Editor’s Note: The following piece, by the late, great Herman Holtz, was to appear as part of Herman’s “Hindsights & Insights” column. It is part of our collection of “classics”–articles that stand the test of time no matter how many technologies come and go. Published with permission.
It seems, from what I read every day on the TECHWR-L list, that it isn’t at all easy for most people to break into a beginning tech writing job. Of course, that kind of Catch 22–you need a job to get the experience you need to qualify for the job–is far from unknown, especially in the high-tech working world. It’s why prospective employers want to see clips and other evidence that you can write reasonably well, whether it is technical or not, before they will consider you.
I was a tech writer long before I wrote my first book, although I had to jump through some difficult hoops to land my first tech writing job (a series of six tests on technology); however, a great deal of my work later, especially my consulting jobs, came about as a result of my books and the reputation they bestowed on me. Being published between covers brings you respect almost as quickly and surely as becoming known as a millionaire business owner does. Even now, it happens. A reader who owns a small business in Baltimore hired me recently to do some consulting with him, after reading one of my books published a few years ago. The gentleman had read several books on the subject of proposal writing and contracting, and he decided that my book reflected the kind of thinking he needed, although it was one of my most slender volumes.
It is really not that difficult to turn out your first book if you select a subject that you are reasonably familiar with (and so can research efficiently) and plan ahead with a solid and well-thought-out outline. Remember that what you write does not have to be a thick tome. My books have generally run to about 275 to 500 pages, but I have also written my share of books that printed out to fewer than 200 pages.
There are many ways to get ideas for books, and the more you concentrate on the need, the more new ideas you will get. Here are just a few tips:
Start reading the periodicals that deal with the subject Probably they will be trade journals and may touch only lightly on the subject, but that is fine. But, how much is there to say about the subject? Is it useful detail–that is, does a lightly-covered detail justify a book of its own? The book of mine I referred to here is a small book that presents sharply-focused abstracts on what I think to be the most important topics about proposal writing–a subject on which I have written more than one large, detailed book. The little book referred to here is virtually the opposite of expanding an article or two into a book.
Browse libraries and book stores for current books on the subject Would you go about writing a book on the subject entirely differently? Would it be a better book? How? Why? Read books that devote a chapter to the subject. How about developing that chapter into a full book of its own?
Think about what that information might mean to readers and to which readers Will it help someone start or improve their business? Improve their position in some way? Make it easier to learn a given subject?
Think about the need for the information Is the subject a very popular one? Is it on how to be a better golfer, for example? Hard to lose with any good book on golf. The same for many other subjects. There is never an end to new books about the Civil War, even if you call it The War Between the States. But if you want your first book (I hope that it will be only your first) to help your business career, it is best to choose a serious business subject or other how-to book.
Finally, remember that you don’t have to write the book in a day. Do a few pages each day, and you will be surprised at how soon you have a book.