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Writing :: Topsight

Posted by: on Jan 16, 2013 | No Comments

Spinuzzi, C. (2012). Topsight: A guide to studying, diagnosing, and fixing information flow in organizations. Austin: CreateSpace.

This is the seventh post in my series on writing documents, but it's also another entry on how I wrote and published Topsight. But the main focus is going to be on the writing process.

I've been kicking around the idea of writing a methodology book for a while. In fact, I've been teaching graduate and undergraduate versions of a field methods course since 2001, when I taught a graduate-level course on user-centered design at Texas Tech. Early on, I used Beyer and Holtzblatt's excellent book Contextual Design—even though I didn't agree with some of their recommendations, they did really groundbreaking work in terms of making field methods understandable to lay readers. 

Later, I started using my own Tracing Genres through Organizations in undergraduate classes, although I had to supplement it heavily with lectures and additional texts to make it usable. In particular, I had begun stringing together analytical constructs that had developed after TGTO, such as sociotechnical graphs, and I had to use lectures and extra texts to wedge these into a larger system of analysis. 

The other problem with TGTO is that although it's about methodology, it's not an introductory text; it doesn't teach students how to design a study, discuss research ethics, or describe the tips and tricks that I have developed for eliciting responses or getting people to buy into the study. In fact, few methodology books do this. And that's too bad! I've been conducting field studies since 1997, and in the process I have discovered several ways to ruin studies. I could tell students about these wrong moves in class, but I lacked a text to help them with pitching and conducting a field study—and I began to realize that most methodology books didn't go very far in this direction.

In the meantime, I began conducting some seminars on field methods along with longtime research partners Bill Hart-Davidson and Mark Zachry, as well as a solo seminar early this summer. At the end of the solo seminar, I came away convinced that I needed to write a book that would address all the issues above. This book, I realized, should
  • be written in a clear, engaging style
  • use common-sense, concrete examples and analogies
  • take people step-by-step through the process of designing, conducting, and analyzing a study—and turning it into concrete recommendations
  • provide clear terms and figures
The last point—"provide clear terms and figures"—was especially pressing. I was using unwieldy terms such as "Contradiction-Discoordination-Breakdown Tables," then shortening them with three-letter acronyms: CDBs, STGs, GEMs, CEMs, ASDs, ANDs, OTs. And my figures were done by hand in Google Draw. These confused people. And I didn't want them to be confused. So I had to develop clearer terms and figures.

As I've discussed, I decided to publish this book myself—a big decision, but one that allowed me to retain control over the book. That meant that I could set my own conversational style, using the contractions and Scooby Doo and Simpsons references that give the book its friendly tone (and that would likely be scrubbed out by an editor). I took full advantage of this freedom to create a methodology book that I would want to read and that I thought readers (from undergraduates to grad students to consultants) would enjoy. 

Writing in this style was hard at first; I had to keep pretending I was blogging so that I wouldn't drop parenthetical citations everywhere.

This decision also meant that I could work on an accelerated timetable. I worked on the manuscript part-time from July to November, using my existing materials as a starting point and soliciting feedback on the finished manuscript from people who were familiar with the methodology. That feedback loop was critical: self-publishing can mean posting work without review, but I knew it was critical to get knowledgeable people to tell me where I had gone wrong. They did, and they ended up changing the book for the better. 

The rest of the time, from November to yesterday, was production work. 

Perhaps it's because the production cycle was so short, but I am still excited about the book. I keep turning to different pages and getting excited about the information I was able to provide, information that I rarely see in other methodology books. Information such as 
  • how to introduce yourself to participants—and how to gently correct mischaracterizations of your study
  • how to put together an elevator pitch for your study
  • how to design a study at macro, meso, and micro levels, collecting both etic and emic data
  • how to systematically develop representations of the data, including activity systems and activity networks
  • how to write an interim report and a recommendation report based on the study
So: this writing route allowed me a lot of freedom. I wouldn't choose this route for every book—in fact, I'll soon be looking for a publisher for my next book project—but it was certainly worth doing, and it certainly resulted in a different writing experience from the others I've discussed in this series.