Spotlight: Johanna Rothman (Author) Interview and AMA!


Author Spotlight:
Johanna Rothman (@jrothman)

Writing is a craft and Johanna Rothman is an expert. Today we talked about the art of writing and creating words with Johanna, author of Free Your Inner Nonfiction Writer: Educate, Influence, and Entertain Your Readers, available at the Pragmatic Bookshelf. You can enjoy writing, especially when you integrate thinking and learning as you write. And, when you wait to edit until the end, you can write faster. Learn how to educate, influence, and entertain people with your writing.

This is also an AMA. Everyone commenting or asking a question will automatically be entered into our draw to win a copy of Johanna’s ebook!

1 Like

Please introduce yourself.

Hi, I’m Johanna Rothman. People know me as the Pragmatic Manager because I offer frank advice. I make practical suggestions to my readers and clients so that they can figure out what they might want to choose to adapt their product development practices. And generally, if they take any of my advice, they will find that they have improved at least a little bit, and now they have a choice about what to do next.

My nonfiction books are about managing product development. Sometimes it’s personal product development, like this most recent book, which is Free Your Inner Nonfiction Writer: Educate, Influence, and Entertain Your Readers. I wrote that book because I offer writing workshops.

I realized that most people, unless they’ve really been practicing their writing, have trouble getting out of their own way for the writing that they need to do for work. I write a variety of short pieces, such as blogs and reports for clients, which are two different kinds of writing, but I find that the more I write, the easier it is for me to write.

“Most people, unless they’ve really been practicing their writing, have trouble getting out of their own way for the writing that they need to do for work”

As I work with writers, they often say to me, “It’s harder and harder and harder to write something down. I keep editing myself, I’m not sure where to start, I have all these ideas, and then I face the blank page. This is really horrible.” And I say to them, “Well, don’t do the stuff that’s not working. If it hurts more, don’t do that.” I find that when I started to talk to writers about not editing as they went, as they started to write, they had such rules ingrained in them from their grammar school and high school teachers, even college teachers, that they really had to practice changing those rules.

I wrote Free Your Inner Nonfiction Writer so people would say, “Oh, I can be a professional writer and I don’t have to edit as I go. I can be a professional writer and just keep an unordered list”—I call this an idea bank and fieldstones—“but an unordered list of things I want to write about so I never have to face the blank page.”. And so far people are saying, “Yeah, this is really working for me too.” So that’s really great.

What are some of the rules that people have ingrained into themselves that they have picked up from their teachers, whether it’s high school or college or anywhere?

I already spoke about editing. The more you edit as you write, the more you interrupt yourself. That’s because writing nonfiction is thinking and writing, thinking and learning as you write. So if you think about it, you put your fingers on a pen and you drag your pen across the page, making marks on the page. And then if you were editing as you went with your fingers, if you had a pen in your hand, you would have to cross out everything that you’re doing. Well, how could you make any progress then? Back when we handwrote, we edited less.

So when our teachers told us to edit as we wrote, that’s because we were synthesizing other people’s thinking; we were analyzing other people’s thinking. But now as an adult, you come up with your own ideas, you take all of the ideas that you’ve read about, you take all the research, and you put everything together in a different way, which means you are thinking and learning as you go.

That means that the more you edit as you go, especially if you’re using a keyboard, then the more you interrupt yourself. Instead of identifying and exploring possibilities, you get stuck on the same thing over and over and over again. It feels—at least it does to me—as if I’m honing in on something really, really small that I then have only a paragraph to talk about.

“The more you edit as you go, especially if you’re using a keyboard, then the more you interrupt yourself”

Now, you might say, “Johanna, maybe you should have only a paragraph.” That’s entirely possible, but more likely, all of us have several hundred words that we need to use to describe our experience, to describe the advice, to describe the thing that we’re going to talk about. So editing interrupts the thinking and learning.

The next rule is outlining before you start. A lot of us grew up with this advice and our rules from our teachers. In fact, my kids were told always start with an outline. They should never start without an outline.

Well, if you’re synthesizing somebody else’s ideas, sure you need an outline. But if you are outlining before you start, you stop yourself from thinking, so you’ve already noticed a pattern here. I’ve talked about thinking and learning as we write in both the editing and the outlining.

The third piece of advice is that you were supposed to start with a blank page. Well, I don’t think I know of anybody who likes to start something with a blank page. Even if you’re doing a greenfield software project, you’re doing a brand-new product, you’ve been thinking about this for a while, you might have experimented with a few things, you might have drawn pictures, you might have gone to the keyboard and typed a little bit of code in. Why would you not do that for your writing in a natural language also?

Instead of starting with a blank page, I strongly, strongly recommend that you have an “idea bank” and “fieldstones.” Gerald M. Weinberg came up with the idea of fieldstones, which are anywhere from a word to a sentence to a paragraph, whatever it is, of not-quite-finished words that give you an idea of what you could write about. I needed more, I needed an idea bank where I said I do have some related ideas.

I developed this idea of the idea bank when I wrote the Agile and Lean Program Management book because I wanted to make sure I had this unordered list of things to address in that book. So I did not order the list, but I wrote all my ideas down so I would not forget them. Because as soon as I start to write things down, I forget them, especially if I publish the book–because I don’t have to remember them anymore. I free myself from the tyranny of having to remember.

What is the process of creating your idea bank, and what are some of the ways to make your idea bank better?

I have an Apple ecosystem. I have an iPhone, a MacBook Pro, an iPad. I can easily use the Notes application because it’s on all of my devices. I am pretty sure that there’s a Windows equivalent or an Android equivalent if you use a different ecosystem of products. I recommend writers use e a very lightweight application that allows you to collect thoughts whenever and wherever you have them. But here’s how I populate my idea bank.

In the book, I offer several bunches of prompts: things you might love and hate, things you might wish you had known then, whenever then was, things you would like to know in the future.

Aside from these possible prompts, I listen to all kinds of people: current clients, potential clients, people who comment. Those people explain their perspectives and ask questions. Those might turn into prompts for my future writing.

Because I’m writing nonfiction, I want to address my client’s concerns or my potential clients’ concerns. If I was inside an organization, I would want to address my management’s concerns. Let’s just say for a minute you’re not sure that estimation itself, the actual estimates, have any value, but that estimation offers tremendous value because estimation allows you to surface assumptions and risks and all kinds of things about the problem at hand.

You might want to write a piece about the difference and the value of estimation versus the estimate itself. So you might write down in this idea bank, estimation, that’s going to prompt you to listen for things inside the organization. And then, you might write down the value of estimation, time wasted during estimation. What are estimates good for anyway? All those kinds of things.

All of those are prompts for you, so you are ready to write. You can choose the length of the piece, because you already started to think about these ideas. You don’t have to remember what you thought; you got it out of your brain onto the virtual piece of paper, and now you can just look it up wherever it is that you put it.

As you’re doing all this and you’re putting down your thoughts and you’re starting off with no blank pages because we agreed, “no blank pages,” how do you target your writing to a particular audience?

I am very fond of picking one ideal reader and writing to that person. Back a decade ago, maybe more, I don’t remember, I was at a conference where I was a speaker, and this lovely man came up to me and said, “I don’t quite believe you. I don’t quite believe what you say.” I thought, “Okay, he’s a little skeptical of my information.” So I said, “What don’t you believe?” We had this very, very interesting conversation, and I realized that if I wanted to get the people whom I would call the skeptics, I needed to write to them, write for those people.

So I actually think of him. He’s six feet tall, from the Netherlands. I’m not going to say his name because I’m not sure if he’s reading, but I write to him all the time because that way I think, What kinds of examples does he need to see? What kinds of stories does he need to hear? That way I can really think about who I’m writing for: if I write for this one person, then I am much more likely to hit the mark with all these other people.

Now, you might not write to a guy who’s six feet tall from the Netherlands; you might write for somebody else. And you probably should write for somebody else, but I find that the more I think about my ideal reader and build empathy with that person, the more likely I am to land this piece and I will write something that in general, people find useful. So while I write for one ideal reader, I am happy if other people read it and say, “Oh, she’s on to something there.” However, I’m not writing for everybody; everybody is way too large an audience. I’m writing for my ideal reader. And I find that that makes the most sense of all.

“The more I think about my ideal reader and build empathy with that person, the more likely I am to land this piece”

Sometimes I am my ideal reader, especially if I’m trying to figure out how things really work. So I wrote a bunch of pieces about working in flow and Little’s Law and feedback loops on my blog. I’ve been writing about this for the last several months. And the reason I’ve been writing about this is because I had to explain Little’s Law to myself, so I was my ideal reader.

It sounds in a way that as you build empathy and as you have this ideal reader in mind, that your writing becomes some sort of conversation. Is that a reasonable assumption?

I think it’s a lot more like a conversation than it is to anything else. Although I do admit I don’t actually wait for the other person to respond, I try to anticipate the next thing in the structure so that I always answer their questions. So there are several ways to structure a nonfiction piece so the ideal reader can understand what you write. If you set the context at the beginning, not so much to say, “You will learn these three things,” but to say, “Here’s the problem I want to expose and explore during this piece,” that sets the context very nicely.

People like to read in threes, so you might offer three solutions or three alternatives or three questions. Three anything are very useful. And then you wrap back at the end to the start. So the start is where you set the context, and if you wrap back at the end to that context, then people find that it’s a very satisfying read. Even if they don’t agree with you, they find it a satisfying reading experience.

You’ve talked about setting the context and using your, I’m going to call it the rule of threes, to give sufficient context and explanations and stories so that the reader is satisfied that you’ve met what you’ve set at the beginning, but I don’t want to get too far away from your ideal reader yet because you say it is like building a conversation. So do you have that conversation with a single suite as you’re writing, or does the conversation continue as you go back to the beginning after doing your first draft?

Oh, so let me talk about drafting for a minute. I always think I start at the beginning and go to the end. But here’s the reality: I often have the ending paragraph at the start and the beginning at the bottom. So yeah, I can try and fool myself, but I don’t actually draft in the same way a lot of other people do: I cycle.

I tend to write for 15 or 20 minutes at a time and that’s when I go back and reread what I wrote. I reorganize, I sometimes change the wording to clarify my ideas, but I’m not editing. So a lot of times people think of drafts as something you edit. I don’t edit until the very, very end.

When I say drafting, I mean the cycling business. I go back to the start and say, “Do I have a useful opening? Maybe One Startling Sentence or description of the problem or a little three or four-sentence story at the start, so I set the context?” Because I’ve been writing all along, I now know where I’m going. But I write those first 15 to 20 minutes, 500 to 600 words without interrupting myself. And that’s when I go back and cycle and say, “Does this make sense so far?” And if it does, I’ll write another 500 words unless I have totally screwed myself up.

I have been working on this particular blog post for a week now because I’m not satisfied with where the opening is going, so I now have fodder. I have put a bunch of stuff back into my fieldstones for several more blog posts, just because as I cycle, I’m realizing I need to talk about this thing first, not the two or three other things I had before.

So that’s okay. I take those 1,000 or so words, I put them back into Note I will address them at some other time. But now I think I finally understand how to open this piece.hen I set that context in the very beginning, that’s how I can draft my way through to completion. And I tend to write all the way to completion, cycling as I go.

I don’t do any kind of editing until I’m all, all done, which is why I can say, “Oh, these draft blog posts are actually pretty good. They’re just not what I wanted to write about today.” So that’s fine, I have them, that will make my future writing much faster, but I’m still working on cycling through that opening. And I think I finally got that this morning, so that will make it possible for me to finish this post, look for the typos, and publish it.

For me, editing is mostly about finding and fixing typos, and maybe that’s my second draft. I don’t actually know how to count drafts. I cycle so often, I’m always in writing-down mode, not in stopping-myself mode.

I love the idea of taking your drafts and pulling out—I guess you would call them almost seedlings that you can plant later. And it seems like a lot of what you’re doing is finding the core as you cut away the unneeded branches. Is that a fairly good description of what you’re doing through some of these cycles?

I think that is because the pieces that I am not yet publishing will be blog posts, they absolutely will be. I am going to use them—well, maybe in my newsletter—but they will be something that I can publish at some point after I finish the sequencing of the thinking. And notice, I keep cy​​cling so I continue to refine my thinking.

Well, I’m writing because nonfiction writing is this lovely and challenging conglomeration of thinking and learning as we write. And I really like the seedling business. I used to think about this as the gems, that I would pull out the little jewel-like gems, but I think you are on to something else. I think that what I more often do is say, “Oh, this is an offshoot of that thing. Hang on to that, don’t let it go, but it’s not this thing right now.”

Some of the things that you’ve talked about are very much in line with what a developmental editor might do versus a line editor or a copy editor. Do you ever think in those terms when you are doing the entire product on your own?

Sort of. I more often think of it as programming. So I might have been a bad programmer; I’m certainly an old programmer. Back when I was writing code, I often had to think through what I was doing, write some of it down. And back when I was using Fortran, that was even worse because I would have to write a subroutine over here and a subroutine over there. And when I wrote assembly language, that was much more linear, but I still had to write little pieces over here or little pieces over there.

What I found is that for me, it feels a lot like programming and not so much what a developmental editor does. However, if I take a different perspective, yes, a developmental editor would absolutely take each of my pieces and say, “This sequence of things goes first in the chapter, this sequence goes second. Or if you wanted to make this thing go first, you need a different introduction.” All that stuff. So I think that my cycling is a little bit like what a developmental editor does, but it feels to me as if I’m programming.

No matter what one does in a creative effort in programming, drawing, writing, sculpture even, there’s creation, and then there’s refinement. And I think that this separation that you’re describing occurs no matter what it is you’re actually doing. So there are competing mental processes, there’s the explanation, and then there’s self-analysis where you might be changing things. How does this apply to when you sit down to do nonfiction?

When I sit down to do nonfiction, I start off with the creation. I take a fieldstone or an idea, something out of my bank, and I say, “I’m going to attack this, I’m going to clarify this either for me or for my ideal reader and make them understand it. I’m not sure that I need them to agree with me. In fact, I’m pretty sure I don’t need them to agree with me, but I really, really want them to understand what I’m saying.” And that might require clarification of some words, but not editing, which is why I’m such a fanatic about separating the editing from the writing down and the clarifying that cycling.

How much time does it take for you or for any of your students to depersonalize their writing so they can look at it with fresh eyes and be ready to make those editorial decisions?

I actually teach not to wait. I teach writers to finish right while you are passionate about this thing and while you’re still interested. I’m not very big on WIP—Work in Progress. And especially if you write as much as I do, then my job is to write and publish, write and publish, write and publish.

Not books. Books take a different kind of mental game and product development approach, but a blog post, a short article, I write and publish. But let’s assume that I’m writing a 500 to 1,000-word blog post and I do this in maybe two or three 15-minute sessions and cycle as I go, so at the end of 45 minutes I’m done.

I read through it again, I fix the typos, I hit publish. That’s my job.

Because I have internalized the various logic structures, I set the context at the start, use logic with three ideas, and do a little wrap-back to the start to finish the piece.

So for a blog post, write it and publish it. For an article, write it and publish it, or submit it to the correct person. I don’t spend a lot of time, and I never let something sit for longer than a day. Never, because it’s much more likely to create too-large WIP, my Work in Progress. I’ve already done the writing; this piece is no longer interesting to me.

Why would I wait to try and bring my interest back up when I can finish instead? And if anybody’s ever read my blog posts, you can tell when I’m writing, when I’m angry or excited or passionate about something.

I tend to write it, look for the typos, publish it. That’s it, I’m done. I got it off my chest, I got it out of my system, I am ready to go on to the next thing. And the one thing I would highly, highly, highly recommend to all of you writers out there: do not wait, do not let something sit so you’re no longer interested in it. People want to read about your passion, they want to read about your excitement, they want to read so that they can feel like they’re a part of your being as you wrote it. That’s the value you bring as a writer, so don’t let it get stale, don’t let it wait so you’re cooled off.

Write it while you’re hot, edit while you’re hot and publish it while you’re hot. Just get it out there and then see what happens. What’s the worst thing that could happen? People say, “I kind of got you, but you lost me halfway through.” That’s all they might say. Or they might say, “Johanna, you’re really weird.” And I would say, “Yes, that’s exactly what I am.” So, fine.

“Write it while you’re hot, edit while you’re hot and publish it while you’re hot”

Given the passion, given the desire to write fast and well, what role do simplifying and clarifying,and trying to make it resonate at a deeper level play? How do these play into your writing method?

For me, that’s all about the cycling because I often discover I’m either using big words or I manage to confuse myself. I am the queen of the 37- or 45-word sentence because I’m writing with passion. So I start the sentence at the beginning, and I type and type and type and type.

Then I realize I have commas and I have em dashes. I love my em dashes. I don’t use semicolons that often, but if I have more than two em dashes in a sentence, I probably need to split that up. These are my guidelines, not necessarily anybody else’s. If I have more than two commas in a sentence, I definitely need to break that up. And if I have more than about 20 words in a sentence, I probably need to break that up.

And I will see that in my rereading, in my clarifying, in my cycling, because I’m going to say to myself, “This feels like I don’t even get to take a breath in this sentence. What am I really trying to say? What is the first thing I’m trying to say? And do I need a period there so I am clear about what I’m trying to say? And then what’s the next thing I’m trying to say?”

I have dear, dear friends who love their parenthetical expressions. They write a sentence, they have a left parenthesis, another couple of sentences, and a right parenthesis all in one sentence.

I said to them, “First, every single parenthetical expression that you have needs to be its own paragraph, so don’t hide it in a parenthetical. And secondly, you have my disease, you have the long run-on sentence disease. That’s okay, put a period in there somewhere and then see what it sounds like to you as you cycle through it.”

This is when we stay in writing-down mode; we stay with our passion for the topic. I know some of you are saying, “You’re talking about WIP and roadmapping and that’s what you have passion about?” Yes, I actually do. It’s totally fine. So if you stay with your passion for the topic and you make your sentences smaller so they’re clearer—that’s the cycling part for clarity—then you might have more sentences, but people will understand what you’re writing. That’s really key for me.

I want to change the topic slightly, and I want to ask you about anxiety and fear. And specifically what is their role in keeping people who have important things to say and great passions and ideas from saying those things and connecting with a potential audience?

Oh, I think the biggest thing that I see is somebody has already written about this, and that’s true. Somebody has definitely written about this; probably many, many people have written about this, but they are not you. You have your own stories, you have your own experiences. And with that, the more you think about, “How can I make other people see and feel my experiences?” That’s why you need to write your ideas down.

A lot of us, especially in the Pragmatic Bookshelf arena, have written about agile projects and programs and agility in general. I am one of many, and yet my books are about my experiences, which means if other people’s books didn’t kind of hit the mark for the reader—for my ideal reader—maybe my books will.

That’s why I strongly, strongly encourage everybody to write a little bit every day because until you get comfortable writing about your ideas and how your ideas might help other people, it’s hard to imagine that they might help other people. But you are a sum of all of your experiences as I am a sum of all of my experiences. And we don’t have the same experiences.

Instead of saying, “Oh, my stuff is never going to be good,” start writing it down and publish it, so people get accustomed to how you think, to what you have experienced, to the way you see the world. When we do that, we invite people into our frame of mind, our frame of reference, our experiences. And then if we set the context well, then people say, “Oh, Johanna’s going off on one of her things again. I might not agree with her, but I want to read it.” And that’s the best thing you can get.

That’s the first thing, that somebody else has already written this. Yeah, somebody else has. And I cannot get too excited about that because, yeah, somebody else already wrote it.

Another fear I hear is the whole idea that writing must be perfect. This is one of the reasons I would much rather read a piece with passion and verve and excitement than something that looks “perfect.”

I happen to use Grammarly as my editing checker, my grammar checker. And Grammarly doesn’t like the fact that I have short, choppy sentences, but I like those sentences, and I’m going to keep those sentences. So I always reject the thing that says, “Combine these sentences with an and.” No, I don’t want to do that.

I don’t have to be perfect as long as people can understand me, because there is no such thing as perfect writing, there’s no such thing as perfect grammar, there’s no such thing as perfect anything, but what we can do is our best. And that’s all I want out of my writing: Did I do my best job today? And that might not be my best job ever, but it’s my best job today.

“I don’t have to be perfect as long as people can understand me, because there is no such thing as perfect writing, there’s no such thing as perfect grammar, there’s no such thing as perfect anything, but what we can do is our best.”

Do you have some exercises for becoming more comfortable in your own skin and your own writing and your own expressiveness?

Yes, and that is is to write something and publish it and realize you’re not going to die. If you write something and you publish it, then you write something else and you publish that, and you write something else and you publish that. And if you can, do this five days a week. You write something small, you don’t have to write something big, you write something small five days a week, you publish it. I mean, first of all, not many of them are going to be bad, probably none of them. But even if one of them is bad, the other four are good. I should say bad in quotes where you might not have gotten to the ideal reader precisely; you might not have cycled for clarity precisely, but the more you practice your writing, the better you will be at it.

This is something I have never understood, that people think you don’t need to practice. Think about the craft that you do at work. I’m not sure what it is you do, but given that this is a Pragmatic Bookshelf spotlight, I suspect that you do something technical. So think about the technology and the technical work that you do and say, “How long did it take me to practice this before I felt good at it?” I bet you can get a lot more practice in a lot shorter time with writing and feel pretty good about it.

And for me, the practice for writing is to write and publish. It does not do you any good to leave stuff on your computer, on a pad of paper, in a recording somewhere. You need to publish it. I don’t actually care how you write, whether you write by talking and then transcribing or whether you write by keyboarding or whether you write by pen and paper. But until you publish it, you’re not going to get the feedback that you need to get to know that you have done a good job. And you have.

What is free writing and what is its advantage in helping you become a better and more confident writer?

So free writing is sort of like brainstorming, but you do it with words. You set a timer—I like 15 minutes—and you decide what you’re going to write about. Just choose an idea from your idea bank or choose a fieldstone. Choose something, maybe write to a prompt, that’s fine. And do any planning you need to do in advance—I don’t do very much—you are not surprised. And then set your timer for 15 minutes, and you do not stop writing until the 15 minutes is over.

Now, if you have to start saying, “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,” that’s fine. You can start off saying, “I hate Johanna, I hate Johanna, I hate Johanna. She’s a big blue meanie for making me write down.” You will get bored of the “blah, blahs” and “I hate Johannas.” I don’t actually care. se me, hate me, whatever. Use anything to get you to start writing for 15 minutes.

Keep writing until you’re done. Do not stop to edit. You might cycle, but I much prefer that you keep writing forward. If you’re like me and you write on a piece of paper every so often, you might have arrows going in different directions where you say, “Oh, this belongs at the top. Oh, this belongs down here.” A little arrow that says, “Don’t forget this thing.” But the key is you never lift your hands from the keyboard, you never lift your pen from the paper. You keep writing down, you’re always writing forward. And I find that free writing is how I do most of my writing.

“The key is you never lift your hands from the keyboard, you never lift your pen from the paper. You keep writing down, you’re always writing forward”

From talking about how we create content, let’s move on to one of the next steps, which is, what is the value of peer review and how do you avoid the pitfalls associated with perfectionism and fear and anxiety that you will be criticized? How do you separate yourself and your ego from what you have created?

So in my writing workshops, I teach people how to offer feedback. So I might say I might have a question about a specific sentence or a clause in that sentence, I might highlight it and say, “Passive voice?” End of question. That’s my comment.

I might ask, “I’m not quite sure what you mean here. Do you mean blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah?” So I’m not saying anything is wrong, I’m explaining where I did not understand the piece of writing. In my experience when people say, “I don’t understand where you’re going with this, or I don’t quite understand what you wrote, or do you mean, or passive voice,” those are comments that are clearly, clearly about the outcome, the output, the writing that the person did. Now, if people say, “I disagree with you.” That’s fine, they can disagree with you. You don’t have to listen to them.

That’s critique as opposed to feedback. So I really like feedback where people are saying, “I’m not sure I really got what you were saying. I could use an example or two or three every so often.” When I think a piece is too short, I probably fortgot to include examples.

So when my reviewers read something and they say, “I could have used an example around here.” That’s when I say, “Ah, I went very in my head and did not come back down to earth.” That’s great feedback for me. If it’s feedback, it’s not criticism. I have found that the more we ask for criticism, the more we get criticism and we don’t get the feedback. So the feedback helps us clarify our thinking and therefore our writing, but criticism just tells us what’s wrong. I don’t find that very useful.

There’s a form of feedback I learned from the Patterns Languages of Programs, PLOP conferences.
The reviewers say, “Here’s what I liked about the thing that I read, here’s what I like about the content in the form, and then here’s where I had trouble with the content in the form.” That’s great; that’s very helpful feedback.

I find that if I ask for criticism, especially people who don’t understand how to write and don’t understand what it’s like to put yourself into your writing, they will give you criticism without having any idea how it feels to you.

“If it’s feedback, it’s not criticism”

So I think that for the first few years of my writing career, I said to myself, “People are trying to criticize, they’re trying to offer you feedback on your writing, possibly on your ideas, but not on you as a person. So can you separate your personhood from the output that you created?” And I think that for some of us it takes a little while. I strongly recommend you separate those two things. When people offer feedback on your writing, that’s not feedback about you. Remember, you don’t have to ask for feedback on short pieces. You can practice writing and publishing, instead.

How do you develop healthy, positive communities that you build with other writers?

I have some idea about how to do this, but I find that it’s very purposeful. So in every single one of my writing workshops we first develop a community inside the cohort. I use a private Slack for this.

Then, I support people as they learn to offer feedback in a way that lifts all of us up.I don’t allow nastiness or meanness. People need to learn from their work.

So if you want a community of writers, a writing community, then find a few people, probably three to six, probably not many more than that. And make sure that you practice writing together, that you all have a cadence of writing and publishing. And then you learn to offer each other feedback.

Consider working agreements especially about what you will never discuss. Some of my writing communities never discuss politics, some of them must discuss coffee. Fine, each to his own. I am happy to separate our various political and religious views from our writing. And I find that that helps me a lot. So I really want to keep our writing community focused on the writing and the publishing and where people have trouble if they have trouble.

How do people stay in touch with you in what you’re doing, what workshops you’re running, what books you’ve recently released, and so on?

Everything is on Yes, I got a domain name when my first initial and my last name was just fine. There I have the signup for the Pragmatic Manager newsletter and I have a signup for being notified when I’m writing another writing workshop. So that’s all on I write a personal blog with a question of the week every week on And it has its own newsletter and its own everything else. I’ve been starting to write fiction, and I have a fiction sign up on the Pragmatic Manager newsletter signup, so you can choose whether or not to subscribe and decide if you want to hear about my fiction too.

This has been an absolute pleasure, and just a privilege to talk with you. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat.

I really enjoyed it. Thank you so much for inviting me.


Drop any questions or feedback you have for Johanna Rothman into this thread. Everyone commenting or asking a question will automatically be entered into a drawing to win a copy of her Free Your Inner Nonfiction Writer: Educate, Influence, and Entertain Your Readers ebook!

If you don’t want to wait, you can pick up your copy of Free Your Inner Nonfiction Writer: Educate, Influence, and Entertain Your Readers today!

Don’t forget you get 35% off with the coupon code!

1 Like

Corresponding tweet for this thread:

Share link for this tweet.

1 Like

Another great spotlight!

I think I need to read your book because it seems I am forever writing! Whether it’s replying to emails, writing up guides/instructions, announcements, forum posts, legal correspondence, the list goes on - it’s actually quite therapeutic when I get a chance to actually do a bit of coding :003:

Interesting that I have got into the habit of doing some of what you recommended. I will usually start a document by writing up some brief notes of what I want to include, sometimes elaborating if I think it’s a complex point or one I might forget. I also find that sometimes I am working on a paragraph and if after multiple edits it still doesn’t feel quite right - I’ll move the one I worked on down, and start writing a new version from scratch, working on both until one of them feels right. I also start work on some documents weeks before I probably need to, because I’ll not want to miss anything important. Probably not ideal and why I should read your book :lol:


Well, you should read my book :rofl:. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Realize that writers think and learn as they write. So don’t worry about making a paragraph “perfect” (because perfect writing is not a thing).
  2. Starting with brief notes can help many of us. However, I suggest avoiding outlines, because outlines shortcut that writing and thinking activity.
  3. Consider cyclint, not editing. Cycling is about clarifying ideas, not words.
  4. Wait to edit until you’ve written everything you want to say in this piece. Then, and only then, edit.

Enjoy the writing!


Must admit I struggle with this… sometimes I just can’t help myself :lol:

Thanks for all your tips Johanna, I shall put your suggestions into action :blush:


Hi Johanna,

I keep hearing people’s attention span is getting shorter and shorter.

If you have noticed this too, has it influenced the way you write articles and/or books?


HI Nicolas, For any book, I write the book to be the length it needs to be. I’ve recently published several smaller books. However, the consulting book is about 60,000 words and will be close to 300 pages because it also has pictures.

I strongly recommend that books be the length they need to be to fulfill the promise to the reader.

Now, articles. I used to write shorter blog posts. Most of them were 300-500 words. However, I rarely can now. That’s because I’m so conscious of “all” the issues. I do tend to write more series, and try to keep each blog post under 1000 words. I do not always succeed.

As for articles, that depends on the publication. Most publications want me to keep an article to about 1000 words. I can do that.

Instead of length, let me offer an alternative way to think. Writers entertain readers.

We can still write long or short, as long as the writing keeps the reader engaged. That’s what I mean by entertaining.

I work hard to be entertaining. :rofl: Sometimes, I succeed.


Hello everyone!

I’m your friendly Devtalk bot :nerd_face:

Thank you to all of you who participated in our Spotlight AMA!

This is now closed and all of those who commented above have been entered into the draw - meaning we’re now ready to pick a winner!

The process will be initiated when somebody clicks the special link below:

:arrow_right: :arrow_right: :arrow_right: Devtalk - Dev forum at Devtalk - the forum for developers! :arrow_left: :arrow_left: :arrow_left:

Don’t be shy, we need one of you to help make the magic happen! :sparkles:

Thank you for initiating the draw process…

Entering the following members into the draw…

:arrow_down: :arrow_down: :arrow_down: :arrow_down: :arrow_down: :arrow_down: :arrow_down: :arrow_down:

1 Like

And the winner is…

Drum roll…

Congratulations @nicoder you are the chosen one!! We’ll be in touch about your prize via PM soon :smiley:

Thank you everyone who entered, and of course @jrothman for taking part in our Spotlight - thank you! :blue_heart:

1 Like

Congratulations @nicoder! I’ll be in touch via PM