Writing the WordPress Book

A few days ago, on the WordPress.org blog, Matt linked to an extract from the book that I’ve been working on about WordPress. I started work on it at the start of March and it’s taken up most of my time ever since. With some of it finally unleashed upon the public, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on what I’ve done so far and talk a bit more about what I’ve got planned.

Why Chapter 3?

I had originally planned to release the first three chapters and the introduction for the anniversary. This would cover biographical info about Matt and Mike, the b2 story, and everything from the first year of WordPress. I also want to include an introduction which highlights why WordPress matters – after all, it’s just a piece of software, right? So the intro should serve as a hook and tell people why it’s not only a piece of software.

But back to the decision to release Chapter 3. Unsurprisingly, the research is taking quite a long time. Some of the things that I’ve got to deal with are:

  • trying to arrange interviews around busy schedules
  • data loss on the support forums
  • data loss of mailing lists
  • link rot
  • memory loss – people remember things differently so things have to be cross checked
  • not always useful commit messages on trac

It soon became clear that trying to get three chapters written in 2.5 months wasn’t going to happen. Or, at least, I could write that much in the time period, but I couldn’t get all of the research done and we decided it would be best to release something polished rather than a thrown-together mess that would need a mass of updates. Chapter 3 was the easiest to get together as much of the information is recorded on blogs and the support forums. While it wasn’t always easy to get information on why a decision was made, it was possible to get information about what the decision was.

Work so Far

I have spent a lot of time over the past few months reading through old blog and forum posts, talking to people, and trying to pull all of that information together. I know a ridiculous amount of useless information about early WordPress developers, things that will never make it into the book because, after all, when you’ve got this much information half the trick is editing it down to a narrative.

It’s been fun speaking to so many people about WordPress: Mike Little, Matt Mullenweg, Alex King, Dougal Campbell, Craig Hartel, Carthik Sharma, Lorelle van Fossen, Michael Adams, Matt’s mum, and more via both email and Skype.

A highlight was visiting Ryan Boren in Dripping Springs, Texas. Skype is an excellent tool for conducting interviews from a distance, but nothing is a substitute for in-person interaction. People are distracted when they’re on the computer. It doesn’t matter how much you try to focus on one thing, there are always emails coming in, Skype messages flashing, Tweets, Facebook messages, and the constant stream of communication that is the feature of our day-to-day work lives. Nothing beats sitting down and talking to someone.

The Boren compound is in Dripping Springs, outside Austin, Texas. There I got to meet Ryan’s wife and family, his dogs and his chickens, his lovely ferrets, hang out in his man cave, visit a rock shop, and, of course, talk about WordPress. While ferrets and chickens and man caves aren’t going to make it into the book, as a writer and researcher things like this help me to have a more substantial idea of a person in my head which should translate into a more concrete person on the page.

Obviously, I can’t meet everyone in person, but I’m hoping to meet key people when and where I can. All of the interviews I’ve conducted have been transcribed and we’re going to get them online and available asap.

Who Else is Involved?

I’ve not been completely alone in this work. Early on I knew that I would need an editor. One set of eyes is not enough for anything of substantial length that’s going to be released to the public. I’d had a few interactions with Krista Stevens while her focus was on Code Poet. Krista was editor-in-chief at A List Apart, has edited books by a number of writers, is an editor at Contents Magazine, and is editorial lead at Automattic. As we’re WordPress-cousins of sorts, I asked her if she’d like to be involved. I got an instant reply and a resounding “Yes”. I’m not sure what I would have done without Krista’s support and insight throughout this process. Writers often work in isolation and editors keep them sane. I’m thrilled to be working with Krista over the coming year.

The other help we’ve had has been in terms of design. Michael Pick, whose melodious voice you’ll be familiar with from the WordPress launch videos, and whose stylings you’ll have seen in Matt’s State of the Word presentations, has been working on the designs and typesetting. I love Pick’s aesthetic sense – we have a lot in common when it comes to our taste in cinema and art – so he was the perfect choice for me.

chapter3_artwork

I love what he’s done so far and can’t wait to see the rest.

What’s Next?

This week I’m working on getting the introduction finished. I’ve just completed a draft of chapter 1, which has biographical stuff about Matt and Mike, as well as contextualising information about the history of blogging and blogging software. Now I’m filtering through all of the information I have about different WordPress users, as well as getting in touch with some other people who I’d love to feature.

After that, I need to complete the chapter I’m working on, on b2. I’ve written about half of it but I still have some interviews and research to do on that one.

The following section is going to be on the GPL. I’m hoping to interview people who were around at the time of the Movable Type licensing change and anyone who’s been involved with any of the later issues around the GPL, in themes for example. I’m also slipping a chapter about Habari into that section, though I may move that somewhere else.

I’ll be in San Francisco this summer so plan to do some in-person interviews when I’m there. I’m just working out my schedule. Not only will this be my first WordCamp San Francisco, but it’s a great opportunity to talk to business people and people at Automattic.

The next six months are going to be busy!

You can download chapter 3 here. The rest of the book will be published serially, so keep an eye out for the introduction and chapter 1 soon.

9 Responses to “Writing the WordPress Book”

  1. I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve absorbed so far, Siobhan. Great work! I’m excited to see the rest as you work through it :) Also, fantastic job from Pick. I love the art and type in the sample chapter.

  2. Good job Siobhan! Very nice the design of the cover of chapter 3 :D

  3. Siobhan says:

    Thanks guys! Glad you’ve enjoyed it so far :)

  4. CK Hicks says:

    This is one of the coolest projects I’ve seen come out of the WordPress community in ages…perhaps ever. All the best on the continued adventures of writing the rest!

    By the way: If you need an audio reader for the final version, I would love to audition for the part. :)

    Keep up the great work!

  5. […] is including the pending WordPress Book that’s going to be featuring much of the history and backstory of how a little application […]

  6. Brin says:

    Great read, can’t wait for the rest!

  7. […] Writing the WordPress Book: Siobhan McKeown reflects on her work writing the history of WordPress. I enjoyed learning how much care and research is being done to write the history. And I loved hearing about the other people involved with the work. […]

  8. Josh Pollock says:

    A little late, but I just wanted to say I just got done reading the excerpt and the drafts in the Github repo and loved it. This is a great project, thanks for doing it. I look forward to reading more.

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