Publishing and Presenting, Part 2: Publishing
Published: December 10, 2012
Perhaps Part 1 of this series convinced you of the benefits of publishing, dispelled your fears, and defeated the excuses that have prevented you from publishing in the past. But how do you get started writing, and how do you get your writing published? These are the questions I’ll answer in Part 2. Then, in Part 3, I’ll discuss presenting at conferences.
The Writing Process
Over the past few years, in writing this column, I’ve developed my own writing process, which helps me to generate ideas and compose articles that get published on a regular schedule. My process certainly is not the only approach to writing articles, but you may find it helpful or want to adopt whatever elements best fit your own style of working.
My writing process consists of the following steps:
- generating ideas
- evaluating your ideas
- writing notes on a topic
- organizing your notes
- writing a first draft
- reviewing and revising your work
Where do ideas come from? I find that they come to me in two ways: some ideas spontaneously occur to me because of my life experiences, and I actively brainstorm to generate other ideas.
Noting Your Spontaneous Ideas
Anything in your daily work or personal life can prompt spontaneous ideas. They might come from a problem that occurs on a project, an interesting quotation, or even a unique person that you meet. For example, I got the idea for my column “Capturing User Research” when a client wouldn’t allow me to record audio during some very complex contextual inquiries. The inspiration for my column “Client Reactions to User Research Findings” came from a client who said, after a presentation, “If I gave this to our management, it would be like setting off a bomb in the room.” And watching the TV series Ghost Hunters got me to start thinking about the surprising parallels between ghost hunting and user research, which led to my column, “The Ghost Hunter’s Guide to User Research.”
So, always be ready to write down your spontaneous ideas as they occur to you, then transfer them to a master idea list like the one shown in Figure 1. At this point, you shouldn’t be concerned about whether they’re good ideas or would be the topic of an entire article. You should just list the ideas as they occur to you, then edit them later on.
Figure 1—My list of article ideas
Supplement your list of spontaneous ideas by occasionally sitting down to brainstorm on article ideas. If you get stuck for ideas, it might help if you start by listing topics that you know really well, subjects that you want to learn more about, and things that you’d like to read about.
Evaluating Your Ideas
Periodically evaluate the ideas in your master idea list to determine which ones look promising. You might find that some ideas would be good topics for a complete article, while others might make up parts of a larger article. Some may be really bad ideas, while others may spark other ideas. Make revisions and refinements to your ideas as necessary, group related ideas, and add any additional details that come to mind when reviewing your list.
Prioritize Your Ideas
Next, group your ideas by priority. Put your best ideas together in a group of the most promising topics that you’d like to work on first, followed by the so-so ideas, and finally, those you think are bad ideas, as shown in Figure 2. Why not just delete the bad ideas? It’s helpful to keep track of even what seem like bad ideas because sometimes they relate to what might become higher priority topics, spark another idea, or become part of a larger topic.
Figure 2—Prioritized list of ideas
Writing Notes on a Topic
Pick one of the most promising ideas on your list and start brainstorming notes on that topic—writing whatever comes to mind. Capture your thoughts as bullet points without being concerned about the formalities of writing, as shown in Figure 3.
Figure 3—My initial, unorganized notes that I captured when starting this column
When it seems you’re running out of things to write about a topic, think about what additional subtopics you should include. For example, when making notes for my recent article about prototyping, once I’d exhausted the ideas that immediately occurred to me, I started listing subtopics such as the “advantages and disadvantages of low-fidelity prototypes” and “advantages and disadvantages of high-fidelity prototypes.” Once you’ve listed additional subtopics, write as much as you can about each of them. Finally, once you’ve exhausted a topic, put it aside, then come back to it at a later date. By that time, you may have thought of additional points to add.
Organizing Your Notes
Once you think you’ve written enough on a topic, it’s time to organize your notes. Cut and paste your bullet points into groups of related items, bringing them together into topics and subtopics, as shown in Figure 4. Add headings for each of your groupings, and determine their logical order in your article.
Figure 4—My notes for this column as I started organizing them into topics
Writing a First Draft
Now, it’s time to write your first draft. Because you’ve already created a well-organized document with topics and supporting bullet points, it’s much easier to start writing. Since it’s a first draft, don’t worry too much about writing it perfectly. Figure 5 shows how I transform the bullet points into the headings and paragraphs that make up my article.
Figure 5—My first draft of this column
Getting in the Zone
Sometimes, when you write, you get into a perfect zone, where the words just seem to flow naturally onto the page. Take advantage of those times and keep writing as long as you can.
Dealing with Writer’s Block
At other times, writing anything may feel like a difficult slog. During these dark times, you may start to doubt that you’ve chosen the right topic or even your own ability to write. At that point, it’s best to just set your writing aside and do something else. Taking even a short break can do wonders, giving your relaxed mind a chance to solve whatever problem had you stymied. Usually, when you come back to your writing later, you’ll find that writing comes much easier.
Writing Your Introduction
Because it’s the first part of your article, you might consider writing your introduction first, but it’s often the most difficult part to write. It needs to introduce your topic, catch people’s attention, and keep them interested in reading further. Using a humorous anecdote, a quotation, or an example is often a good way to attract attention and draw in readers. If you have too much trouble writing the introduction, leave it for later, then come back to it after writing the rest of your article when it will be easier to summarize what your article is about.
Writing the Conclusion
Like the introduction, the conclusion can also be difficult to write. Since it’s usually the last thing you write, by the time you get that far, you may be tired of thinking about your topic. You may feel that you’ve already said all there is to say. But the purpose of a conclusion is to wrap up your article, state the broader implications of your topic, and point the way forward.
Some possibilities for conclusions are to restate your main theme, summarize your main points in a bulleted list, provide a key takeaway that your readers should remember, or offer an idea that ties in to an anecdote you used in your introduction.
Reviewing and Revising Your Work
After writing your first draft, it’s best to put it away for a while. You’re too close to the content to review it right away. If you come back to it after a few days, you can usually judge your writing with a more critical eye and make the necessary improvements. You may want to go through this process several times, setting your revised article aside, then coming back to it later and reviewing and revising it again.
Getting a Second Opinion
Once you’ve completed your revisions, it’s helpful to have someone else review your article. An editor or content professional can evaluate the effectiveness of your writing. A good content review involves much more than just checking for typos. A reviewer should evaluate your article for its logical organization, the smooth flow of information, the strength of your message, and correct style, grammar, and sentence structure. In addition to a content review, it’s also helpful to get a review from a member of your article’s audience—such as a fellow UX professional—who can evaluate the relevance and value of the content.
Once you’ve revised your article based on these reviews, you’re ready to get it published.
There have never been more outlets for publishing content on user experience topics than there are today. In the past, publishing in the fields of design, human factors, or human-computer interaction involved writing academic-style papers for publication in journals or conference proceedings. Papers had to adhere to a formal structure, and it was very difficult to get them accepted. There were few outlets for practitioner-oriented writing.
However, since the advent of the Web, there are now many outlets for informal, practitioner-oriented content. Today, in addition to personal blogs, there are many UX-focused Web magazines such as UXmatters, Boxes and Arrows, and A List Apart, which are continually in need of articles to publish. The popularity and usefulness of these Web magazines eventually influenced print magazines such as Interactions and UX Magazine, which now publish more practitioner-oriented content.
How I First Got Published
I got my start publishing articles after experiencing an unfortunate setback. Having given a successful presentation on eyetracking at the 2008 Usability Professionals’ Association conference (UPA 2008), I got accepted to teach an eyetracking tutorial at UPA 2009. I spent an enormous amount of time preparing my materials, then the recession hit, eliminating my employer’s funding of travel and conference costs. Depressed and burned out, I swore off conferences for a while, but thought, “What am I going to do with all of this content that I prepared?” I decided to try to publish it somewhere.
Using some of the content from my presentation, I wrote an article called “Eyetracking: Is it Worth It?” that I submitted it to UXmatters, and the editor liked and published it.
Around that time, UXmatters was looking for someone to write a usability-themed column and asked if I’d be interested. At first I wasn’t sure that I’d have enough content to publish a column every other month, but I accepted anyway. The column’s schedule worked well for me. The commitment to publish a column every other month has motivated me to continue writing.
Deciding Where to Submit Your Writing
With so many publishing options for user experience content these days, you need to choose the right publication for your writing. Each publication has its own unique audience and editorial style.
Do some research into publications to see what type of content they publish, including its tone and format and the typical length of articles. Most print and online publications have a page that provides details about the type of content they accept and other submission information. Find out who will own the copyright for the content—either the publisher will own it, or you’ll have a joint copyright. You should also find out whether you can republish the content elsewhere and whether you can reuse the content in another format such as a conference presentation.
Don’t try too hard to fit your writing style into that of a particular publication. It’s better to write what you feel you need to write, then determine the best place to publish it. Once you’ve selected a particular publication, you can always modify what you’ve written to fit the style of that publication, if necessary.
Writing for Web Magazines
Web magazines that are primarily for UX professionals tend to have a more informal style, as well as a more practical emphasis than journals and print magazines. Because they are on the Web and people can link to them, these publications get much wider exposure than journals or print magazines.
Because Web magazines need to continuously provide fresh content on a daily, weekly, or biweekly basis, they’re always looking for good content and new authors. Most of these magazines are not money-making businesses, and very few pay their authors. Instead, their authors write on a part-time basis in addition to their work as UX professionals. It’s understandable that their authors sometimes get busy, so can’t always provide articles on a regular basis. This makes Web magazines the best bet for good, new authors to get published.
Some of the best UX Web magazines to consider are the following:
Writing for Print Magazines
Although Web publications have somewhat eclipsed print publications, there are still a few that focus on user experience. Two examples are Interactions, a publication of SIGCHI (Association for Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group in Computer-Human Interaction), and User Experience Magazine, which the UxPA (User Experience Professionals’ Association) publishes. While User Experience Magazine has always been a practitioner-focused publication, Interactions offers a mix of academic- and practitioner-oriented content. Since there are fewer print magazines, and they have much less frequent publication schedules than Web magazines—six times a year for Interactions; four for User Experience Magazine—it’s usually more difficult to get published in one of these magazines.
Writing for Journals
Journals tend to have a more formal style and an academic focus. Some are in print, while others publish solely online. A few examples are the Journal of Usability Studies, International Journal of Design, and Journal of Information Architecture. Journals tend to have fewer readers than Web and print magazines.
Another publishing outlet could be your own personal blog. The advantage of having your own blog is that you can publish whatever you want, whenever you want. The disadvantage is that no one may read it. Unless you’re already well known in the field of user experience, you’ll have to do a lot of promotion on Twitter, LinkedIn, and other social media to get readers.
Another option is posting on your company’s blog. Most UX companies actively encourage their employees to write blog posts. If your company’s blog gets a lot of exposure, writing for their blog is a good way to start publishing.
Wherever else you publish, it’s a good idea also to have your own blog for self-promotional purposes. You can publish your best, in-depth content in other publications, and use your blog for shorter, more informal content. Your blog can serve as your professional Web site, and you can link to it from your author profile on the publications for which you write.
Submitting Your Writing for Publication
Once you’ve found the publication that seems like the best fit for your article, submit it to just that one publication only, and wait for their response. Don’t make the mistake of submitting your article to several publications at once because more than one may be interested in publishing your article, and it would be embarrassing and awkward to have to back out on one of them. It’s better to target your first choice publication, then, if they turn you down, try your second choice.
Submitting a Proposal
Some publications want you to submit a proposal before sending them a complete draft of your article. The intention is to save you time by preventing you from going too far down the wrong track with an idea. However, if you’ve already written a complete article, submit a proposal, but tell publishers that you’ve already completed your article, if they want to see it. Often, they’ll ask you to send in the full article as the next step.
Even when a publication wants a proposal first, I still think it’s best to write the entire article before submitting your proposal—especially when it’s your first article. You’ll feel more confident in submitting a proposal when you’ve already written the full article. I wouldn’t want to submit a proposal, then later realize that I couldn’t transform that idea into a good article.
Reviewing and Revising Again
Once a publication accepts your article, they’ll usually review it and send it back to you with their proposed changes. Even if your article has already been through your own internal review, it’s common for editors to make further changes to fit the tone and style of the publication. Review the edits to make sure that changes in wording haven’t changed the meaning of what you intended to say.
Creating Your Author Profile
Most publications will include an author’s profile and photo along with an article. Your profile usually appears either at the end of an article or on a separate author’s page. Write a brief profile, then use it for all of the publications in which you publish. In your profile, include links to your own personal Web site or blog, your Twitter page, your LinkedIn profile, and other professional connections. Be sure to include a good photo of yourself—a well-lit headshot in the correct dimensions the publication has requested.
Promoting Your Writing
Once you’ve written your first article, you should be especially proud of your accomplishment. Take a moment to bask in the glory and sense of satisfaction. Call your Mom and email your friends. Then promote your article. Tweet about it; post a LinkedIn update; add it to a Publications section on your LinkedIn profile; post a link to it on Facebook, Google+, and other social networks; and talk about it at work. You don’t want to appear too self-promotional, but there’s no sense in writing something if no one reads it.
Continuing to Publish
Once you’ve published your first article, it’s much easier to get published again. You now have a published work to point to as an example of your writing, and you have established a relationship with your publisher.
Keeping Up Your Writing
It may seem difficult, but try to keep writing whenever you have free time. You don’t need to have an entire day free to get some writing done. It helps to have at least a few uninterrupted hours, but even when you have only half an hour, you can brainstorm, evaluate ideas, and write your thoughts on a topic.
If possible, make a commitment to writing articles on a schedule—for example, you might write a regular column or publish regularly on your own blog. It can seem like a scary thing to commit to, but it keeps you motivated, forces you to make the time to write, and keeps you on schedule. If you don’t have a scheduled commitment to a publisher, set up your own personal schedule to keep yourself on track.
When you do a lot of writing, you’ll end up with lots of ideas and articles at various stages, including your idea lists, articles you’ve just started writing, halfway-finished articles, completed drafts that you need to review, final versions you’re waiting to publish, and articles that have already been published. It’s hard to keep track of all these pieces without a good organizational scheme.
I keep my writing organized in folders, according to my current stage in the writing process for each article, as shown in Figure 6. Within these folders, each article has its own subfolder. As an article progresses through the stages, I just move its subfolder to the folder for the next stage in the process.
Figure 6—The folders I use to organize my writing
The folders corresponding to each of these stages are as follows:
- Ideas—This folder contains my master list of ideas.
- Notes—I keep the article ideas that I’ve started fleshing out by writing notes in the form of bulleted lists in this folder.
- Articles in Progress—Once I start writing article drafts in paragraph form, I move them to this folder.
- Readying for Publication—I move final drafts that are ready to send to a publisher to this folder. I also save edited drafts that publishers have sent back to me in this folder.
- Published—Once an article gets published, I move it to this folder.
- Stalled Concepts—I keep articles in the Notes and Articles in Progress folders as long as they still seem promising, but if it seems like an article is going nowhere, I move it to the Stalled Concepts folder. I don’t want to completely give up on these ideas and delete them, but neither do I want them taking my attention away from concepts that are more promising. Occasionally, I’ll look at the notes and articles in the Stalled Concepts folder to see whether I can do something with them, but otherwise, I keep them out of the way in this folder.
Because there are so many UX publications these days, it is easier than ever before to publish good articles on user experience topics. If you have never published an article before, getting published for the first time may seem daunting. However, if you just focus on one step at a time, the task will seem less intimidating and become much more manageable. Just start brainstorming topic ideas, pick a promising one, and list your thoughts on that topic. Fit writing into your schedule whenever you can make time for it, and eventually, you’ll have completed an article. It’s a very rewarding feeling to share your knowledge with others, and publishing is well worth the effort.
In addition to publishing articles, presenting at conferences is another good way to share your knowledge with others in the field of user experience. In Part 3 of this series, I’ll discuss presenting at conferences, including how to find the most appropriate conferences, how to get your submissions accepted, how to create your presentations, and some tips on presenting.
Publisher’s note—If Jim has convinced you that writing on UX topics and sharing your UX knowledge would be good for your personal and professional development, please inquire about writing for UXmatters by contacting us at: