Now our Agile Coaching book is published, I am often asked about the process that we used to write it.

Your first question is always: how long did it take to write the book? Not an easy one to answer. Writing a book is not one continuous activity. There are peaks and troughs of activity, while the book goes though the review and edit cycles, and the creative juices ebb and flow. Overall, it took us from November 2007 to August 2009 from start to finish---about the same gestation period as an elephant. A long-haul but we're both very proud to see our book in print and hear that people find it useful.

Budding writers are also curious about what it's like to work with a co-author. I want to share my experience of collaborative writing here, to give you some insight into how we work together. You may be surprised to learn that we had very little face-to-face time while writing the book. We live 100 miles apart with different work patterns so the book was essentially a distributed agile project.

We both have families and day-jobs to work around. So the book grew in staccato bursts of activity, as we snatched time where we could to work on it. Liz would write on her long London Underground journey in to work. Whereas, I get a real burst of energy after midnight and often worked like a night-owl into the early hours of the morning.

So if we were working asynchronously how did we pull our work together?

Selecting Tools

We like to keep it simple. Our collaboration tools of choice are Google Docs, which provides a shared writing space, and Skype for free voice calls, without webcams as that can be distracting. We're bound by contract to keep the details of Pragmatic Bookshelf hamster-powered technology confidential. Like us, you can find out some basics by reading their write for us info.

For our writing, we made our own choices. Liz has a Windows laptop and I work on a MacBook. I prefer to write without being distracted by formatting so I write in plain text using TextEdit or TextMate. I used Eclipse when comparing files in SVN. I have no idea what tools Liz used on her laptop, as we did not pair-write I never needed to know.

We also relied on good ol' paper and pen, free-writing often helps when you get blocked. I turn off all distractions like email, twitter, and skype and use ambient internet radio to get into the zone. I find going into a different room than my office helps too.

Plus I always had an index card in my handbag with snippets scribbled on it, such as ideas to include or books to reference.

Putting Flesh on the Bones

A book outline provides a basic skeleton but how do you put flesh on the bones? We agreed on several types of content:

  • explanations of agile basics,
  • true stories drawn from experience, which we fictionalized,
  • worked examples with a fictional team (loosely based on people we've worked with),
  • hurdles, typical challenges we've met and tips on how to overcome them,
  • checklists - summarizing key points,
  • personal opinions - "Liz/Rachel Says.." soapbox items.

We also created loose "acceptance tests" for various book elements. Here are some snippets from our tests so you can see how these guided our writing.

Each Section
  • Starts at the beginning (i.e. doesn't assume too much knowledge)
  • Has a purpose, and purpose is explained in first paragraph
  • Relevance to coaching is explained in first paragraph
  • Relates to the chapter purpose
  • Relates to coaching
  • Contains examples
Each Page
  • Targeted at coaches
  • Useful - I learnt something
  • Practical - I can do it right now

Agile Mindset

I believe the big secret to our successful collaboration is that we both have a background as software developers using XP. Our shared belief in the XP values (below) provide a great foundation for working together:

  • Communication
  • Feedback
  • Simplicity
  • Respect
  • Courage
From the outset, we agreed that we would practice Collective Code Ownership on our writing. For us, this means that we're both responsible for the whole book and either of us can change any part of the book. So we although each section starts with one of us writing a first draft, it will be edited by the other later on, and go through many iterations until we are both happy with the result.

At the start of each new chapter, we had a Skype call to brainstorm content captured in a Google doc. As a visual thinker, I would often create a mindmap for each chapter to help get my thoughts straight to help flesh out a chapter outline. Then we divvied up sections to work on separately based on experience and preference.

We set ourselves mini-deadlines to have specific sections ready for review at our next Skype call. Liz put together an electronic Kanban board, in a Google spreadsheet, which listed all the chapters and sections with current owner. The status of each section is shown in color-coded in columns matching our definition of done. We also needed to keep track of outstanding reviewer comments and editor concerns. I use Apple Stickies for my to-do lists and my immediate book-related tasks were pasted into a long blue sticky  that I could roll-up when I was doing other things.

A book is a team effort and we also worked with a wider team of agile folk. Our trusty band of reviewers kept us honest, and helped us to see weak areas to rework before the book was ready for publication. As new authors, we couldn't have written a book for for print without guidance on writing style and structure from our amazing editor, Jackie Carter. Our early drafts were dry and impersonal. Pragmatic Bookshelf helped us create a readable end-product by helping us learn how to polish up our own work. The book "Keys to Great Writing" by Stephen Wilbers became our writing bible.

Benefits of co-authoring

Do I recommend co-authoring to anyone considering writing a book? My answer is a big "Yes!"

Not only is a co-author an invaluable source of ideas and feedback. You can rely on a co-author to help you maintain momentum and keep you focused on getting the book finished. Liz has great drive and determination and her project management skills meant we never lost sight of our goal, to have our book out in time for Agile2009.

When we set out, Liz and I were naive about the effort required to write a book. We'd only met a couple of times at Extreme Tuesday Club in London before we decided to pitch in and work together. It was pure luck that we got on well enough to work together over such a long period of time. In hindsight, it would have made sense to pair on a smaller project to test out our collaboration skills.

My advice is if you're pondering an idea for a book, find a writing companion to help you on your way but try small experiments before going all in. Happy co-authoring!