In my day job, I’m a project manager in the tech space, where we’re all about process and efficiency. My previous role was also process-oriented, with a focus on new product creation.
Because of this, I approach writing with a rather skewed mindset.
There are two ways to view writing:
This is an art form, a creative act that no one should hinder. I shall follow my muse and the art will come. Any commercial considerations will purely limit my ability to create.
Writing is a business where I’m developing an intellectual property asset that I will market to the world in expectation of a return on my investment. To yield that return, I need to create products that are desirable and sellable in today’s market.
Learning the craft of writing is important. I fully supported exploring the art of writing, developing your voice, and improving in craft.
But part of that craft is serving the readership, and readers have expectations of the product their consuming. These two very different mindsets are tied by readers’ expectations.
And there’s more.
Businesses create products that sell. They have to or they go out of business. Businesses must figure out how to churn out viable, profit-turning products that meet a market need, on budget, on schedule, consistently – or they are no longer a business.
Can you say that your writing efforts are turning out viable profit-turning written work that meets a market need, on budget, on schedule, consistently?
As writers, we indulge in a lax process. We follow inefficient plans, perform the same tasks that fail in the same ways, for years. We start building products that will never work and we abandon them halfway through. We start lots of projects and quit. We jump into product creation before we consider the reader’s needs.
We improve painfully slowly by making all the mistakes ourselves. In short, the processes we follow as writers would sink us as a business.
So tonight I want to bridge the worlds of business process with writing. Let’s steal some lessons from the people who create consistently marketable products, and see how we can apply those strategies to our own writing process.
The first step in product design in Market Research.
Market research is mostly just Googling stuff.
But knowing what stuff to Google is important.
You’re looking for reading habits, but you have to be specific.
Reader demographics – not a good search.
A much better search is “Reader profile mystery” or “Reader profile memoir.”
I write memoir/self-help, this weird mixed genre. But there are a number of top authors in that genre.
Cheryl Strayed who wrote Wild
Elizabeth Gilbert who wrote Eat, Pray, Love
Brene Brown who wrote Daring Greatly
These writers are all writing to the same audience I would like to attract.
When I’m doing market research, I’m not trying to copy their work. I’m trying to find the overlap in their messaging, their audience.
Who is following these authors? What are they talking about? What messages do these authors post on Instagram that most resonate with their audience?
Most of the time, it’s right on the surface. They are targeting highly educated, feminist women who seek self improvement and professional development.
Once you have a good idea of the type of customer you are after, then you figure out how they make decisions on purchases.
Do they buy based on recommendations from friends, or browsing? Does someone else buy books for them?
And what about the competitive landscape? Is your target market being completely served with exactly what they are looking for or is there an open niche?
In business, these steps can take weeks or months – compiling buyers statistics, market numbers, holding focus groups.
But for authors, it’s quite a bit simpler.
Get to know your readers.
Google “Reader profile”
You may find that sci fi readers read, on avg, 5 books a month. And literary fiction readers buy 2 books a year.
Figure out their expectations.
Ignore brand loyalty and series.
Find debut authors
Read book covers and watch trends
Identify a single reader for your work.
Define your target audience, down to a single reader. Let’s do that now.
Businesses spend an enormous amount of time in the design phase, long before the product ever goes to development.
Whether you’re an outliner or organic writer, there is an element of product design that, when done up front, can help churn out a great product.
Product design is not just about typing a bulleted list of plot points.
You’ve done market research.
You know who your reader is and what she wants and expects from the book she buys.
So it makes sense to take some time to think through what key features will meet her needs.
In writing, key features mean genre expectations. And while you can google all day long, that blog post written two years ago is likely out of date now. Read new releases in your genre, examine them, and see if you can build your own list of genre expectations.
There’s a concept of market positioning.
Some companies sell the minimally viable product. This is the product that is just good enough to meet basic customer needs. Just decent enough to get you to purchase it. The cheap set of kitchen knives in a vacuum seal pack at Menards falls into this category. People who sell minimally viable products compete over pricing and drive each other’s prices down.
Market leaders aim for top of the line, nothing else compares, this knife is coveted by chefs across the globe. And has a price tag to match. Market leaders compete on quality and reputation. Discounting prices would be damaging to their reputation as the best in the industry and they drive each other’s prices up.
Most products aim to be the middle of the pack, balancing quality and price. But you can’t just be middle of the pack and generic. You need some differentiator to entice buyers to choose your product over another. These knives have colorful handles to appeal to a younger market. This sleek set that comes with a matching counter block fits the design aesthetic of a well-appointed kitchen.
Deciding on market positioning is one way that businesses stay on track and avoid blowing the budget and schedule. A business wouldn’t attempt to write the best book that’s ever been written on the Civil War. And they also wouldn’t crank out a hodge-podge of scenes, slap a title on it, and publish it to Amazon for 99 cents. They would aim somewhere in the middle – a well-crafted book that appeals to a specific market segment, that meets that segment’s expectations, that is priced competitively for the quality and brand reputation.
To pull this off, product designers need to have a full grasp of what’s on the market, what the consumer expectations are, how competitors are meeting that need, and most importantly, how your product is unique.
Backward design –
Start with the end goal
Online courses – end goal was successful real estate agent
Gone Girl – Nick Dunne
Main character of a suspense novel
Main obstacle she needs to overcome is – her son has disappeared and she needs to find him.
What would have happened to her in the past that would make this extra, extra difficult?
What intrinsic character traits and personality quirks would make this extra, extra difficult?
We kind of love when a character gets in their own way because of their flaws – when they try to make good decisions but because of who they are, they just make a mess of things. If we try to plug those bad decision in mid-plot, it feels forced. But if our character is already designed to be the least capable person of overcoming this obstacle, it comes out in the plot more naturally.
Our first few ideas are typically based on something we’ve seen before.
Fine, but we need to come up with that unique value proposition, so we also need to come up with something entirely new.
Let’s flip these ideas.
So rescuing the kidnapped child is a little cliché and who’s gonna portray it better than Liam Neeson anyway?
What are some alternatives? Who could have disappeared that she would be desperate to find?
We had some good basic ideas in here.
We often try to ramp up the plot, to make that as dramatic as possible. It starts as a kidnapping book, and we receive feedback that there’s not enough tension, so we make the plot bigger and bigger until our hero is saving the world.
You can use the technique of hyperbole to ratchet up tension not by tinkering with plot, but with character.
Let’s take a few of the ideas we have and exaggerate them.
At this point in our suspense novel, we haven’t outlined a thing. We have a concept.
But a little time spent in the design phase gives us so much more to work with when we either start writing or start outlining.
First, no company moves into the product creation phase without a deadline. Deadlines are essential. And if the deadline is missed, then a new deadline is set.
In the software development world, there are two different approaches to creating digital products.
Waterfall is old school. Spend months and months detailing every possible user requirement, maybe create a nearly functional prototype. Then sit back while someone else builds it. After a year, you get too see your software for the first time, and you better like it exactly the way you designed it 18 months ago. If you were here when Jose Iriarte spoke last month, his outlining process is equivalent to this waterfall method.
Agile looks more like his wife, Elle’s, approach. You figure out broad strokes what you’re building. Then you figure out just enough detail for the next bit and give yourself two weeks to build it. At the end of the two weeks, you review it. Does it work as you expected? Have user requirements changed? How does this work change downstream ideas? Then you figure out the next bit and start another 2-week sprint.
Waterfall has fallen out of fashion in software development, largely because technology changes too quickly in a year. Agile has a number a benefits, but the main idea is that it allows you the opportunity to fail early, fail often, and fail forward. And this process of creating small pieces, getting instant feedback on them, iterating the small piece until it works and applying what you just learned to the rest of the project – this is how you get better and get better quickly.
The longer you wait to get feedback, the more likely you’re repeating the same mistakes all over the project, mistakes you could have corrected if you received feedback earlier.
During waterfall, you might go off course halfway through and not notice until the end.
With agile, when new, better ideas crop up, you can incorporate them into the project.
With agile, you get the benefit of getting better. Fast.
Remember your market positioning.
Product designers like new and shiny things. If I’m building an online course, I might not settle for a nice video delivery with handouts. I might want to add an instant chat feature. And what about the student’s ability to take notes without leaving the screen? Or maybe the ability to download an audio version to review from their phone? I could easily blow the schedule and the budget creating shiny things that the product doesn’t need.
In product design, we go back to our key features list and our unique selling points. If we decided those were enough at the beginning, then they’re still enough now. And if the market has shifted and they’re no longer enough, we can introduce some strategic changes into the design because we’re building agilely. But we don’t build a product and build and build and build – then look at it and decide we might be able to tweak it just a bit and make it slightly better, and then tweak some more and some more and some more. No.
As soon as that product is minimally viable, as soon as it might possibly be good enough to meet our target market’s needs, it’s time to wrap it up and move on to beta testing.
We may come back to it. We don’t usually launch minimally viable products. But at this point, the tasks change and we move forward with the process.
Once you have a minimally viable product, it’s time to move to user acceptance testing.
Once you have a minimally viable product, it’s time to move to user acceptance testing.
First, our internal teams test the products and make sure it functions as designed.
Then, in the example of an online course, we find potential students who fit our demographic, who might be evaluating our competitors, and invite them to test out the product. We ask open ended feedback and listen to all of it. About 70% is useful. And we don’t put much weight into any single opinion. We look for patterns across the testers.
People are generally positive and try to offer solutions instead of telling us the problems their trying to solve. One person might tell us that the course is too black and white, needs more color. Maybe highlight the clickable options in red. Another person might say they would prefer larger buttons and more white space. And another person requests a how-to-use-this-course tutorial. If we push them to explain why they are making these recommendations, what they’re trying to solve, they all have the same issue: It’s not intuitive where to click to move to the next slide. Rather than scrambling to implement everyone’s suggestions, if we find the root issue, we can strategically make a design change that really addresses everyone’s issues.
The goal is to identify the minimal amount of change needed to meet the users expectations and resolve their issues.
I think this is something that we see in critique groups, especially the first couple times a person submits. The entire table provides a detailed and extensive list of fixes that must be made, when often these are solutions aimed at addressing a small handful of underlying issues.
Testing always results in changes.
This is not the time to abandon the project. This is when you do what you must to finish it, and then you finish it.
And this cannot be done in a vacuum. User acceptance testing, by definition, requires product users. Squirreling yourself away with your manuscript for years upon years of editing is just a terrible process destined to fail.
While user testing always results in changes, there is a point of diminishing returns where additional feedback no longer improves the product, just changes it.
I think it would be better in audio than video. Someone else says I think there should be more video. Someone else asks if you’ve considered offering this as a textbook instead. When feedback no longer has any pattern, and no longer addresses the key features of the product, but starts nitpicking details and conflicting over minor issues or adding new shiny things, you’ve reached this point.
When you ask someone for an opinion, they’ll always have one. And when you ask for a critique, people feel compelled to find something to change. The trick is figuring out when you’ve implemented the changes that will have maximum impact, and now you’re just making modifications for the sake of modifying. In product design, this is once again where we return to our market research and product design. It’s why we spent so much time there.
Are the key features functional?
Does the product meet user expectations?
Is it comparable to other options on the market, but with a unique selling point?
That first internal round of user testing is our own editing process.
But there are better ways to edit than line by line.
Going one line at a time, editing for word choice, sentence structure, and story all at once – well, here’s how it goes. You start at Chap 1. You painfully work your way through Chap 1, and maybe Chap 2. By Chap 3, you’ve become immune to echoes and redundant sentence structure. You’re just proofreading. Then you set it aside a few weeks, come back to it with fresh eyes, and see mistakes everywhere, including core inconsistencies within your main character. So you go back to Chap 1 and start again. By the time you finish, you’ve completely rewritten Chap 1- 5, removing all the humor because the jokes no longer land on their 10th reading. Chaps 5 – 10 are edited but in a hurry, and then the story just finishes because you’re dang tired of looking at the manuscript.
There are other ways to do this.
When editing an online course, you don’t proofread the text at the same time that you edit the videos, review image choices, and evaluate overall message and sequencing. You do this in layers, focusing on one time at a time, biggest to smallest. No need to waste time on line editing if the whole segment doesn’t get the message across and needs to be redone.
This is exactly how we waste time editing our writing – modifying the details on whole sections that are going to end up cut or rewritten.
So start with named drafts.
First draft is just for getting the story out so you know what you’re trying to write.
Draft 2: Plot and character:
The plot makes sense and drives the character arcs forward.
The characters are compelling and consistent and drive the plot forward.
Draft 3: Subplots, secondary characters, pacing, theme.
Tie up the loose ends, maybe re-sequence a little to make sure there’s no soggy middle.
These first couple drafts tend to include major chunks of rewriting and restructuring. Sometimes I’ll flag a sentence that is poorly written so I remember to edit it later, but I don’t get bogged down here.
Only when the primary elements of the story work, then and only then do we start looking at clunky dialogue, mechanics and grammar, description.
Drafts 4 and after are where you polish your voice, make those paragraphs sing.
Many writers spend their time doing Draft 4 before they do Drafts 1-3. And I think this is partly due to how we request and receive feedback. When someone reads just a small segment of your work and provides feedback on the writing instead of the story, we try to fix the writing. But in early drafts, we need more feedback on story, less on the words we’ve chosen to tell it.
Scene sheets and bookmaps can also help editing.
A scene sheet is a way to look at your story in segments, without getting distracted by the words. By filling out a scene sheet, you force yourself to explain exactly why this scene is needed, what it accomplishes. And when you lay out your scenes in this way, you might find that you have 2 or 5 or 6 scenes all trying to show us that the main character’s mother is neglectful. When people say trust your reader, this is sometimes what they’re talking about. You need 1 scene to show that well, and any future scenes with this goal can only stay if they also move the plot forward. They must accomplish something else in addition to showing us neglect, or you need to cut, combine, and edit. This is the kind of thing we lose track of when we edit everything at once, in order. It might be two weeks since I read the last scene about neglect, so I don’t notice how repetitive the story is.
Here’s the next key in good user acceptance testing. You have to find qualified users.
As beta readers, what makes them qualified?
I don’t send my real estate course to my 16-yr old niece for feedback, and I don’t send my YA love story to someone who only readers murder mysteries.
I am a qualified user if I, as a reader, would gravitate to your book based on it’s genre and title, if your initial description resonates with me, and the first few paragraphs have me intrigued, I’ll make a good beta reader for the rest of the story.
Don’t rely on feedback you receive from people who don’t read your genre, don’t connect with your voice, and are never going to be your audience. That mystery reader friend of mine might say “It’s fine, but your characters should be older, and less focused on the relationship, and maybe add a murder.”
Qualify your readers before you ask feedback.
But then, believe them.
There’s another tendency when we receive feedback, to say “well, yeah, if you just keep reading, the text will answer that. You’d understand if you read the whole thing. And I’m doing that for a reason, you just don’t know.”
If you’ve qualified your testers ahead of time, if these are the customers who know what they want from a book in this genre, who have reader expectations that this product is supposed to fulfill, you gotta trust their feedback.
Good qualified beta readers will tell you when the product you created isn’t meeting their expectations, and what most people are too polite to say is “but I’m not going to keep reading. Because it didn’t meet my expectations here, I’m going to set it down and go read something else.” This is crucial feedback that you need to hear.
And hey, it’s all part of failing fast, failing often, and failing forward. Sometimes it’s an easy fix. A scene from Chap 3 needs to be in Chap 1, and the issue is resolved. Sometimes you log it away as a lesson learned to apply to your next project. Either way, don’t fight the feedback.
You set a launch date and most companies start marketing the product before that launch. They build anticipation so they have a stockpile of buyers ready to buy.
Launch week or launch month is crazy stressful. Long hours, and egos just begging for this to be successful.
A key step in the business world is time set aside to discuss and internalize the lessons learned. Not every company does this, but the highest performing teams consider this a required practice. Lessons learned sessions help spread knowledge faster – we don’t all have to learn everything the hard way if we can learn from each other. And they help internalize the lesson so we don’t repeat the same mistakes on the next project.
Not all products have a wildly successful launch
.Sometimes, when it’s clear that there’s real market potential but we failed to meet customer expectations, we’ll kick out a v2 right away. This is nearly always the case for software, largely because it’s hard to figure out all the ways people can misuse software until you put it in front of them. With other products, though, failed launches usually result in an early retirement of the product and it gets replaced by something new.
The most important idea here is to finish. You learn more from finishing two works than from starting 10. The fastest way to improve is to start, write, edit, finish, and repeat.
And in the practice of writing, you’re learning. About craft, about process.
Let’s take the time to jot down a few of the lessons you’ve learned so far.
Let’s take a moment and right now, jot down every lesson you can think of that you’ve learned about writing in the past year.
Did you learn a few things? Are you getting better? Will future projects you start be better?
Awesome. Move on.
Products are scrapped at this point. There are gates in the design process where you check in and, if it doesn’t meet user needs, isn’t differentiated enough to make a splash in the market, or if the market shifted during development and there’s no longer a need for this product, it gets scrapped.
As writers, sometimes we struggle with this. We operate under the mindset of sunk costs. We’ve spent so much time and effort, it feels like I wasted three years. But you didn’t. You have a list of lessons learned and an even longer list of lessons you’ve internalized and forgot you learned. This is not a waste. Spending more time trying to patch together a broken product- that probably is a waste.
Some people edit the same book for 5 or 10 years.
But it’s likely not getting any better under this scrutiny. Maybe you can feel that it’s not quite done, doesn’t meet your own expectations. That’s cool. But simmering on it endlessly for a decade isn’t going to help.
You don’t need more time, you need more skills. So move on. Step away from this product, go create 2 or 3 or 10 others, and return. When you come back, review your market strategy, your competitors, you position. Internalized new lessons learned. Then maybe try again.
Products don’t live forever. Online courses have to be retired every 3-5 years. The tech changes. The images look clunky. The video personalities look out of style.
There’s product lifecycle to consider.
An online course is a product with a lifespan of 3-5 years.
But it doesn’t have to be a solitary product.
Let’s take an online course on business planning. Students may return to their online study group to ask questions. Make it public and social and this builds brand awareness and SEO. Students may purchase a downloadable business plan template. Maybe you take 3 hours of content and chop it down into a 20-min free video to entice new customers. Maybe individual handouts can be monetized and sold independently. Maybe you stamp key mantras from the course on pencil holders and monitor stands and sell them inspirational products. Maybe you sell your list of students to local companies looking to market to new business owners. Maybe you make affiliate deals with these companies and include their service listing in your course, for a fee.
The product itself will retire. But there are a number of ways to play with the product lifecycle in the meantime.
More important is the lifecycle of the customer. Once they take the course on Business Planning, maybe they’ll return for a course on Quickbooks, and then Being a One-Person HR Department, and maybe a short brief on FMLA laws. The lifecycle of the customer matters far more than the product. The goal of managing lifecycle is to keep the customer base coming back for more.
So let’s apply this theory to writing.
Some books live forever. No debate here.
But most don’t. Most books live 6mts to 1 year. They are included in the publisher’s catalog in July for a launch in October. Bookstores stockpile their selections for the peak shopping season. 90 days or 180 days later, they return everything that doesn’t sell to the publisher. The publisher might offload them cheap to a discount seller, who starts selling copies on Amazon for $2 or 3. Other publishers, rather than damage their brand by having their old books sold on the cheap, choose to pulp them instead. Unless a debut author goes viral, after the first year, the book is likely to only be available for print on demand, if at all.
There are some ways to extend the life of your book. If you write in a series, when you publish the next book, you drive readers back to Book 1. And this works for cultivating your reader lifecycle as well.
If you don’t want to write in a series, consider writing for the same reader. The books don’t need to be tied in anyway, but its tough to get readers to pick up an unknown name once. It’s much easier to get your existing readers to pick you up a second time than it is to find a whole new demographic.
If you’re writing to the same reader, then you can include Chap 1 of your next book in the back of the book they’re currently reading. You have a next book, because you’ve been consistently finishing books on schedule.
Long-term, the goal is to monetize your backlist. Employing all your techniques for finishing quality market-savvy products, you have a pile of books to sell. When a new reader finds you, they can stay with you, pouring through yoru other three or five or fifteen books. Which you have. Because you consistently finished. You improved quickly. You wrote more and completed more books. And you kept creating amazing products that your readers love.