I’m in the first of two weeks I’m spending focused on my book project, so it seemed like an appropriate time to share something I’ve learned in working on my first book project: Writing a book is NOT like writing articles!
This academic year, I’ve been alternating my research time between revising and rewriting my dissertation into a book manuscript and working on articles and book chapters. During my book weeks, there’s a lot of work that is generally familiar to the research process. I’ve been cleaning and analyzing new data sources, reading new secondary sources, reviewing new literature, and writing. But unlike the other tasks, writing for the book has been a whole new learning process. I know good deal about writing journal articles at this point in my career. I even teach graduate students about it. But writing a journal article is so different from writing a book that most of those lessons and experiences just don’t translate.
The first, obvious difference is the tone of the writing. Journal articles are written to engage with other experts in your field, other PhDs. But, these days, academic books are predominately written for an undergraduate readership. This has major implications for the style of writing: Short and simple sentences. No complicated clauses. Clear language. No jargon. No passive voice. Define all concepts.
Writing for an undergraduate readership also means writing for a different kind of expert. Unlike a journal article where you need to prove the rigor of your methodological approach to your reader, many of your book readers will know very little about data and analysis. Scratch the “data and methods” chapter and sections. In fact, put it all the way at the end in a methodological appendix for those research trained readers who want the deets.
But the part that has really thrown me through a loop is where to engage with the literature. Just as your main audience doesn’t need an extensive review of your methodological approach, they also don’t need an extensive review of the literature. So what in my mind is a several page section that I prepare to write by reading a lot and taking extensive notes no longer has a specific place in the book. There’s no literature chapter. No multiple page section in the introduction. Instead, literature is used strategically throughout the manuscript. I’m still wrapping my head around this and what that means for when I do my “reading a lot and taking extensive notes,” but I’m taking a stab at it as I push forward.
What has been helpful in getting a grasp on how to tackle this new writing challenge has been doing more reading. I’ve read as much as I can about book writing. (Yes, you could call it a literature review.) My current favorites are Revising Your Dissertation, an edited volume with essays written by academic press editors, and the Clockwork Muse, which covers long form writing including dissertations and books. The former does a great job of highlighting the major differences between a dissertation and a book, including what academic press editors are looking for in the books that they publish. The latter includes guidance and examples (this part is crucial!) of the process of book writing.
I’ve also been reading relatively recently published academic books to look for things I like (and don’t like) in the writing, format, organization, etc. Recently, for example, I was reading a book that had vague, unclear chapter titles AND no description of the chapters in the introduction. As someone who didn’t need to read the whole book, I was frustrated that I was forced to skim each chapter to figure out what was most relevant for my needs. Needless to say, clear chapter titles and a description of each forthcoming chapter are on my list of “dos” for my own book manuscript.
When I find a book that does something well, it goes in my stack of exemplary books. This includes works that match the tone and style I’m aiming for in my own book. They’re accessibly written, but still engage with theoretical concepts and debates. These are books like Eve Ewing’s Ghosts in the Schoolyard, Tony Jack’s The Privileged Poor, and Tressie McMillian Cottom’s Lower Ed.
I’ve been learning a lot this year working on #ProjectFirstBook. But there’s much more to go.