Writing? Shouldn’t you be studying instead?

Well, you could replace “writing” by X, because those words are frequently heard by all medical students. The difficulty of the academic challenges posed to us makes it a bit unrealistic to develop any other projects outside of our main occupation.

Unrealistic? That’s my cue. I’ll write an eBook and publish it someday.

That was what crossed my mind about a year ago, in the Autumn of 2014. I had already started to experiment with blogging on this website, so my author platform was partially built.

The original idea was to start a line of books (hopefully I’d write several) that would help students develop important skills which are not well-developed in school or college. Public speaking and Presentations seemed like the obvious choice: (1) I love the topics, (2) I started as a terrible presenter and worked my way up, (3) I have considerable experience for my age (tutored younger students for competitions), (4) I was awarded several times in science fairs, business competitions and conferences.

project at intel isef

My stand at the Intel ISEF 2012 Pittsburgh

The vision for this project was to arrive at a book that would empower any student to become a 21st century communicator. Concurrently, the main goal was to produce a practical and visual guide to public speaking and presentations.

Let’s Scribble Those Napkins

Actually, I keep an “idea” notebook where I scribble my ideas and prototypes for stuff that I’d like to create one day. Napkins are too unreliable and notebooks are slightly more elegant.

Brainstorming some concepts for the book, scribbling-style

In terms of structure, I considered defining one concrete topic for a presentation and documenting the whole process – that would be the book. That would be the 100% practical approach, but would probably leave out a lot of content too. I decided against it. Eventually, I would cover the process insteadfrom idea to the final product. Better yet, from idea to applause(has a ring to it, doesn’t it?).

In the very beginning, my plans looked like this:

  • 3 main phases of the project: Writing & Editing, Editorial Design, Publishing & Marketing
  • Timing: manuscript done by March 2015, cover and interior design done by May 2015, publish in June 2015 (just before exam period)
  • Outline: Overview -> Planning -> Research & Resources -> Content Creation -> Rehearsal & Fine-Tuning -> Speaking

Everything went pretty much according to plan, except Timing. I completely misjudged how much time and work this project would take, but more on that later.

Putting it down on 0s and 1s (and then paper)

Writing has always been something I’ve enjoyed. I never wrote fiction, so perhaps that’s the reason why I seldom get writer’s block. I outline exactly what I want to say and just type way until I’m happy with it. Even if it sucks, I’ll have time to edit later.

Initially, I aimed to get about 30,000 words (after editing). I reached that goal after adding the Case Studies at the end of the book. It’s perfect – long enough to be a considered a book, yet not burdensome to the reader.

Scrivener was my typewriter of choice, Word has nothing on it. It’s one of those products you can see was designed having specific people in mind – authors. Without a doubt, my favorite feature were the Project Goals; Scrivener allows you to set word number goals for your document and for each writing session. It kept me motivated and productive.

Scrivener at work

I quickly realized that it’s not easy to write technical non-fiction when you have classes, internships, gym, friends and family going on (all at the same time). It’s not just the writing, you have to find the time to:

  1. Plan what you’re going to write: outline each chapter, find your voice, keep it consistent page after page
  2. Research content and facts: get examples from past presentations, search stuff on Google, read some On Writing Well or Elements of Stylefor inspiration
  3. Actually do the writing: get hundreds or thousands of words on the screen telling the reader the message you’re conveying
  4. Solve small problems like grammar or spelling mistakes [bigger problems like wrong facts, structural inconsistencies and others will be edited later on]

So how did I do it? It’s all about the double Ds: Discipline and Diligence. I set out to write 500-1000 words everyday no matter what. If I kept that rhythm, I’d be done in 30-60 days, which is pretty good. I wrote on Quora about this technique before, I call it Daily Quota (a small, attainable goal that you work on every day, piling up into something bigger).

I only failed about two or three times and it happened because I got floored with work at the hospital or at home. The day after, I always tried to compensate by working overtime (2000 words, instead of just 1000).

Overall, this strategy worked well and I got the manuscript done in about 2,5 months. In March 2015, I was ready to edit the whole thing. I preferred to print the manuscript and do it the old-fashioned way:
editing aint easy

Thank you, red pen!

Editing is as awesome as it is essential for the quality of the final product. It’s the difference between chicken shit and chicken soup. When the manuscript is done, it’s a bit overwhelming to think that work has just begun. It’s worth it, though.

With most of the writing complete, it was time to move to the fun (but hard) part, editorial design.

We’ll Fix It in Post

One of the main “selling points” of the book, something that could make it stand out from the crowd, were the attractive visuals I had in mind. Walls of text weren’t good enough for the message I was conveying, I needed to prove that you can and you should communicate visually.

Designing the book was the phase that permitted simple diagrams like the one jotted on my notebook to become finished material for the book.

Of course, I used Adobe Illustrator, Adobe Photoshop and Adobe InDesign (all CS6) to put everything together. Big shout out to Adobe for making the incredible software that they do. [no, I wasn’t bribed to write this]

indesign at work

InDesign at work

The design part of the project caught me off guard. In the past, I’ve done some image editing for my blog and even created an infographic – that all takes a bit of time, but nothing out of the ordinary. My original plans, however, were completed shattered: I took almost 5 months to get everything done (as opposed to the 2 months I had envisioned).

There were several reasons for this extra time: (1) I had 9 exams in June and 3 more in July, which required my full dedication (damn, were they tough), (2) I was travelling most of August, (3) when you stop this kind of work for extended periods of time, returning to 100% productivity takes a while.

While I’m not a professional designer (I don’t claim my design work to be perfect), people’s feedback of the layout and visual presentation has been extremely positive. I attribute the design’s success to a couple of decisions I made:

  • Always explain with pictures and diagrams what is though to grasp by text. The Content Creation chapter is a bit longer because of this.
  • Stick to a color palette at all times. I expected the book to get boring when using the same colors over and over again, but it turned out alright.

color palette

  • Use flat shapes and simple design elements (arrows, boxes, lines). Besides sparing the work of making gradients and other effects look good, the design reminds me of modern design (think Google’s material design or Microsoft’s metro).

All in all, I’m really happy with the book’s final presentation (pun maybe intended).book in print

Now Let’s Get It Out There

Going from those guys who say “Yeah, I’m writing a book on… ” to being one of those gentlemen who say “Yes, I wrote a book on… ” is incredibly satisfying. I joined the latter in late September 2015. Immediately after getting my PDF exported, I:

  • Ran out of my room
  • Went down the stairs of my building
  • Got outside
  • Found the Valkyries waiting for me on top of their steeds
  • Followed them to the skies in search of the mythical kingdom of Asgard

showing the goods

In all seriousness though, I worked even harder to get it (self-published). I built a landing page, which you can see here. I also published it on Amazon Kindle and I intend to get it ready for CreateSpace too.

As you already figured out, I named it The Super Student’s Guide to Presentations. Hopefully, it’s the first volume of a series of similar books on other topics (I’m accepting suggestions).

Lessons Learned

  • Writing books is fun. I loved the whole experience. Books are special objects. There is a Jewish proverb that goes like “If you drop a jar of gold and a few books, pick up the books first.” Being the author of a book and seeing it gaining shape before your eyes is awesome.
  • I takes a lot of time. Yes, more than you’re expecting. That’s not a reason to give up, though. My advice is to plan conservatively, expect to spend months or years writing your next bestseller.
  • Ask for feedback along the way. I believe that becoming a hermit just to write your book is a mistake. Write the first chapter, send it to trusted advisers and ask them what they think.
  • Editing is essential. Keep that red pen in arms reach, you’ll need it. We can’t expect to get things right at the first try. There are always sentences to be shortened and redundancies to be eliminated.
  • Don’t listen to the naysayers. People will tell you that it’s impossible, whether you’re medical student or not. It’s definitely possible, you just have to keep at it, day after day.

The last lesson is that writing is addictive. I’m already thinking about the topic of the sequel. See you then!

John Ramos

Author John Ramos

A medical student, entrepreneur and Science enthusiast. When outside the gym, hospital or conference halls, John does his best to keep TheStudentPower.com up and running.

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