Talking writing books in IT terms—Agile vs Waterfall

I work in the computer industry (also known as IT industry, where IT stands for Information Technology).  There are a number of basic methodologies for developing software in IT, but the two big ones are Waterfall and Agile.

Waterfall development, also known as traditional development, is a method where you do each step—analysis, design, code, test—sequentially.  The problem with waterfall is that it’s hard to change direction. You don’t know if the whole thing is going to work until it’s done and out in the public.

Agile breaks the work down into smaller tasks. You work on one set of tasks, and then loop around to do the next. In general, this improves the quality, because you’re testing right from the start. It also allows you to change direction quickly if you find something isn’t working.

If we were to use these methodologies in writing, then the process by which a traditional publisher publishes a book would be Waterfall.

  • Publisher acquires a book
  • Schedules publication date
  • Author delivers the book
  • The editor edits it
  • Author revises
  • Cover copy is written
  • Cover is designed
  • Copy editor edits the book
  • Author reviews edits
  • ARC is produced
  • Book is printed
  • Printed copies are sent to bookstores
  • Publication day

The list above is not necessarily in order, and it’s only an approximation of all the work that is done.

Authors who are traditionally plotters would also work via the Waterfall method.

  • Story idea
  • Plot out the story
  • Write the story, one plot-point at a time
  • Edit the story
  • Send to editor

While authors who are pantsers work more to an Agile methodology.

  • Story idea
  • Start writing
  • Edit what you’ve written
  • Write some more
  • Edit that, and so on until you’re done
  • Send completed story to editor

An agile purist would probably be horrified at my analogy, because in reality it’s more like writing a serial, with reader feedback every week.

  • Story idea
  • Write an episode
  • Revise
  • Publish
  • Listen to feedback from the readers
  • Write the next episode, taking into account the reader feedback
  • Revise
  • Publish
  • And continue to do that until the story is done.

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