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January 9, 2012 / bethan

Logistics: or, holding it all together

A few people have asked me how I organised this whole book thing. The most honest answer is probably ‘accidentally’, but some thought did go into it! Here are a few things I did/learned about getting together 70,000 words from 50+ people.

1) Generous timelines. I started contacting potential contributors in Jan 2011, and asked them to get me a first draft of their contributions by April. Given that the book was due to the publishers at the end of November, this may seem unnecessarily early, but I wanted to make sure that a) I had enough time to read the contributions and ask for revisions (as/if required) b) there was enough time to find alternatives if something went wrong c) I gave people plenty of chances to miss their deadlines.

I got my first contribution in in January (the very same day I asked for it!), and my last in November. I was still finding new contributors in October… Some contributors got their contributions in way before deadline. Others had to ask for extensions, or drop out due to changing circumstances or other commitments. I expected all of this to happen, and I’m really glad I planned in the extra time. It was frustrating occasionally, especially if I had some time blocked out to work on the book, and didn’t have the contributions for the bit I wanted to work on, but I never got annoyed with contributors. They were doing me a favour, and as long as I had time to spare, I was willing to let them take all the time they needed. I know just how easy it is for other things to get in the way (for instance, I promised to start blogging regularly here… 2 months ago), and I’m always willing to be as flexible as possible with deadlines.

2) Backup, backup, backup! My book mainly lived in the cloud, with the working copy in my Dropbox. I found Dropbox absolutely invaluable for this project, and am now an enthusiastic convert. Access to all of my documents, with changelogs, and undelete capabilities? From any computer – even offline? And my phone? Wonderful! Simply saving into the Dropbox folder is much easier than remembering to upload each version to a remote store, too.

There was also a working copy on the wiki that Jaffne set up to monitor my progress. This was partly so she could keep an eye on what I was doing, and offer comment and advice, but also to have a back-up copy – again, with changelogs and revision comparisons. I uploaded a new copy of each chapter to the wiki after any changes – sometimes even when I just changed a word or two! I was determined that it be an accurate reflection.

I also kept backup copies – on my work drive, in my gmail, on my external harddisk, my phone, and my kindle – usually zipped up, and named with the date. I was definitely working on the LOCKSSS principle… I never actually (rather, haven’t to date!) needed one of the backups, but knowing that they were there really helped me to manage my stress levels.

3) I like stats. While most of my progress was recorded on the wiki, I also had a massive google docs spreadsheet, containing details of what was in each chapter; who was contributing and what; dates of communication with contributors; things I needed to remember; and the all-important word count. (Also a note of the council’s number for reporting flytipping. I’m not sure I can remember why, but I’m fairly certain it’s not directly relevant.)

Word count! Obsessed as I was with the book, I was possibly even more so with the word count. It was a concrete measure of progress, and I updated it religiously. Seeing those figures changed really helped me too feel that I’d accomplished something – even when I was in editing mode, and the count was going down!

I had a target for each chapter, and the whole book. The word limit was 70,000, so I aimed for 66,500, and um… came in at nearly 72,000. I’m pleased I aimed low! As you can see, nearly every chapter came in over the proposed word count – some quite significantly. This is the word count after I went through with a) a fine-tooth comb and b) a big hefty axe. I cut around 6000 words in total, including having to seriously cut some case studies. This was the worst part! I hated having to chop down what people had so carefully and generously written for me, but I just had too much great stuff to fit in. But they’re not going to be wasted! Full versions of the case studies I had to condense will appear on the website.

Things I hadn’t taken into account when planning out my word count? References! They take up more words than you’d expect – a single reference can add anything from 20-100 words, so 10-15 references per chapter can add significantly to your total. I also hadn’t budgeted for a glossary. It only came in at 151 words, but at a time when I was so desperate for words I was going through replacing ‘in order to’ with just ‘to’, and shedding adjectives all over the place, 151 words feels like quite a significant extra.

4) Work every day. This was the only way I managed to keep on top of the work and my sanity! I didn’t work on the book every day for the whole 12 months, but for the last 2 months it became a vital part of my day. I aimed to do 1-2 hours a day weekdays, and 3-5 a day at weekends, and managed this most days. But I had to trick myself into it! I’d promise myself ‘Just 15 minutes – get a little bit done so you feel ok that you’ve done something*’. Once the 15 minutes was up, I was usually be deep enough in that an hour would be up before I realised. By breaking it down into these chuncks, the huge project gradually came to feel manageable – so much so that when I finished the manuscript, I sat back, blinked, and thought ‘Is that it??’.

(* Virtuous plans to incorporate this into the rest of my life have, sadly, failed. Seems big projects > laziness > small projects.)

So, that’s how I kept (reasonably) sane and (fairly) productive through the biggest project of my career so far. What are your best tips for tackling a large project?

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