I thought that people might be interested in learning a little bit about what happens behind the scenes while writing a technical book. I finished the text on my physics chapter yesterday, so the process is still fresh on my mind.
I already have a rough outline of what are all the chapters I want to cover — I had to develop this months ago, before the book deal was signed. So I know what chapters will be where, and how I want them to tie in together. The order of topics is fairly similar to how I’ve constructed it for ITP 380 (Video Game Programming), which I’ve taught for 10 consecutive semesters at this point. In any event in this instance, I knew I was writing a chapter on physics.
In my first writing phase I try to write the words without really focusing on editing for grammar. If I’m in “the zone” I really can churn out the text very quickly, something like 1,000 words in an hour is possible. But it often depends on the topic — if it’s something where I’m a little shaky on, it can take a little bit longer to do the research. In this particular case, I feel like I know many of the physics topics so well that I can write it off the top of my head. I was slowed a bit by the fact that I’m recovering from getting my tonsils out, so in this case it took a bit longer to finish my 7,000 words — perhaps about 10 hours.
I try to limit the editing as much as possible during this phase. If I notice an obvious typo or grammatical error as I’m writing, I fix it. But otherwise I try hard not to go back and reread sections. I find that if I try to revise too much while I’m in this initial writing phase, it can really slow me down. The other thing I stay away from doing is trying to make any of the temporary figures, because quite honestly that takes a decent amount of time to complete. What I’ll do is I’ll just leave an empty box where I know I want a figure to be.
So once I’ve finished the initial draft of the text, my next step is to stop working on it. I’ll take some time away from the text — go relax and do something else. I want to get my mind off of the text I just wrote, which means waiting at least a couple hours, but ideally a day or two. The idea is that I want to come back to the text with a fresh pair of eyes, and I have difficulty doing that if I try to edit the text shortly thereafter.
After I’ve taken a break from my chapter, I’ll go back and start reading over it again. This is where I catch most grammatical errors, missing words, and so on. I also read for comprehension; I want to make sure there aren’t sentences that are unnecessarily complex, or that I’m not skipping over any explanations. At this point, I also will go back and add in a paragraph here or there if I feel like there was another topic that should have been covered. The goal is that after this pass, I should have a pretty good level of text that I’m happy with enough to send in for review.
But before I can send the chapter off, I have to put in the figures. Most of the figures are placeholders, because quite honestly I’m not great at drawing. But I need to at least make placeholders so that the artist will be able to draw the images the way I want. I need enough information to get across what should be in the image. I find that this actually can take several hours, and it is a bit frustrating because it’s not my talent in the least.
It’s possible that while making the figures I realize that there’s some text that needs to be slightly corrected. If that’s the case, I’ll do that as I’m doing the figures. But once the figure part is complete, I send it off to the publisher for review.
At this point, the chapter is sent to my three technical reviewers (who may be revealed in a future post). They will read over the chapters and send back any comments. My instructions are to read the comments that the reviewers provide, but not to actually make any revisions for now. It’s useful to read the comments even if I won’t immediately be making changes, because sometimes the comments will carry over to latter chapters. For example, one of the reviewers commented that perhaps I could be a bit more clear when code was omitted, and so in future chapters I made the suggested modification.
But the reason why I don’t modify the text immediately based on the technical reviews is because it’s better to go back to do that revision once all the draft chapters are complete. That phase will be a bit down the line, however, as I still have another 7 chapters left to write.
Anyway, I hope you found that insight into my writing process interesting!