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Using templates to make book writing easier

31 March 2010


I've just started work on a new book (more news on that later), and one technique I've used which saves a lot of time is to create a basic template that I can use for each chapter.

In this book, as in many practical non-fiction books, there are highly formatted sections (introduction, summary etc) that are the same in each chapter. Each of these sections needs to be formatted using the right styles in the publisher's Word template.

So I've created an empty chapter. It has placeholder copy for the chapter title and all the headings and styles that occur in the same place in every chapter. It doesn't cover the body of the chapter and all its subheadings - it just covers the regular features that are always there in the same place.

This has two advantages: firstly, it saves time. I don't have to worry about formatting the chapter title ten times because I've already done it. Although that in itself doesn't take long, the template I've created uses nine different styles and has fifteeen different content elements that require formatting, so the time does add up. All these bits are guaranteed to be in every chapter, so it's work I have to do anyway. I've just chosen to do it once, rather than doing it 10 times.

The second advantage is that it means I can get up and running with a new chapter straight away. I don't have to mess around with styles because that's already done - I can just start writing. Given that one of the challenges is to create momentum on a new chapter, having these templates makes the whole project run much more smoothly.

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Should music journalists accept payment to listen to new bands?

25 March 2010


I had an approach recently from a new PR service called The Men From The Press, which was offering to pay me to write short reviews of new bands. The idea was that they'd send me an MP3, I'd listen to the track and provide feedback using an online form, and then they would pay me £5.

I can see where the idea came from: it's hard for new bands to get feedback from journalists, let alone coverage. One reason is that it takes time to review music. I know bands think it's only a 3 minute song, but it takes time to download, cue up, play, think about, and then write any kind of meaningful email response. It's probably a 20 minute job to provide any useful feedback. It takes much longer to write a review good enough for publication. I'm not reviewing music for magazines at the moment, so I ask bands not to send me stuff and ignore people who send me stuff anyway.

Getting paid to review music from new bands isn't something I'd be keen to do at the moment. But I don't think there's a problem with music journalists who work independently providing feedback to bands that are just starting out. And I don't think there's a problem with them being paid for their time when they do that.

Where it gets murky is if those journalists have an association with a publication, because the scheme could be seen a bribing journalists to take an interest in one band over another. Even if it didn't consciously influence them, the fact they've been paid to even listen to one band must improve its chances of coverage. Indeed, The Men From The Press seem to be using the publication's reputation (rather than the journalist's) as the basis for their pricing and publications have come out to deny they have any relationship.

Drowned in Sound refuted any implication that payments might influence their editorial coverage, and the NME wrote a blog post saying that what bands (and readers) need is journalists driven by passion to discover new music, not someone taking a few hard-earned pounds off new bands.

Ethically, it's all a bit grey. Nearly all journalism has been touched by PR at some stage. Many successful bands employ PR teams, and pay them much more than The Men in the Press were asking. Journalists routinely get higher value freebies in CDs, promotional merchandise and gig tickets. And some new bands do need feedback from experienced music journalists who understand what gets coverage and what's likely to succeed.

When new ideas like this come up, journalists need to ask whether it creates a conflict of interest for them. In my case this idea wouldn't create any conflict, because I'm not writing for music magazines. For someone who was, it would create a conflict because they're being paid by the editor to discover and write about new music purely on its merit, and paid by the band to discover them first. You can't work both sides of the deal at the same time.

The Men From the Press has now closed down as a result of the criticism it's received. A statement on its homepage says: "The whole point of themenfromthepress.com was to provide PR in a 'brand new way' so bands, artists and small labels who simply haven't got the funds would be given a chance! Certain publications and some traditional PR companies (who I will not name) have made it impossible for us to carry on through their constant slanderous remarks and activities which have damaged our reputation to the point where we have lost all heart with the project. I tried to make a difference but sorry guys... they wont let us."

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3 Things writers can learn from programmers

23 March 2010


At DevWeek last Tuesday, I saw Kevlin Henney deliver a talk based on the O'Reilly book '97 Things Every Programmer Should Know', which Henney edited.

He spoke about how the book came about: it's 97 things (and not 98 or 96) because that's the title of the series, but it's also consistent with how the book was crowdsourced, with leading programmers writing short essays on ideas. "If you want to get people to propose something, you want something that works on a page count basis,” said Henney. "If the page count [for each contribution] is too high, you exclude certain people from writing. A lot of people are happy writing blog length pieces of 400 words. Once you're talking about 1500 words, the blank page scares people off and you just get the professionals. You don't get a genuine cross-section of people.” He said 100 pages would be a pamphlet, 300 would be too much, but 200 is just right, which would be about 100 ideas covered in about 2 pages each.

If you're thinking about a similar crowd-sourced project, it's worth working from the book length back to the contribution length, considering who you want to involve and how much they can write.

What I really wanted to share from his talk, though, were a few ideas that I thought were as applicable to writers as they are to programmers.

His first thing programmers (and writers?) should know, is to do lots of deliberate practice. "You might meet someone and they say they have 15 years' experience,” said Henney. "That's impressive. But then you realise that what they have is one year's experience fifteen times, or six months thirty times. They've flatlined.” He said that he can juggle and play guitar, but that he hasn't improved much in 20 years because he doesn't spend time practising. How do you know when you're practising? Henney defined practice as being when the sole goal is to master the task, rather than to complete the task itself. Writing exercises can clearly play a key role here.

The second piece of advice he shared was to step away from the keyboard, so that you can let the ideas form properly. This is always worth remembering. Who has all their best ideas sat at a keyboard? Few people, I'd guess. Those writing in a corporate environment especially struggle with this, I believe, because taking time out to think is indistinguishable from skiving to the untrained eye, so people often feel they can't actually step away from the keyboard, even when they need a break to crack a writing problem.

The third piece of advice was to know the difference between a time estimate, a target and a commitment. In corporate writing environments, there is often negotiation around these when the writer says how long something will take (the estimate), the client or manager tells him or her to halve it (the target) and they agree a date somewhere in the middle (the commitment). The problem with this is that the estimate of how long the work will take hasn't changed, which means something has to give in the content or quality in order to meet the commitment. Trouble results when people confuse estimates and commitments.

The rest of the talk was more technical, and it would be too much of a stretch to relate it to writing. If you are interested in programming, the book content is available online here. Some of the contributions are superbly well written as well. If you can understand programmer speak, the book is worth dipping into just to appreciate the clarity of thought. If you prefer print, the book is also available at Amazon.

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Book to the Future: How ebooks will change writing

20 March 2010


Within five years, Wiley's higher education division might be publishing exclusively in digital formats, according to its sales and marketing manager Neil Broomfield. Wiley is the publisher of my book Social Networking for the Older and Wiser, so this is particularly interesting to me. The Older and Wiser series is a good example of a market that will continue to demand print for some time to come, but it's possible we'll see books for many other audiences go exclusively digital.

Since I got an iPod Touch a couple of months ago, I've had a great experience with ebooks on it. I've been using GoodReader to read PDFs. There's a huge amount of content available (legally) in PDF format, including books from Sitepoint, The Pragmatic Bookshelf, and O'Reilly. I've been using GoodReader to read and it's been a mostly great experience, although sometimes it can feel a bit like reading a publication through a letterbox.

There are also some apps dedicated to particular books. I'm enjoying Seth Godin's reboot of Unleashing the Idea Virus, which includes video snippets to help bring it to life. Roger van Oech's Creative Whack Pack is a really nice application too, and there are some great illustrated books including Foxfire (a manga-style cartoon strip) and some apps based on Wallace and Gromit and Shaun the Sheep. Each one of these takes a moment to learn because you turn the page in different ways, so that might be one area where the iPad's support for ebooks can add particular value.

Not all content works perfectly on the iPod. The Retro Gamer app is great, but feels a bit like reading by microfiche. Magazine pages aren't laid out to be read top to bottom, so you end up scrolling all over the place to find the next chunk of content. It costs a fraction of the price of the printed mag, though, so the value proposition is still strong.

I'm also finding that I enjoy the convenience of having multiple publications with me at once, and having them in such a compact form. I've always dipped into and out of books. Most of the time I've got several books on the go, but that's so much easier to do when using a digital reader.

The implications for writers are interesting. Users are coming to expect a little extra in app-based books, so writers need to think about how they can add rich media and interactive features. It's relatively easy to create bolt-on bonuses, but making it integral to the proposition is much harder. The tiny screen size and the way that people dip in and out will also favour books with lots of subtitles and short sections.

One concern with ebooks is pricing. I have seen reference ebooks priced the same as hardbacks, but I'm not sure they're selling in any quantity. The price point tends to be below £3 in the UK, although some titles can push it to £5. It's extremely common to see apps priced at 59p (of which the publisher/author keeps 41p).

The low price point is offset somewhat by the ease with which apps can be distributed. I'll be writing more about this in a while, but it's not too hard for authors to self-publish an iPhone app and tap into all the iPhone and iPod Touch owners out there. Actually driving downloads (even free ones), is much harder, of course, but the challenge of self-publishing has always been in the promotion.

For some time, I've advised that journalists should learn basic HTML. We're still at the stage where learning to build apps is quite technical, but tools are starting to emerge which will help automate much of this. The next generation of writers might need to be more experienced in creating interactive content if they are to connect with readers. Even if they do not need to program, they'll need to be coming up with compelling ideas for apps that readers want.

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Do you own your web content? (Plus Blogger FTP migration)

11 March 2010


I always recommend that writers own the relationship with their readers as far as possible. That means owning your own domain name. All those blogs out there hosted on blogspot.com (and wordpress.com) don't actually belong to their owners: they belong to Google and Wordpress, respectively. While they don't lay claim to the copyright in the content, they have absolute control over whether it is displayed or not, and to whom. If your blog is on either of those services, it could be switched off for technical or commercial reasons at any time, and you'd have no control over that.

A lot of people tell me to calm down and that I'm scaremongering when I talk about this kind of thing, but there is a precedent out there. MP3.com was a precursor to MySpace, a site where musicians could post their music for fans to discover and download. In 2003, it was sold to Cnet and all the site content was deleted. It's easy to upload the music somewhere else again, but what was lost was the relationship between band and fan. A band might have spent six years building up links to its MP3.com page, only to find that they were all now broken. Search engine traffic went into a black hole. Bookmarks in fans' browsers didn't work any more, either. Bands who might have had a big following at MP3.com had to start from scratch.

There is a simple way to avoid this problem: buying your own domain name. Your domain name is your location on the internet. In my case, it's www.sean.co.uk. You can buy a domain name for about a tenner (I use Easily for several of my domains), and you can still use services like Blogger and Wordpress. Your website address can act like a postal mail forwarding service, redirecting visitors to your blog at blogspot.com or wordpress.com when people arrive at your domain. But if blogspot goes down, you can just redirect your domain elsewhere. You keep all the incoming traffic.

I've been using Blogger for several years, because you don't have to install any software but it will still post to your chosen hosting provider (using FTP). That means it's easy to integrate my blog with the rest of my website, and I can keep all the files in one place.

Recently, Blogger has announced that it will be discontinuing that service, and instead you'll need to host your blog with Blogger. That sounded like it was going to be a lot of work or result in the loss of control, but that wasn't the case. Blogger's FTP migration tool made it easy to manage the whole process, and my blog is now hosted at http://news.sean.co.uk. If I want to, I can later redirect that somewhere else, and retain control of my content and traffic. The rest of my site remains hosted where it always was. If you don't have a site to integrate your blog with, you can buy a domain through Google and have it host it, as the simplest solution. Even though Google's hosting it, it's your domain and you can move it somewhere else later, taking all your traffic with you.

I can understand why Blogger's made this move. Google says that a tiny proportion of people were using the FTP posting feature, and that it was becoming difficult to maintain. Let's not forget it is a free service. The posting had become time consuming for me too, probably because the link between Google and my host wasn't fast enough. Now that I've migrated, my blog is lightning fast in updating. So fast, in fact, that I didn't think it was doing anything at all at first.

If you are using the FTP posting feature in Blogger, you have until 1 May to complete the process. It will take a day or so though (not work time, waiting time for servers to update), so I recommend you start early. That will also give you time to fix any issues arising before you lose control of the ability to post to your blog. Google's dedicated FTP migration blog is worth a read, but don't be daunted. You can probably dive into the migration tool without too much trouble.

If you use Google Reader or a similar service to follow this blog, please update your RSS feed. My new RSS is behind this link. The new web address for this blog is http://news.sean.co.uk. There are links scattered throughout the site to the old blog and I'll update those over time, although there is an automatic redirect on every old post to bring you to the corresponding new post location. Thanks for your patience if you stumble across old blog links. The navbar at the top of the screen should always bring you to the new blog.

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The Sun and Daily Mail hoaxed by ghostly iPhone app

05 March 2010


Here's a photo I took at Gloucester Cathedral last year:

Photo of Gloucester Cathedral stained glass windows, with a ghost of a small girl in the foreground

But wait! What's that figure in the foreground? Is it the ghost of a small girl in Victorian clothing, perhaps risen from its burial place beneath the cold stone floor, and destined to walk the corridors in search of rest?

Or have I tampered with the picture?

The answer to that should be obvious, but both The Sun and the Daily Mail were hoodwinked by a similar picture. If you're quick you can read the full Daily Mail article here, and The Sun's story is here. The photo is credited to Hull News & Picture, which says it does "editorial digital photography".

The photographer John Fores is a builder, and took his photo at a school he was demolishing. He claimed that he took photos to record the demolition work, but that the apparent ghost of a boy in a flat cap in one image made "the hairs on the back of [his] neck stick up". He said: "I didn't believe in ghosts, but since I got this picture, I am not so sure."

Fores has clearly been deceptive here: The Mail says that he insists he has not edited the photo, which means they asked him and he denied it. The Sun's picture of him on the building site with his mobile phone shows him with a beaten up old camera phone, and not the iPhone he used to create the image. Derren Brown would be proud of such an artful misdirection.

But surely the press should use more common sense than that? Just because a member of the public says they have a picture of a ghost, that doesn't mean it's true. Even if the story were included as a bit of fluff, its tone could be different. The Sun opens with "A builder demolishing an old school discovered this eerie image of a young boy in a mobile phone picture taken of the site", which effectively endorses the builder's story. The Daily Mail said: "The ghostly image of a young boy was captured on camera as builders demolished an old school building. John Fores, 47, insists the spectral figure was not present when he took the picture..." To use the picture as some light entertainment and keep their credibility, the papers could have taken a more sceptical angle, or even softened their reporting by saying the photographer claims he took the photo normally, rather than just reporting that he did. (There's a guide to handling of uncorroborated statements in the context of press releases, here).

One reason this reflects badly on the newspapers is that many of their readers know exactly how the pictures were taken. Although a lot of people immediately suspected Photoshop had been used, it took just three hours for someone to comment on the Daily Mail that the shot was created using an iPhone app. That app is called Ghost Capture, which costs 59p and enables you to add ghosts to your pictures. It can also be used on the iPod Touch to edit photos loaded on the device. I used the free lite version to make the picture above.

At the time of writing, neither newspaper has corrected their story to make clear that it's fake, which sends a strong signal that they don't care about accuracy or truth. Next time you read a story in those papers, ask yourself whether you are being lied to.

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Books by Sean McManus

Scratch Programming in 

Easy Steps

Scratch Programming in Easy Steps

Raspberry Pi For Dummies

Raspberry Pi For Dummies

Learn to program with the Scratch programming language, widely used in schools and colleges.

Set up your Pi, master Linux, learn Scratch and Python, and create your own electronics projects.

Coder Academy

Coder Academy

Cool Scratch Projects in Easy Steps

Cool Scratch Projects in Easy Steps

Learn to make games and other programs in Scratch 2.0, and make a web page in HTML, with this highly interactive book for 7-10 year olds.

Discover how to make 3D games, create mazes, build a drum machine, make a game with cartoon animals and more!

More books

©Sean McManus. www.sean.co.uk.