Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Udaan - an awakening

By now, you've probably read the technical part of how Udaan came into being here - Writing Technically - The Udaan publishing story. And anyone who has worked with her would agree with me when I say that it was an absolute delight to work with Anindita.

And as promised, here's another perspective (a softer side) of the same story along with a few lessons. Maybe.

The backdrop

The Pune STC India conference 2015, was always meant to be special. Mugdha, the program manager set the tone, along with Sheece, and the rest of the incredible team that worked with her. Her first task was to put together an unbeatable team. And she was clear about working with the best.
Ahem, ahem ;)

I was approached to put together the newsletter initiative as part of her X-men/women team. I was a little hesitant initially as it seemed a better idea to give the opportunity to someone from Pune. The primary reason I think was that a local flavor is usually appreciated a little more, especially since a majority of the audience would also be from Pune. But she'd have none of that and persisted. In the end, she got her way, like she usually does. Now you have to remember this. I've never put together a newsletter for STC. I haven't even written an article for one either. All I had going for me was a blog that I update once a while, a penchant for words, a few ideas and an awesome accomplice (who came in a little later). And that's all it took.

Of course, it helped that Mugdha also has the ability to get people out of their comfort zones ;)

At first, Udaan wasn't a book. It was a regular conference newsletter. Well, let me try that again. There would be nothing regular about it. But it was definitely not yet a hardbound book. Initially, I was all for having only an online version of the newsletter. We were clear that it had to be more than text. It had to engage all the senses. It had to  have videos, pHowever, we had to print something and also carry sponsor ads. And that's how Udaan became more than a virtual entity. Or more than just a conference newsletter.

Very early in the process, it was apparent that this would be a monster that would need more than one person to manage. I was so glad Anindita joined me as a co-conspirator and took up the online part of the deal. She also set the standard with the first article. Of course it was not interactive just as yet.

Ingredients - what went in

We wanted to do things differently. Very differently. It started with getting the right kind of people to contribute. So one of the first things we did was to get a list of people who write well. Really well. We didn't want the book to be put down before it was completely read. (Of course we didn't know it would be 100 pages at this stage!) We wanted it to be a story that would allow a seamless transition from one article to another. In the process, we also wanted to encourage new writers, without compromising quality or value. Doing something great using awesome, well established writers isn't a big challenge. But identifying people who were not that well known (and unproved) and then using them to create a magical experience involved some risks. And Udaan had to appeal to a wide spectrum of users and still have something in it for everyone. From the fresher who's still trying to learn the ropes, to the old bandicoots who are difficult to please! We didn't make a call for papers as is usually the practice. We wrote to some of the leaders in technical communications in India and asked them to point us to new writers who wrote like them. And we are indebted to them for their leads.

Once the author was identified, we gave them a topic. That was how most of Udaan was created. Some of the authors wrote back to us with topics that they felt they could clearly articulate. And there was some back and forth communication that eventually fine tuned the topic.

And soon the articles started to come in one after the other. Anindita made short work of it on github. Many an author was delighted with how she brought their articles alive with interactivity, cartoons, and color.

The next best thing

But we were still not satisfied. The initial idea was to collaboratively develop content. Everyone puts out a first draft and then invites criticism and comments that will help improve their ideas and finally become Udaan worthy. But by the time we got the all the articles together, there wasn't much time left for many iterations. So we randomly picked articles and assigned them back to different authors and asked them value edit the article. (That's why it's probably the next best thing). So when we sent it to them, no one knew who was editing their article other than the assigned author and the editors. The dictate given to them was to rip apart the article like it was written by their worst enemy. While some authors did exactly this, some went out there and would have made new enemies, had it not been for the anonymity!  But there were also lessons to be learned from one specific contributor who was extremely graceful in her comments. Oops. I let that one slip by. Some very valid comments were made as suggestions while keeping the writer's thoughts and sensibilities in mind. BMC is lucky. After seeing a lot of venom flying around, I was blown away by the manner in which the edits were suggested. Made me see the real idea of why they say, what you say isn't as important as how you say it. Another way to look at it is that the importance of what you say could be lost in the way you say it. We also realized that Udaan was too close to us to be able to find flaws with it easily. We both suffered (in varying degree) from the it's-my-baby-and-my-baby's-the-best syndrome. This single exercise of collaborative edits caught quite a few issues. There were several comments from some authors wondering if we had actually reviewed the content! And we had! Several times. That's how blind you get when you get so close to the action. So don't skip that peer review of any content you create. We are all experts at finding faults so long as it isn't ours. Make use of that attribute! Everyone, without exception, has it.

The ones that got away

Not everything that came our way, was published. We sent back a few articles and those who were able to rework, we published. Mostly. There were also a few ideas that we would have like to have articles on. One was about conversational writing, that eventually became a conference presentation. The other was about how advertising was impacting the way technical information is being consumed.
All this happened before we realized that there was so much content. The idea of a book wasn't far away.

The Oven

I've worked with Microsoft Publisher earlier. It has some really cool features that Word struggles to handle. I found it very easy to work with, especially for the kind of work we did for Udaan. Since there was a lot of content to port, I asked Mugdha for help. And that's where Sangeeta came in to help. A quick call to explain the features of publisher and she was ready to port. She ported most of the content over a weekend, while being spoiled by her mom during Dushera! Very diligent at her work.

And then I started with the tweaks. Inserted sponsor ads and fillers. And then read and re-read each article, and if there was a change, I had to quickly go to github and replicate the change there too. Most people I know would go half mad by the time the copy was ready for the printer. I sent a copy for printing and though the content was of an A5 size, the PDF continued to use A4. Some quick research later, I got the correct size and Mugdha Kush Hua :)

And how it all came togther

From the beginning, we wanted to spin a story around all the articles. We had a variety of stories from personal branding, to management lessons to information design and localization. How do we spin a story around such diverse articles? Here's how we did it. And then we drummed up curiosity and support using the #STCAIC2015 tag. There was also some talk about creating an experience around the Udaan unveiling. It was supposed to be more dramatic. But there were probably too many dramatic things happening already : )

Here is a peek inside the book.

What a ride it has been! What would I do differently? Nothing!

P.S. We still have a few copies left. Since STC is a non profit, these are being sold at cost price plus shipping. And that's just Rs 250.  So if you are interested, please reach out to me at and I can put you in touch with the right people.


  1. I enjoyed this blog as much as I enjoyed being a part of Udaan. Thank you for sharing "The Making of Udaan". :)

    Many thanks to Anindita and you for the wonderful Udaan experience.