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June 25, 2007

7 ways the Web makes writing a book better & faster

by Josh Bernoff

Based on the schedules that the publishing industry lives on, we need to complete a draft of Groundswell very soon. Even so, I believe we are delivering material with a high degree of quality. I thought I'd take a moment to talk about how writing a book is different now -- better, faster, more global, more collaborative -- and the technologies I use that make this all possible. This is a highly personal description from a guy who started using computers 25 years ago -- and a measure of how an old guy uses and doesn't use some of the better new technologies.

1. Collaboration with a wiki. Charlene and I have put as much as we can into a SocialText wiki. It's contains research interviews, title ideas, the latest table of contents, the elements of the proposal that got us here, everything. I just added a page which tracks all the chapters as they move through various writing, editing, and review stages. We don't generally use the Wiki to write the chapters -- the drafts still move back and forth by email, partly since SocialText can't quite handle all the formatting flexibility that MS Word can -- but copies of the chapters do live there. A bicoastal collaboration needs a wiki. We also share it with other interested parties including my boss, Charlene's boss, and our editor at HBS Press.

2. This blog for testing ideas. I can't count the ways that a blog helps. When we think we have a good idea, it goes up here. For example, the five goals of a company for social computing, which became the core of the book. We put our outline up here for your review. That post became extremely useful, because I reference it in every email I send to people I'm trying to influence or interview. People doing interesting things contact us because of the blog. And I'm not even getting to the uses of the blog for promotion, which will start after the book is written, but well before it's published.

3. Del.icio.us for gathering research documents. Every story, vendor, YouTube video, and anything else on the Web gets tossed into the del.icio.us bucket. I rarely used to bookmark things -- now I bookmark everything. These sites are even classified with our own proprietary set of tags that indicate what chapter they relate to. (We'll share this when the book is closer to done -- right now it's proprietary.) I don't believe we could have written this book without del.icio.us.

4. Email for everything -- but highly personalized. Every single contact in this book -- and there will be hundreds and hundreds -- will have been made by email. I'm sure you're not surprised that I email Charlene 10 times a day and do a few IM conversations, but I'm talking about making introductions by email. If I need to introduce myself to somebody, I send a personalized email describing the book in one sentence, linking to the blog post about the book, and telling them what I want and making it clear I have researched them and know what they are about -- and I frequently get a response the same day. This email might take 15 minutes to write, but it's worth it -- it's the opposite of mass emailings, highly personal and personalized.  (I recently invited a CEO to speak at our Forum in October and got an affirmative response within two hours -- astounding our events team.) Where do I get the email addresses? Forrester has a database that may or may not help. Easier is finding the PR email address on a company's site. Often somebody I know, knows it. Sometimes I use Zoominfo's PowerSearch. And sometimes, if I know the email address of somebody else at the company, I guess based on that format. That actually works -- recently got the CEO of an Italian company to get back to me that way.

At first I had big spreadsheets full of contacts I was pursuing on Google docs but I've found a better way. I just flag all incoming and outcoming mail that relates to contacts. The yellow flag means I've pinged somebody and need them to get back to me. Then I just check all those flags when I'm in followup mode. It's not ACT, but it works for me!

5. A big monitor in a quiet office. When I am ensconced in my home office with my high-speed Internet, VOIP phone line, home network, and big flat monitor, I am highly productive. The big monitor has made a big difference -- I no longer feel cramped and squeezed by my laptop screen, and I frequently have one thing up on the laptop (like a Web site, or edits I need to address, or an interview) while I write on the big monitor. When I'm not at home, my productivity goes down. My home office, while it's in the basement, also has a window out onto my lawn, a fireplace, a hardwood floor, big whiteboards filled with the stuff I'm working on and my kids' artwork, and quick access to the kitchen and my family when I need to decompress. Makes all the hours possible.

6. A phone line that follows me anywhere. Forrester has an Avaya phone system with a cool little feature -- an Internet app I can run on my laptop that turns any phone into my office phone. At my home office, I can call Japan using Forrester's phone system, conference people together, transfer them to other Forrester extensions -- everything I can do at my desk. And if I go anywhere else, I can do this with any phone line -- my mobile, Forrester's Foster City office, or my parents' house. People see my caller ID as if I were calling from Forrester, and my voicemail is one click away. I find this far better than giving everyone my mobile phone number.

7. Firefox and Netvibes. I use Firefox for everything possible, because the tabbed browsing and the bookmarklets make it very efficient for me. I cannot survive without tabbed browsing since I am typically browsing 4 or 8 things at once to build a chapter. (I know IE has tabbed browsing now but it's too late, I'm happy with Firefox.) I use Netvibes to track a surprisingly small number of blogs including Micropersuasion, The Church Of The Customer, The Long Tail, Blog Maverick, and Seth Godin. I also have up TechCrunch, GigaOm, TechMeme, and TechDirt, but they post so frequently that I don't read them unless something catches my eye.

There are lots of other tools from Technorati to Google Search but we all use them so why even bother talking about them?

Interestingly, I do not read email on a mobile phone -- I have a positively anachronistic Moto Razr -- I don't twitter, and I don't IM except with other Forrester analysts. And I don't check email every 10 minutes. These activities are interruptions for the most part and interfere with writing and interviews I need to do. If I had to rank what I use most -- and what has changed the way I work most since I became a writer -- it would be personalized email, del.icio.us, tabbed browsing, and that big monitor.

What are your favorite productivity tools, and what tools waste the most of your time?

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If your book turns out to be not so good, will you go back to legal pads and pencils and abandon these new-fangled services?

Seems kind of problematic to advocate these strategies as somehow "better" before the book is done and evaluated by your peers . . . People have been writing bad books for quite awhile with lots of neat technology.

Josh Bernoff

John: if our book is no good, it's our fault, obviously.

But if it is good, it could never have been completed without these tools.

We get a lot of questions about the tools we use -- people seem interested -- so I thought it was worth sharing.

Debbie Weil

I also used delicious extensively while writing The Corporate Blogging Book (Portfolio 2006). Fantastic tool. It's like having a filing cabinet "in the sky." You can throw any Web page (or blog entry) you run across into your delicious account and then find it later.

IF... you can keep your tagging folksonomy straight. I must admit I could never remember whether I was using "ceo blog" or "ceo bloggers" or "ceo blogging" (for example). So I'd use all of them. (There is a way to "consolidate" your related tags, I learned later).

Good luck on your book!

Jonny Bentwood

Good post and also something I am looking into as well. My only question is that dod you start off with 10 ways and narrow it down to 7?

Only saying this as the title of your post (7) differs to the web address (10).

Josh Bernoff

@Jonny Bentwood

Just pushed the publish button too fast -- there are not 3 missing items here, there were always only 7.

T1 Internet Service

Good article about high speed T1 Internet Service because it is the future of internet technology.

Collaboration Tool for Distributed Teams

a great tool i came across for collaborative projects with people scattered across locations is HyperOffice (link upstairs). it always you to work togather on documents, wikis, manage schedules, have discussions on forums etc.

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