Content sprints are a great way to do a first quick collaborative deep-dive into a topic as complex as connected homes.
Content sprints—sometimes also referred to as topic or book sprints—are heavily condensed writing exercises with a focus on collaboration and peer review. A group comes together and within a few days or weeks writes a chunk of content to be published by the end of the sprint.
This very book was started as a content sprint back in 2015, and updated in another in 2016.
We believe that this is a great way to explore a new topic. While you will never get as deep into the subject matter as with longer term academic research or the deep immersion that comes with writing a book for a traditional publisher, great insights can be gained with this faster format.
The trick is to get the framing and team right. Gather experts from different backgrounds. Identify practitioners with a range of experiences who can draw on learnings and publications without much reading or research as they write.
Frame the topic so they can be chunked into discreet pieces of writing. We found it's helpful to start by writing the table of contents. Each chapter should have one sentence that describes its main argument. And then each participant understands how the whole book sits together and is able to pick up a piece.
We think of content sprints as a learning technique that’s part workshop, part collaborative writing exercise, part shared reflection. Combined with a strong bias towards “shipping”—a term from the software development word meaning output, or just “getting stuff out the door”—topic sprints favor publishing over planning, producing copy over drafting outlines, peer review over control through external established publishers.1
We have been involved in a number of similar sprints, from super quick one-day mini-reports to large groups writing a full book over the course of a week. (With two authors and several weeks of writing time in total, this book sits somewhere in the middle.)
If you plan to explore the connected home, we recommend you consider a content sprint.
Sprints have strengths and weaknesses. They can be great tools, but aren’t fit for every context as they are built on principles that favor certain types of outcomes over others. Within this framework, it’s relatively easy to fine-tune the process to match various needs.
These unshakable pillars of the sprint are:2
- An emphasis on shipping. “Done is better than perfect,” as the saying goes. By the end of the sprint, the result is going to be published, no matter what. (Or handed over to a copy editor for final polishing, if that’s more your thing—but no more work should happen on the core content.)
- Strong focus on collaboration. This is a team exercise that lives on collaboration, sharing, and open exchange. Where there is too much ego at play, a sprint will not fulfill its full potential. Credit where credit is due. In a highly collaborative environment it is hard to give credit for any given word, sentence or paragraph. However, everyone working on the sprint or any of its chapters should be visibly credited.
- Peer review. No matter who’s the leading expert of the group for any given topic, chances are that others can add value and refine, both in substance and in style. Peer review and co-editing are at the very heart of the sprint process.
To write this book, we used Github and Gitbook. These tools enabled us to collaborate readily on texts and to have version control. It also meant our texts were published immediately to the web, which somehow made us less precious about when something was "done" or not.
We would love to see more writing on these issues. If this sounds like it might work for you, we urge you do try out a topic sprint.
In recent months, we've also experimented with design sprints. In future writing, we'll share our reflections from that format as well.
1. For an overview of strengths and weaknesses, as well as some hands-on pointers, see Peter Bihr's article in E-180 magazine, Topic Sprints—the fastest way to dive into a topic: mag.e-180.com/en/2015/09/topic-sprints-the-fastest-way-to-deep-dive-into-a-topic ↩
2. Again, consider Peter's E-180 magazine article from which this is re-quoted. ↩