Writing Without Bullshit: How I got here

how-i-got-hereMy book publishes tomorrow. This is the first book I’ve written without coauthors and a company behind me. How did I get here?

Why a book on  this topic?

I received 10,000 press releases in my 20 years at Forrester. I estimate that 2% of those had any relevance at all. In the ones that mattered, 80% of the content was fluff. That’s a 0.2% meaning ratio. You can’t see that much wasted effort and not want to fix it.

I’ve received about a million emails in my career: emails from clients, vendors, colleagues, and managers. We’re bad at writing emails. Figuring out what to do about them is time-consuming. We’re bad at responding to them as well. You can’t see futility on that epic scale without wondering if it could somehow be better.

I wrote over 100 research reports and over 2,000 pages of software manuals, documentation, help files, and web sites. I’ve probably edited five times that amount. I made stupid mistakes when I started out; talented editors helped me see how to do better. When I edited reports, I saw brilliant people with incredible ideas having difficulty getting those ideas into the most effective form. I learned, then shared what I learned. It seem like a shame to take what I’ve learned and keep it in my head.

I know it’s not just me. The best topic for a book is one that everyone immediately recognizes as a problem to be solved, even if they never realized it before. Innovation consists of seeing the obvious before anyone else does. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. I am hoping the rest of the world will feel the same way.

I know how to write books; this is my fourth one. I know how to get them published. I know how to promote them. How could I not write this book?

What I have learned since being out on my own is that I love writing more than anything else. So I’m doing what I love.

What did it take to get here?

Here’s what I had to do:

  • Part ways with a company I’d worked with for decades.
  • Make sure I had the financial wherewithal to support my family, regardless of what happens.
  • Start a company.
  • Build a Web site.
  • Become a blogger; blog every weekday.
  • Develop my voice; figure out what I had to say and what you wanted to hear.
  • Collect my thoughts into a book proposal.
  • Sell the proposal to a publisher, with the help of an agent.
  • Write the book: collect my thoughts into a coherent message.
  • Address various edits to the book without losing the soul of what I was writing.
  • Plan and prepare to promote the book.

Writing the book was the easiest of all of these things to do. First off, I knew what I wanted to say. Second, I’d done it before. This was the easiest book I’ve ever written. Don’t confuse effort with value — I think it’s better because it just sort of wrote itself, and is therefore direct from the heart and very believable.

The other things were harder. Parting ways with Forrester took lots of planning. I’d never started a company or built a site before. Blogging every day takes discipline. Selling the book was stressful; preparing to promote, with the help of a company behind me, is terrifying. Not having a paycheck is scary. But writing a book is not just about writing; I couldn’t be a writer without doing all the other things.

What did it really take to get here?

The previous section is incomplete, because it implies that I could just quit my job and write a book. I could not have done that when I was 20, or 30. It’s not about what I did, it was about who I was. So here is a little of what it really took to get here.

  • Develop an analytical, mathematical mind in school, college, and graduate school, on the way to being a mathematician that I never actually became.
  • Write software manuals. Lots of them. Get really great editors to show me how to write better.
  • Make lots of mistakes interacting with people in the working world. Learn from them. Get smarter about that. (Still a work in progress.)
  • Start things. Companies, departments, ideas, processes, products. Innovate. Fail. Innovate some more. Get used to doing things other than what I was told to do.
  • Learn how to balance loving work with loving a wife and family.
  • Work in startup companies. Learn how to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
  • Work with designers and book production people. Run a book production (that is, page layout and printing) operation. Learn how books get created.
  • Work with the most incredible idea people there are. Get pushed to become more creative, or to at least see myself as creative.
  • Write books. Learn from that process. Learn that I like it.

Each of us is a product of our experience. If you’re not learning something right now, figure out how you can. If you’re doing something you love, learn from it. If you’re doing something you hate, stop wasting your effort on complaining and learn from it. And when you’ve learned enough, share.

That’s how you get here.

4 responses to “Writing Without Bullshit: How I got here

  1. Congrats to you, Josh! When I found your blog about a year ago through my FB friend Olivier Blanchard, it made my day. I’ve always been a no bullshit person and I loved the title. Since then, you’ve made me a better writer…and a better critical thinker.

    You’re 100% right when you say, “I know it’s not just me. The best topic for a book is one that everyone immediately recognizes as a problem to be solved, even if they never realized it before.” I can’t wait to read it!

  2. Good luck with the launch. I spotted your work a few days ago after DHH of Ruby on Rails fame linked to it from Twitter. I scanned through multiple blog articles and placed a pre-order of your book on Amazon immediately afterwards. I’m looking forward to receiving it. I’ve also published multiple blog posts trying to apply your teachings in the last few days and seen immediate benefits. Keep up the good work!

  3. I picked up your book yesterday. So far 20% through and really enjoying it, especially the humour. I bet your editor had never seen the word bullshit written so many times in one book!

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