What it’s really like to write a book

Rachel McConnell
11 min readMar 24, 2022
Black and white image of Rachel McConnell with dark hair and wearing glasses
The ‘lockdown years’ — working by day, writing by evening

When I wrote my first content book, I self-published it. But I didn’t just self-publish, I wrote it without editing help or feedback from others — which in hindsight is probably a terrible idea.

Given that in our working lives we foster collaboration, I’m not sure why I didn’t apply that to my writing. I think because a book feels very personal, and sometimes you just want to get what’s in your head out, without anyone else changing your words.

I’d also approached some publishers, but they didn’t seem that interested in my proposal, and even the response process was slow. I’m an impatient gal.

However, when I started my third book, I was keen to get it published through a publisher — partly because I wanted validation (was I good enough to get a publisher?) and also because I liked the idea of having someone to make my work even better. So here’s how it all happened:

Creating the idea

Summer 2020

In and around late spring/early summer I moved into a content ops role at BT, and started thinking about the fact no one was really talking about content operations. It felt like an opportunity to write about, and I began to string together some blog posts and an idea for a book. I knew how I was approaching ops, and thought putting it into some kind of playbook might be useful for other people in my position.

I sent a proposal out to a few publishers (some publishers have submissions pages and structured templates, but another I approached via email having asked a colleague to introduce me). One publisher said they already had a content book in mind, the others didn’t respond. I sat on my proposal and started to write the book anyway, thinking maybe I’d have to go down the self-publish route again after all.

Autumn 2020

I put a shout out on social media to see whether anyone could introduce me to more publishers. Perhaps there were some that I’d missed in my last round of firing off proposals, and I was still convinced I had good content for a book.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher kindly introduced me to A Book Apart (ABA)and I sent them my proposal.

Winter 2020

ABA came back to me at long last and said they might be interested, but could I revise my proposal? They’d make some suggestions so I re-wrote it and duly resubmitted. I didn’t know how long it would take to hear back so I didn’t get any hopes up! I stuck with the writing though, continuing to shape my content.

Paragraph of book outcomes and estimated word count
An extract from my book proposal, created November 2020 (I wrote double my original word estimate!)

Spring 2021

I hear back from ABA and they want to work with me! This was super exciting after so long, and a real confidence boost. We set up a kick-off call, where Katel and Lisa walked me through the process. We discussed a loose idea of timelines, and how the editing process would work. They were lovely and I immediately felt that we’d have a good working relationship — one of them is also a content strategist so I knew I was in good hands! Now the hard work would start!

Writing the book

About 40,000 words into the book, I started to wonder if it’s actually any good, whether people will read it, or whether I’m just spouting out a load of old garbage onto the page. I hoped this was an emotion all authors go through at some point!

Writing also provided the chance to look back through come classic content strategy books, and remind myself of the great things people far wiser than me have invented that I might want to reference in my book. People like Meghan Casey, Kristina Halvorson and Sara Wachter-Boettcher have produced some great strategy books. I also reached out to people I know have a lot of wisdom in strategy and ops with some questions — I was keen to feature their insights in my book!

The responses came back bit by bit, and it was lovely that so many people wanted to contribute! With all this content and my own, before long I’m up to 50,000 words!

I was still worried about what’s expected from a first draft and the standard of my work — I felt like expectations would be a lot higher for someone’s second book!

Summer 2021

I asked a colleague Kim to read the sections on research I feel less confident about. She gave me some great builds (though later in the edit I’d end up cutting quite a bit of this section). It was often hard to get my thoughts in order and articulate what I wanted to say so feedback was super helpful.

Then, at the start of June it was time to actually submit my first manuscript. As a content designer I did worry about how well I’d designed my content — however I think it’s fair to say the basics were in place. Despite worrying I was submitting a 50,000 word stream of consciousness, it was a relief to send it off to someone else! Lisa told me it would be 4–5 weeks until I heard anything and that was fine by me. It was a little respite before some more hard work.

The editing process

Less than 4 weeks later I received my first round of feedback from ABA. While I’d secretly been hoping to hear “this is the most complete first draft we’ve ever seen” what I actually heard was “there are a lot of notes, so buckle in!”.

Initially feedback feels like a kick – one whole chapter was suggested to be ditched – and the timeline I had to revise the content seemed almost impossible to me. I had three weeks. And while the book had taken a year to get out onto paper, to make so many amends seemed insurmountable when I was also presenting a conference the next week.

After agreeing a small extension to the deadline, I set about the editing process. This was the developmental edit, where things get reordered or moved, dropped or fleshed out. I’m not going to lie, this edit was much harder than writing the book itself. It took me around 5 weeks on and off. I got to a point where I was sick of looking at the same chapters but I knew with each change it was taking much better shape. ABA also suggested some other books to help clarify my thinking, and I asked yet another colleague to review my section on design systems (thanks Frances!). It was definitely great to have an editor who could help make sense of my mess!

By the time I sent back my edit, it had a much better structure and was a lot more coherent! I’d also given more weight to some of the flimsier areas, and while I’d felt less confident about them before, I now felt happier. Taking bits out I’d spent ages on was sometimes painful, but it also helped the book feel more focused.

Late summer 2021

My happiness was short-lived! When my next round of feedback arrived I was still a long way from a structure the editors were happy with.

I felt like I’d just had enough of the book at this point. It seemed too hard to restructure and rewrite again. It was already so different from my initial work and still didn’t feel good enough. I was also going on holiday the next day and had been looking forward to a week away from a laptop but that wasn’t to be. I packed my laptop alongside my shorts and bikini.

Two weeks later, my manuscript was up to 3917 revisions. And this was only the third draft!! I was starting to feel it was in better shape, but had removed a lot of content (down from 55k words to 40k) and it still had to be reduced further! I didn’t want to lose much more, especially the bits I felt most happy about, but in editing you have to kill a lot of darlings.

I sent the draft back with a jaunty “I think it’s getting there!” but knew it would come back a couple of weeks later with a ton of more work to do!

Early Autumn 2021

Amazingly, when this draft came back we were onto line edits rather than more developmental edits. This meant the structure was now good, but I needed to fine-tune the content and sentences.

This edit ends up taking three rounds — the first round accepting editor comments and making tweaks, the second reading through to see whether it all hangs together to make any further changes, and a third run-through to make any more improvements! It’s hard reading something so many times, you definitely need a day or two break between each run-though to have fresh eyes!!

Once I finished this edit, for the first time I felt positive about what I’d written. It felt like a book instead of the ramblings of a madwoman!

The title of my book was also decided (after quite a few rounds of brainstorming)! The editors and I agreed on Leading Content Design (though I secretly felt I’d need to overcome any imposter syndrome with such a weighty title!).

I also had to start writing the blurb and my bio, and select some peers that I thought might like to read and review the book!

Image showing over 3,000 revisions being made to manuscript
Each edit saw the revisions and deletions go sky-high! One edit had over 10,000 revisions

Marketing and preparing to launch

Late Autumn 2021

It was finally time to choose the colour of my book, an exciting part of the process 🎨

While this sounds simple, I’m very particular! I’d had some initial thoughts of dark blue, but after exploring some blues I moved towards a pinky orange —bright, eye-catching and one of the colours in a rose in my garden called Rachel. I even tracked down someone local with a Pantone book I could look at to make sure I’m completely happy with my choice!

The next round of edits also came back, right at the end of November as was just starting a new job and recovering from surgery — it never rains but it pours!

This round was a line edit and really tough. Despite my editor being amazing, there were lots of suggested deletions and I wanted to make sure I didn’t lose any key aspects of my work. I went through line-by-line to consider every sentence carefully and each chapter took a good few hours. I also had notes I’d kept between edits of sections I wanted to revisit or tweak with some new thoughts. It’s tough trying to commit things to print when you work in an ever-evolving industry. You want something to still feel relevant in a couple of year’s time but it had already been eighteen months since I’d written some of the content!

Throughout this edit I’d often wake up at 5am thinking of how to rephrase something I’d been struggling with. I have to get up to write it down so it wasn’t lost by morning!

I went right to the wire on this edit (my others had mostly been sent back early!), hoping we were almost there now.

An image of a laptop on someone’s lap with fairylights in the background
Editing through the winter evenings

Winter 2021

In winter I started to work with the marketing team, defining some launch goals and the key messages for the book, and my final edit came back for me to complete over Christmas week. I felt torn between losing the break I hoped I’d have over the festive season, and the knowledge the by the end of the year all my edits would be complete!

I worked hard in the run up to Christmas (including all day Christmas Eve) to get the edit sent back before the end of the year, it was so nice knowing my work on the manuscript was finally complete, after eighteen months!

In the new year, it was time for more work on the marketing, identifying the people I’d like to write my endorsements and foreword. Luckily Kristin Skinner, my first choice to introduce the book, said yes! I knew I wanted someone who understood content as well as the operational side of leadership, and also had good product design experience (my book is as relevant for design leaders as it is for content design leaders, and these folks also often lead content teams).

I also started to plan talks and posts I could use to showcase my book. This involved applying for conferences, and working out which bits of my book could easily translate into talks.

An image of Leading Content Design book lying on top of pages from the book
The first proof photo I got to see!


Spring 2022 (well, almost!)

Six weeks or so before my book was due to launch I got to see the cover image and the book pre-order page! I love the colour I’ve chosen and it was so exciting to reach this point. I also got some lovely feedback and endorsements from my book previewers and was ready to start marketing! It was such a nice milestone to finally announce the book, and I had some lovely responses on social media 🎉 Self-promotion feels weird, but we really need to own our hard work and achievements more.

Spring 2022

Almost two years since I started my book, I got an email to say my copies had been shipped! I also got some lovely photos of it from ABA which sent my anticipation into overdrive! “What if people don’t like your book?” My son asked. I told him that hopefully for everyone who doesn’t like it, there’ll be someone who finds it useful! It’s far too late to worry about things like that and not every book is right for every person’s needs.

My book delivery arrived a week before launch, and I was delighted to finally see it in real life! All my drawings and diagrams had been kept in as I’d created them which makes it feel much more personal to me. It’s a great feeling so see the fruition of so many people’s hard work and support, and I finally get to share this creation story with you too!

Image of Rachel McConnell holding up a copy of Leading Content Design with an open box of books
The unboxing moment!

Writing a book is hard work. It takes longer than making a real human and requires sustained effort and enthusiasm. It’s a roller-coaster too — for every moment you feel like giving up, there are moments when you feel like you’re actually creating something that might just turn out to be pretty alright. It also helps to have supportive and great publishers, as I did!

F.Scott Fitzgerald said “You don’t write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say” and I believe the conviction that you have something meaningful to share is what gets most of us through the book-writing process. Go into the process with open eyes, determination, and the appreciation that it’s a marathon and not a sprint, and you’ll be OK. Both my books came about because I wished they’d been books I’d had to help me find my way. So if you have something that might help just one other person, the chances are it’s worth writing about.

Rachel McConnell

Content and design leader. Found of Tempo. Author of Leading Content Design and Why you Need a Content Team and How to Build One