Storyboarding Instead of Writing

head first storyboard

I’ve been doing a lot of “writing” lately, but in an attempt to emulate great, bestselling computer books that are highly visual and concise, I’ve been thinking about layout first and writing second, because we want to learn and not necessarily read. I’ve started mocking up the piece on index cards to get a feel for the flow of content. As it turns out I’m not the first to go this route

…pretty much every page of every Head First book first exists as a scribbly drawing on paper before it ever makes its way into page layout software. Same deal with my book. In fact, my entire book was written on paper in pencil before I ever laid out a single page electronically. That version of a Head First book is known as storyboards, or boards for short. The idea is that you sketch up the core visual elements of each page in the boards. And by steering clear of software layout tools with fancy visual effects, you’re forced to stick within the realm of concepts. No characters, no cute graphics, just core visual concepts and whatever your artistic ability can muster. It’s all about focus.

Here’s some of the principles behind the Head First Formula:

  • Instead of repetition, use novelty to tell the brain something is important
  • Use pictures, because your brain is tuned for visuals, not text.
  • Place words within the pictures they describe (as opposed to somewhere else in the page, like a caption or in the body text)
  • Use redundancy, saying the same thing in different ways and with different media types, and multiple senses, to increase the chance that the content gets coded into more than one area of your brain.
  • Use concepts and pictures with at least some emotional content
  • Use a personalized, conversational style, because your brain is tuned to pay more attention when it believes you’re in a conversation than if it thinks you’re passively listening to a presentation.
  • Include many activities, because your brain is tuned to learn and remember more when you do things than when you read about things.
  • Use multiple learning styles, because you might prefer step-by-step procedures, while someone else wants to understand the big picture first, and someone else just wants to see an example.
  • Include content for both sides of your brain
  • Include stories and exercises that present more than one point of view
  • Include challenges, with exercises, and by asking questions that don’t always have a straight answer, because your brain is tuned to learn and remember when it has to work at something.
  • Use people. In stories, examples, pictures, etc., because, well, because you’re a person. And your brain pays more attention to people than it does to things.

It’s about making books fun. In some ways, it’s about making adult’s books more like children’s books.

Kathy Sierra expands on these ideas in the below interview. Some key points:

  • Make readers feel like “I Rule” — identify where people feel guilt and fear and alleviate it.
  • They used the Save The Cat screenwriting book
  • Don’t start at the beginning, chop off the first chapter (introductory stuff) and put that at the end. Then spend a lot of time on the new first chapter to suck people into the action right away.
  • Amazon reader reviews of Head First book are more about their experience with the book than the book itself. Also, they referred to authors by the first name instead of the last.


  1. I’ve found the ‘…for Dummies’ series of books excellent examples of how to divide up content in multiple ways and perspectives that remind me of some college textbooks, but better.
    Structuring and layouts are excellent tools for establishing a coherent flow of content before you write, while giving you the option of throwing in something funky and different along the way.

  2. So, what about blogs? Afterall, many blogs eventually get published on paper (and ebook). They’re content rich—images, video, and so on—but as far as layout is concerned, there doesn’t seem to be much flexibility, despite frameworks that allow for quick and cross-compatible layout/positioning generation. It seems as formats, books and blogs seek the dynamic and static in inverse ways. This is to say that since books are static (once printed, they cannot be changed), perhaps they benefit from dynamic layouts—whereas the dynamic nature of blogs benefits from having a static layout. This is all just my little grey cells churning—but let me know what you think!

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