opportunity!

There’s lots of other stuff I learnt as I went along but this post is in danger of becoming a book all of it’s own, so I’ll stop there.

It’d be interesting to hear what you think, especially if you’ve gone through this yourself…

Managing and growing a cultural heritage web presence

I’m absolutely delighted (and only slightly scared) to announce that I’ve been commissioned to write a book for Facet Publishing.

Ever since I started working with museums online, I’ve felt that there is a need for strategic advice to help managers of cultural heritage web presences. There are of course hundreds of thousands of resources if you’ve got technical questions, but not many places where you can ask things like “how should I build my web team and structure my budget?” or “how do I write a strategy or business plan?”.

Facet approached me in July asking whether I’d be interested in authoring something for them, and this seemed like the ideal opportunity to try and answer some of these questions.

My (draft) synposis is as follows:

This book will provide a guide for anyone looking to build or maintain a cultural heritage web presence. It will aim to cater both to those who are single-handedly trying to keep their site running on limited budget and time as well as those who have big teams, large budgets and time to spend.

As well as describing the strategic approaches which are required to develop a successful online presence, the book will contain data and case studies on current practice from large and small cultural heritage institutions. This research will help give the reader an insight into how these institutions manage their websites as well as providing hints and tips on best practice. It will have an accompanying web presence which will provide template downloads and other up-to-date information including links and white papers.

As you’ll see, I have no intention of trying to do this all by myself – over the coming year I’m going to be on the phone to many of you (hide now!) asking how you do what you do, and compiling this into what I hope will be a useful guide.

If you have any ideas about what I should include, or the questions I should be asking – please do get in touch either via this blog or on Twitter at @m1ke_ellis!