On Revisions

At the halfway point of my Mac OS X book revision.

Yesterday, as I completed the revisions to Chapter 10, I reached the halfway point in my revision for Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard: Visual QuickStart Guide.

No, the book isn’t 20 chapters long. It’s 27 plus an appendix. I’ve revised 14 chapters. I’m not revising in order. I’m revising in the order I think it might be safe to revise in. Some features are still in flux and if I revise based on what I see, I’ll likely have to revise again.

And no, I can’t tell you what I think might be in flux. I’m under non-disclosure and I take that stuff pretty seriously. That’s also why you won’t find Leopard screenshots here (yet). And why I haven’t written any articles about the new features (yet).

This is a Deep Revision

I’ve settled into a pace of about one revised chapter per day. That might seem like a lot. It is, especially since I’m doing what I call a deep revision.

I not only write my Visual QuickStart Guides, but I also do layout for them. This is called packaging — the author provides final files to the publisher, who then (after editing, of course) sends them on to the printer.

I currently use InDesign CS3 for all my layout needs. But that’s not what I was using when I wrote the first edition of this book, which covered Mac OS 8, back in 1997. (I still remember that book’s release at Macworld Expo in Boston. Peachpit sold out on the first day of the show, but UPS was on strike and we couldn’t get any more books in.) In 1997, I was using PageMaker. And that’s what I used to create the original book files.

A revision is a revision. That means you start with something and modify it to bring it up to date. So each year, I’d start with the previous year’s file and modify text, replace screenshots, and make various other changes to bring the content and file up to date.

Every time I switched to a new version of my layout software — PageMaker became InDesign 2 which became InDesign CS which became InDesign CS3 — I can’t justify the expense of updating my software for every release — I’d simply convert the file to the new version at the beginning of the revision process.

Over the years, this led to inconsistently set up files. Sure, the differences were minor, but they were there. And it bugged me that there were tiny differences in the style definitions and that some text included indexing codes from a failed experiment with the indexing feature and that the Zapf Dingbats font applied to bullets wasn’t working right in all files. And that in some chapters, each page was a different InDesign “story” and in others, the stories would go on for several pages.

So this year I decided to clean up the files by recreating them all. I built a brand new template in InDesign CS3, adding the staggered tabs that many other VQS books include but mine never had. I took full advantage of InDesign’s nested style feature to automate bullet and reference formatting. I made my styles intelligent and highly functional.

Then I got an InDesign plugin that enabled me to export the individual stories in a single chapter file as one big story in plain old text. I do this for each chapter. I make sure the text has smart quotes and paste it into my template. I then manually reapply all the styles as I go through the text and edit it to bring it up to date.

Along the way, I reorganized much of the content to remove 2 chapters, add 5 chapters, and move a bunch of content around.

A deep revision.

Other Revisions

Contrast this with the last book revision I did. That was for another publisher which doesn’t allow author packaging. Instead, the book is submitted as a series of Microsoft Word files.

I start with the previous year’s “final” files. I turn on the revision feature so all my changes are marked — supposedly for the benefit of the copy editor, so she doesn’t re-edit the whole thing — and go at it. The result is a mess that only gets messier as the book goes through the editing process. In the end, it’s all cleaned up, laid out and sent to me as proofs so I can make any final corrections to it.

If the software I’m revising the book for hasn’t changed much, this can be incredibly quick — I can sometimes turn out 3-4 chapters in a day, with plenty of time for my morning coffee, blog entry, e-mail processing, and even a little Web surfing. My record was 2 weeks for the entire 400+ page book.

Time Is Not on my Side

But for a deep revision, things go much more slowly. If I’m lucky, I can turn out a chapter a day. That’s a complete 20-40 page chapter, laid out with dozens of screenshots — I’m averaging about 80 per chapter right now — and captions and even a few callouts.

I just did the math. If I can keep up a chapter a day as my production rate, I should have the whole thing done by September 20. Right?

Well, unfortunately, I don’t have the next 13 days to work on this book. Next Friday, I’m flying my helicopter at the Mohave County Fair, giving rides for the whole weekend. On Monday, I fly directly to Page for two separate flying gigs over Lake Powell. I should be back by Thursday afternoon. Then the Saturday right after that, I’m hosting a photographer/writer and pilot from Australia who are preparing a coffee table book about Robinson Helicopters, featuring about 20 operators all over the world. (Can you imagine that they picked me?) When they leave, I have a few days before I head back up to Lake Powell, Monument Valley, and Shiprock with the helicopter for a group of Russian photographers for a big photo excursion.

What does this tell me?

It’s 6:26 AM on a Friday morning. I’d better get to work.

What do you think?