Top Project Management Tips To Make Creating A Successful Novel Easier

About the Contributing Author:

Joe Morris, PMP, is an aerospace professional who self –published his first science fiction novel, Empire’s Passing. As an engineering and management professional, Joe has his PMP, or Project Management Professional certification, from the Project management Institute. Since he is such a nice guy and always a professional, Joe wrote this guest post to illustrate how using project management techniques can help writers.

I spent 40 years in the aerospace industry as an engineer and project manager. Now that I’m writing professionally (professionally defined as earning some money for my writing) I’ve applied some of the management techniques I used during my career to writing. It’s something I’d like to share because I believe it has value in managing a writing project.

I have often been asked what the PMP abbreviation after my name means. It stands for Project Management Professional, a professional certification issued by the Project Management Institute (PMI). PMI promotes project management techniques and its associated processes worldwide. This probably doesn’t mean anything to you until you understand what project management is and how it can help in the business world, or, in this case, how you can apply it to writing.

First of all, let me define what I mean by a project. The core of PMI is contained in the“Program Management Body of Knowledge” or PMBOK for short. The title is pretty self-explanatory. PMBOK defines a project “as a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result.” As such, it must have a beginning and an end. Building a car on an assembly line is not considered a project because it’s repetitive and continuous. 

However, designing and building the assembly line would be considered a project because it has a beginning and an end. Modifications made to an existing assembly line would also be considered a project. From this definition, writing a book can be viewed as a project. For example, you’ve decided to write the great American novel. It has a beginning: your decision to write the book. It has an end: publishing it (which can include marketing).

Now, writing is a very intuitive, creative process. So why do you need a process and is one even practical? Project management allows you to organize the steps required to create the document and to track these steps to ensure something doesn’t fall through the cracks. For a blog the process may be quite simple. A book, depending on its nature, is quite a bit more complex. Writing articles and short stories falls somewhere in between.

Let’s understand a bit about the project management process. PMI defines the five phases of a project as initiation, planning, execution, monitoring, and closing. Basically, a writing process can be described with these five phases as shown below:




I’ve used some of the PMI phase names and associated them with writing-related equivalents where I felt clarification is required.

Initiation

The initiation phase is just that, the starting of the project. Initiation may just reflect your decision to write a book or it might be triggered by a request from a publisher or client. Or maybe you found a writing contest online. Within this initiation phase, there are certain tasks you should do. These tasks will help clarify exactly what the project is and what you hope to accomplish, as well as helping you prepare to scope or size the project in terms of time and budget requirements.

In PMI parlance the first step is to create a project charter. Basically, the charter states the objectives of the project in simple terms. In most cases this should be no more than a couple of paragraphs. What are you writing? Who is your audience or customer? What is the due date, if there is one? Keep this in a place where you can refer to it. 

Why? 

In project management there is something called scope creep, where during a project you end up taking on additional tasks or requirements. This charter or scope document allows you to refer back once in a while to remind yourself what you were originally trying to do and to make sure you aren’t off chasing rabbit trails. You may decide that the project has become too complex, or that you need more compensation for this particular project.

Planning

So once you have your charter, etc. in place the next thing you need to do is plan your project. For some this step begins with an outline. The detail of the outline is entirely up to you. I’ve been in LinkedIn writing group discussions where the use of an outline has been discussed ad nauseam. 

Some people advocate detailed outlines, while others (like me) are more free-flowing and find outlines somewhat confining, at least for fiction. Still, I have created chapter outlines (to track my story development) and timelines for my novels, as well as character lists. All of these help me keep things straight. 

If you’re writing a non-fiction piece requiring research, you might want to make a list of the sources you plan to use. You also need a schedule, even if there is no deadline. The schedule helps you sets goals and also reminds you when you’ve fallen behind because of distractions or other issues. Some people have even used MS Project to plan their writing schedule for complex projects. Other software for the planning of a writing project is also available.

If there is marketing involved, such as with self-publishing (or as in many cases with traditional publishing these days), this is the time to create your marketing plan. Marketing should begin when you start the project.

You also need to define when the project is over. When can you declare success (or failure and stop)?For example, submitting a story to a selected online contest might be considered the end of one project. In self-publishing a book, the end could be considered when you publish the book, or when you’ve completed your marketing campaign. Thus, it’s important to define the endpoint or you can end up spinning your wheels on a project that is over. 

Part of defining the endpoint is defining the deliverables, i.e., the manuscript, the story submission, etc. How many times have you heard of someone finishing a manuscript and then forgetting to hit the send button?

In industry we roll this up into what we call a Program Management Plan. This document is a living document that contains the charter and all of the plans in the planning stage. By living document, I mean it can be updated as things in the project change. It provides “one stop shopping” which team members can use as a handy resource and reference guide. 

Whether you need something like this depends on the size of the project, how many people you have working on it, and your own personal preferences. The more people involved the more you need this document.

In my aerospace life I’ve learned that the planning phase may determine the success or failure of the project. Poor planning allows the project to meander and lose focus.

Execution/Research

Execution is just what it says. Write. Set yourself  a time for writing with a daily writing budget. For example, I have a little sign posted in my study asking me if I wrote my 2000 words today and if I checked my short story contest deadlines. Then just write. Obviously research may be part of the writing. So if you plan to do research, you need to account for it in your planning in the previous planning phase. A research plan with a starting list of sources might prove invaluable and should have been created in the previous phase.

Monitoring

The monitoring part of the monitoring/editing phase may not seem intuitive. In the aerospace world, we have quality control to check the results of our execution. We use progress/status reviews with management and our customers to evaluate progress and to keep our stakeholders informed. 

We also have something called change control, which allows for peer review (e.g.,other engineers reviewing the document for correctness and accuracy) of project documents and also ensures the team is using the latest, approved version of these documents. We also have audits to ensure the team is following the process as required. This may seem to be more than you need and it probably is. However, you still need to stop and check your progress. 

Are you on schedule? If not, why not? Are you following your plan/outline? Do you need to modify your execution or do you need to refocus it? You also need to keep your customer and stakeholders (e.g., agent, editor, publisher, etc.) informed of your progress. As a project manager I hated when someone who knew they were going to be behind schedule and neglected to tell me. If I know about a problem I could at least adjust my expectations and plans. When I was blindsided the pain was much greater.

Then, of course, comes the editing part. I can write pages on editing but, for now, suffice it to say you need to do it. Having someone else do it is even better. Too often writers reside too much in the weeds of their writing (i.e., deep in the details) and can’t see errors, mistakes, and inconsistencies.You know, you can’t see the forest for the trees kind of thing. If you can’t afford an editor join a writing group or find someone else to read it. (I’m lucky. I’m married to my editor).

Publishing Marketing

The publishing/marketing phase can be quite complex. There are books written on it and this blog post is already long as is. The most important thing is to follow the plan you laid out in the planning phase. A plan for both publication and marketing is mandatory. In fact, it may make sense to break your writing project down into subprojects. For example, in a self-published book publication project the writing and publication should run in parallel with your marketing, which starts early and carries on past the publication.


Using project management techniques can help keep your writing projects on track. I’m considering setting up a website to cover this writing process with examples, forms that can be used, and maybe a forum. If you’re interested let me know at joe@rocketscitech.com or leave me a note on my blog at http://www.josephwmorris.com/blog

2 comments:

  1. Great article & I would definitely be interested in a website set up to describe this process in greater detail.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great write-up! Writing is a talent, and it must not be wasted. As with everything that we had been entrusted, we should let it grow and share it with the world.> self development books

    ReplyDelete

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