Personal Kanban for Authors

Jim BensonDesignPatterns2 Comments


Writing is a Process

I can say with confidence that I am intimately familiar with the complexities of writing a full-length book. Having a life while working on a manuscript is a challenge, ask any author. So much of your self goes into those pages and, as an author, you tend to obsess over every chapter, section, paragraph, and word. There’s a tremendous amount of energy expended on a labor of love such as this.

Many authors I’ve spoken with have shared that during the writing process, there have been times where they’ve actually hated their book. One explanation for this is that a book is literally millions of individual tasks that are undifferentiated.  As I’ve said before, undifferentiated tasks cause stress. For authors, stress detracts from the creative process. I would hazard to guess that thousands of amazing books were never published because they crumbled under their existential overhead.

While writing Instant Karma, Tonianne and I have truly benefitted from having a kanban. The first one (pictured below) was on a white board in my office in Seattle. Note that our workflow is clearly defined on the kanban and what we are moving across are chapters. Each chapter of the book goes through the same overall process.


Final Kanban for Instant Karma

The items in the work flow are the way Tonianne and I work, not necessarily the way you should work. You can develop your own system. The key is to figure out what that system is, and make it explicit, then to figure out the best logical breakdown of work to visualize and move it through your system.

For us, the best way to visualize value was in the chapters. We have the the following steps:

  1. Pre-Writing – Jim writes initial text for a chapter. Jim writes very fast.  He has three chapters going at any given time.  Why?  Because he writes so fast that he would overwhelm Tonianne because she is very detail oriented and focused. So we have step two.
  2. Scrutiny – Tonianne takes one chapter at a time and runs it through the ringer. Editing and re-editing sections. Research and re-researching vignettes Jim has added to the book. Making sure that Jim’s sources are accurate and the best ones possible. And giving Jim directed re-writing assignments as finely grained as a “pick a new word here” or “re-write this sentence.”
  3. Internal Review – The chapter is then sent to another editor who gives it a once over.  The scrutiny phase is intense and both Tonianne and I get to close to the material. The initial review generally doesn’t take the reviewer all that long, but returns some incredibly high value feedback.
  4. Crowdsource Prep – Jim and Tonianne take the reviewed chapter and address any comments, accept or reject changes from the internal review and release it to crowdsouring.
  5. Crowdsourcing – All of the chapters go to a very large group of commenters who provide yet another round of feedback. Assuming the feedback doesn’t kill the chapter, we then go into final production.
  6. Through 10. A final edit of the chapter makes it ready for inclusion into the book, when the book is assembled it goes to pre-press. If everything looks nice, it’s ready to sell.

As always, your kanban should evolve over the course of your writing project.  To prove the point, here’s the initial kanban for Instant Karma:


First Kanban for The Book Instant Karma

A major point of doing a kanban is seeing how you conceptualize your workflow and reconciling that with what actually happens in real life.  There’s almost always a disconnect between what we think is happening and what is actually happening. So first we see our workflow better.  Then, once we understand it, we can articulate what is actually happening.

Then, we can make things happen even better.

For smaller writing projects, such as what might happen within a specific chapter, see Mission Based Kanban.

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Jim BensonPersonal Kanban for Authors

2 Comments on “Personal Kanban for Authors”

  1. John David Smith

    Jim, Have you ever seen a small / personal Kanban for a writing project on a wiki? (I’m thinking of the simplest possible tool that MIGHT work.)

    I remember hearing Mimi Ito, talking about writing up the results of a 3 year study (“Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning With New Media by: Mizuko Ito, et al. ). Each person put their notes from individual ethnographic projects on a wiki and worked in public, but others could read, comment, weave. It makes for a really great book, but it must have been difficult to coordinate.

  2. Jim Benson

    John, Yes!

    MediaWiki already kind of does this – new entries or ready entries are put in an editing queue. That queue could be easily reconfigured to work as a visual control.

    Other wikis allow the managers to set up workflow that can batch these types of entries too.

    I think the organic nature of something like that wants as little control as possible – so I like the idea of using something non-controlling like Personal Kanban for this.

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