Phillip Smith

A beautiful book sprint for Beautiful Trouble: Tips on collaboratively writing a book.

Beautiful Trouble Book Sprint: Snapshot of the leader board at 3:46PM on Day 2.

I’m just heading back to Toronto after what I would consider to be an incredibly successful “book sprint” for the Beautiful Trouble project.

What’s a book sprint?

Basically, we brought together a group of fourteen (incredibly talented and generous) contributors – both physically in NYC and remotely – for a weekend of focused writing. People came from far-and-wide: from as close as Brooklyn, Cleveland and Pennsylvania, and as far as Berlin, Denmark, and Paris.

At the end of the weekend, the group had started work on more than 70 articles and written more than 30,000 words. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say: we crushed it.

If you’re working on a book or documentation project with many contributors who are working on discrete pieces of content, here are a few tips on how to run your own book sprint.

First, from the venerable Allen “Gunner” Gunn channeling the venerable Adam Hyde:

  • Focus: The key to the overall success of the book sprint is focus. Staying focused on the tangible outcomes, and the steps that need to be facilitated to get there, helps to ensure that actual work gets done.

  • Deliverables: Be clear about what you’re asking people to write. To accomplish this, we wrote example content and created templates (with word counts, etc.) for each type of content. We asked participants to work from those templates and examples. We used Google Docs for all of this: the templates, examples, and assignments.

  • Output: Put the attention of the gathering on output – generating the raw number of words necessary to gather some momentum. Not everything is going to be great, but that is what editors are for.

  • Distractions Probably the best advice that Gunner gave us is “make sure the work sprint doesn’t turn into a brainstorm sprint.” We really took this to heart and had people focused on writing for about 70-80% of the weekend. The brainstorming we did do was not about the book’s content.

Logistically, we made sure to:

  • Have one person that is facilitating, not writing: This was Andrew and his role was to coach people, spot edit, and to put wind in our sails. Basically, he said “if you’re blocked, come talk to me.” He and Duncan also used a bullhorn to berate us with calls to work harder (or to take group yoga breaks).

  • Make remote participants visible (and vice-versa): To bring the energy of the in-person sprint to our remote participants, I used to broadcast a continuous window into what was happening in the room in NYC. To bring remote participants into the conversation, I used Skype (with somewhat limited success) and the live stream chat tool. For the next sprint, I’ll probably use an audio conferencing system instead of Skype for our larger group check-ins to ensure that both the people in the room, and the remote participants, can talk to each other.

  • Make editors available: Our tireless editor Dave Oswald Mitchell did a fantastic job working through articles from Paris, but – ultimately – just having two editors for the weekend was a bottleneck. Ideally, we would have had more editors available at the in-person event to work with contributors. Having contributors read each other’s work was helpful, but needs to be facilitated to ensure that peer-based work is useful and not counter-productive.

  • Make progress visible: Allen had suggested that we announce when finished pieces where coming off the pipeline as a way to keep spirits up, especially for the remote participants. However, I took that a step further and created a regularly updated “Book Sprint Leader Board” (screenshot at the top of this post) to add a little fun competitive energy into the mix. Next time, I’ll probably take that a bit further and have it list the number of pieces in progress and completed by author, along with their total word count and something like ‘velocity.’ I’m probably getting carried away – but hey!

Format-wise: We started with a really long day on Saturday – started early and finished late –and limited the post-event socializing to ensure that contributors had lots of energy on day two.

On day two, we started early and finished early. We did a large group brainstorm that day on where we wanted to take the Web compendium of the Beautiful Trouble book – perfect timing, as the folks in the room had be immersed in the content all weekend. Then we encouraged people to not start anything new, and – instead – to focus on finishing up any articles that they had already started.

At the end of day Sunday, we went out for celebratory drinks, food, and – for the exceptionally brave – a screening of Super 8.

There’s our recipe for a successful book sprint. Your mileage may vary.


Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.