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'Question-Driven Writing' Hero's Journey with Johanna Rothman

March 19, 2020


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Johanna Rothman

This month we met with PragProg author, professional speaker, and management coach, Johanna Rothman, to discuss perseverance, practice, publishing and more.

On becoming an author…

Like so many of the best authors, Johanna didn’t initially set out to write books.

Early in her career as a consultant, Johanna read Howard Shenson’s The Complete Guide to Consulting Success, which sold her on the idea that the most successful consultants also write and speak in abundance.

Speaking was no problem for Johanna. As she says, “I am a natural speaker … Give me a microphone, and I’m a very happy woman.”

But, Johanna knew that she could reach a different group of people through the written word than through speaking, so she began writing articles.

While working as an interim manager for one of her consulting clients, Johanna had just six weeks to help find, interview, and hire an entire team. She poured all of her knowledge into a handbook that documented the process, which she says she did “not because I wanted to write it down, but because I was tired of [the client] asking me questions.”

In no time at all, that handbook doubled in size and eventually blossomed into Hiring the Best Knowledge Workers, Techies & Nerds.

Before that book was even in print, Johanna connected with Esther Derby to begin writing another book, Behind Closed Doors.

Although Johanna and Esther had to work out the logistics of pair writing back in the days when collaborating over webcams was difficult to impossible, they completed the manuscript and started shopping it around to publishers.

Unfortunately, nobody wanted the book because, as Johanna explains, “We were not MBAs. We only had practice as managers.”

Luckily for PragProg, Johanna and Esther recognized that their hands-on practical approach might be a good fit for the Pragmatic Bookshelf, and they were right.

With contract in hand, they worked through a round of editorial revisions with Andy Hunt and then it was off to layout and print before landing on the desks of thousands of fans around the globe.

On challenges and rewards…

“I am a natural talker,” explains Johanna, “I am not a natural writer.” And what do you do to improve your writing? Practice. And lots of it.

With over 300 articles to her name, fiction and non-fiction books, short stories, and more, practice isn’t something that Johanna shys away from. In fact, she explains, “The more writing I do—period—the better a writer I am.”

Because Johanna’s non-fiction books rely heavily on storytelling, it makes perfect sense that writing fiction has only helped her hone her craft. But, like every other author, Johanna still faces plenty of challenges whenever she sits down to write.

Johanna starts with a seemingly straightforward question: “How do I organize this non-fiction book so I can attract the right people to read it, and I can fulfill what they need with this book?” But getting that right, Johanna says, “is not trivial.”

To overcome this obstacle, Johanna uses story maps. “If you know who you’re writing for and you know the questions that they have or the problems that present to them, you can deliver a solution,” explains Johanna. “It’s not test-driven development,” she says, “it’s question-driven writing.”

Although it’s a lot of hard work, Johanna says the rewards are well worth it.

Because she loves to offer people alternative ways to think about things, one of her favorite responses from readers is, “I didn’t think of it that way.” Interestingly, it’s through writing itself that Johanna learns about a problem at a deep enough level to connect with her readers in this way.

In addition to increasing her own knowledge and offering readers a fresh perspective, Johanna notes there is another benefit to writing. “Sometimes people do hire me for what’s in my books.” And that’s not a bad perk either.

In the end, the benefits must outweigh the difficulties for Johanna, because she said to us: “I have the next four books in progress, and I know the order. And I have at least another four after that. This is just non-fiction.”

On career and beyond…

Johanna Rothman’s brand is all about helping people “get stuff out the door,” but she doesn’t mean that in the way you might expect.

For Johanna, it all starts with a single question: “How do we make it so everything that people do is in service of a greater whole?” You can see her answers reflected in her books, in her speaking engagements, and in her consulting work.

Johanna wants people to do their work not only in a way that makes their clients happy but also in a way that makes their whole organization proud.

Johanna believes that expertise is a matter of context, and what’s worked for her may or may not work for somebody else, but that’s exactly the point. She wants people to see both what does and doesn’t work, and she thinks stories provide the perfect means to that end.

Johanna has spent many years developing her brand and platform, and she has worked with traditional publishers and self-published. In other words, she knows the pros and cons of each approach.

If you’re an author who doesn’t already have a platform of your own or if you only ever plan on writing one book, Johanna thinks you owe it to yourself to work with a traditional publisher because “writing the book is [just] the first part of the project.”

And when it comes to publishers, Johanna says: “You’ll notice that I have only used the Prags since that very first couple of books. So, that’s enough said about all the other publishers.”

Johanna has certainly helped us get exceptional “stuff” to our readers, and we are undoubtedly proud of the work we’ve done with her. We can’t wait to work with her again.

Now that you know Johanna’s story, complete your collection of her PragProg titles today!

Then, start or continue your own author journey by sharing your latest book idea with us.

You Could Be a Published Author

Is there a tech topic you are deeply passionate about and want to share with the rest of us? You could become a published Pragmatic Bookshelf author! Take a look at our pragprog.com/write-for-us page for details, including our 50% royalty (yes, for real!) and world-class development editors.

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