rewrite-edit How I write books about Linux

Read about how one author writes his books about Linux and systems administration.

David Both is an experienced technical writer who has written several books and many articles about Linux, systems administration, and open source software. I asked David about his background as an author, the tools he uses, and what his writing process is like.

What's your background before you started writing books about Linux? 

I'm one of the first baby-boomers born after the end of WWII. I grew up in the 1950s, reading science fiction written by some of the all-time great writers like Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov and more. These authors introduced me to technology and the concepts of computers and automation.

I was the kid in high school who carried my slide rule under my arm with my Chemistry and Physics books. Yeah, that guy!

In those ancient days, all electronics like TVs and radios came with schematic diagrams and I used to find them and read them. I'm not sure how much I really understood, but by the time I was ten I was fixing our TV and those of our friends and neighbors, too.

That, and other circumstances that are too long to relate here, led me to a job at IBM. From there it was a short leap to supporting PC hardware and software.  I supported DOS and OS/2 for the IBM PC Company for several years

After leaving IBM I had several interesting jobs but eventually decided that OS/2 was going away and that I never wanted to learn enough about Windows to have a job that required me to support it. So I switched all my personal computers to Linux over a period of about a week and I've never looked back.

What is your writing process like?

I've written hundreds of articles for various print and on-line publications.  Most of those were at and its sister publications.

I've also written five books about Linux for Apress. The current titles are The Linux Philosophy for SysAdmins (August 2018), Linux for Small Business Owners (August, 2022), and Using and Administering Linux—From Zero to SysAdmin, Second Edition (three volume set: October, 2023).

My writing process varies quite a bit. It also starts long before the idea of a book actually occurs.

My first book, The Linux Philosophy for SysAdmins, started as an idea I had after reading about the history of Unix and books by some of the original developers. One book I especially like is Mike Gancarz's book, Linux and the Unix Philosophy. As I read that book, it occurred to me that the Unix philosophy was for developers but that many of the tenets of the Unix philosophy were also applicable to system administrators.

My own mentors had helped me to formulate a philosophy of my own, one which applied to system administrators. However, there was no philosophy specific to us as system administrators. So I wrote a couple articles for about Linux philosophy, but for the system administrators.

"The impact of the Linux philosophy" is about why the philosophy of an operating system matters. But "How the 9 major tenets of the Linux philosophy affect you" was where I started toying with the idea of a separate Linux philosophy for system administrators.

Eventually I used those articles as the basis for my book.

As for my Linux self-study training series, Using and Administering Linux—Zero to SysAdmin, that developed from two directions. Over the years, I have encountered many challenges and problems when fixing problems with hardware and software. Because I found myself needing to figure out the same things multiple times, I started using a database as a memory aid.

Also, during the time from about 2001 through the 2010s, I taught some Linux classes that I had put together myself.

When I decided to write this series, I took both of those works, laid out the overall structure in chapter sequence, and chose appropriate points to split the work into three parts. I then added a few chapters to fill in some parts that needed more coverage.

Within each chapter I usually start with headings and subheadings for existing contents, and add more where bits are missing.

What tools and technologies do you use to write your books?

I use LibreOffice Write for my books. My publisher, Apress, prefers to get DOCX files. I start by creating my chapter files in Open Document Text (ODT) format. That is always my reference copy. When I'm ready to submit a chapter, I save it in DOCX and export it in PDF. LibreOffice can do that directly without extra software for either format.

I have started to use Markdown for some of my articles, but I still prefer LibreOffice because it has so many built-in tools to support the advanced formatting I like. Things like inserting graphics, footnotes, linking references to a section or graphic, and list renumbering. Things like that make writing complex documents much easier for me.

What recommendations would you give a new author?

The thing I tell new authors is to just get started. Get something down on the page and go from there.

I tend to switch between writing just to get something I've been thinking about onto the page and I can do that for hours. I do like to go back and edit after a session like that to make sure I said everything I wanted to and that the flow makes sense.

Before I submit my chapters, I like to go back over them a couple times at least in order to smooth out awkward phrasing, make sure I haven't missed anything I wanted to say, and delete stuff that's really irrelevant. My editors are right on the edge of brutal when it comes to excising the excess.

What does the author/editor working relationship look like?

That has to be a smoothly working team effort. I've had two or three editors for each of my books. That is, editors who actually review and make changes and suggestions as well as a senior editor. The senior editor is the person who manages the entire process, ensures that I have what I need for research, and is my primary contact at my publisher.

The development editor is more about grammar and style in the sense of whether to use Oxford commas or not. That's a definite yes. I like to write conversationally so I use pronouns like "you" and "we" a lot. That's a style that they like, so I'm good there.

Technical editors are there to ensure that the technical details are correct.  And mine have done a great job on all my books. They have recommended removing sections or entire chapters or moving them from one part of the book to another in order to make more sense in the sequence for the readers. They point out technical stuff that was just plain incorrect.

They let me keep my voice. That is, say things that indicate my likes, dislikes, recommendations, and other feelings relating to what I've written. For example I write about my experiences and talk about the PHBs, the Pointy-Haired Bosses of Dilbert. My disdain for PHBs is quite evident so my writing can have more impact that way.

As I complete each chapter I submit it and the editors go to work. Sometimes I split my working day into a segment for new work and another segment for reviewing the editors suggestions. Once I'm well into the book, I usually spend part of the day working on new material and part on revisions.

How do you and your editor review edits to your books?

My editor sets up a space in a Cloud drive and I upload my chapter first drafts there. The editors review the docs, add notes to suggest changes, and move the files to another folder when they're ready for me to do the revisions. Using my original ODT files with Track Changes enabled, I make changes that I think make sense. I then upload my revised files to another folder in the cloud.

I also generate PDFs of the revised files and upload those as well. That's an accurate view of the special formatting I may want for tables, graphics, code listings, and output data streams. The production team in Chennai can use those to verify that they've got the typesetting correct.

It's not very often that I reject a suggestion to make a change. Editors are there for a reason and I think the suggestions they make have made all of my books much better.

From there, the files go to production.

What happens in the production process? Are you still involved at that point?

Yes, I'm still involved. The production team performs the typesetting and sends me the final proofs for each chapter in PDF format. At this point I can only make minor changes. I can change spelling or add or delete a few words. Any change that would affect the pagination is not possible at this late stage.

I use Okular, which is a free and open source document viewer, to mark up or comment on the PDF files and upload them to yet another folder in the cloud.

Then I wait for my author's copies to show up on my porch.

What is it like to get a bunch of edits or edit suggestions back from an editor? Is it a hit to the "writer ego" that the editor asked you to change things, or is that just part of the process?

I do have an ego or I probably wouldn't write books and articles. But my ego wants my books to be the best they can possibly be.

I have a great relationship with Apress and the editors of my books. They all want the books to succeed as much as I do and we work together as a team to make that happen.

My technical editors have been the best. My latest work, Using and Administering Linux—Zero to SysAdmin, is a good example. Seth Kenlon was my technical editor for all three volumes. We've worked together before and have met here in Raleigh at All Things Open on a few occasions, so we have a good rapport.  I once joked with him that he'd been "on the ragged edge of brutal" for his edits on a chapter. He responded, "I was trying for completely brutal."

Reading is an important part of writing. What are your favorite books or websites about Linux?

Well, most of them are about Unix which is why we've needed more books about Linux and open source. That's why I started writing articles and books - to fill that gap. These are the ones that have influenced me the most:

  • Eric Raymond's The Art of Unix Programming
  • Mike Gancarz's Linux and the Unix Philosophy; Digital Press, 2003, ISBN 1-55558-273-7
  • Brian W. Kernighan's Understanding the Digital World, Second Edition; Princeton Press, ISBN 978-0-691-21910-3

And although these are websites, I also find them valuable:

Thanks to David for this excellent interview about how he writes his books about Linux. You can follow David at