Thoughts on Book-Writing

A friend on social media recently solicited advice on book-writing. As you can imagine, it opened the floodgates–so in the spirit of contributing, I wanted to write some thoughts–not necessarily advice, but thoughts–on what it means to write a book for academics.

A Book is a Leap of Faith

When you write a book, you are embarking on producing a very peculiar kind of object, one that necessarily asks for a leap of faith from someone who, someday, will be holding that book in their hands: Will you (the reader) trust me (the writer) to deliver you something worth hours–maybe more, if I’m especially esoteric and long-winded–of your precious time? Am I willing to do what it takes to earn that leap of faith, to be sure that my lyrical prose, my interesting facts, figures, and insights, or my crucial recasting of well-worn issues is enough to make it all worthwhile?

For me, the decision to write a book, and the path taken to write it, come down to this leap of faith, this imputed relationship between the writer and the imagined reader. I do not believe every idea, every argument, every topic merits a book, nor do I believe that a set of credentials necessarily means one is prepared to write a book. For academics writing a book, furthermore, this is usually a choice; we can make our careers off of peer-reviewed articles that–most of the time–few people outside of our fields read, or books that–we hope–do not just inform but also inspire. I do both–and toggling between the two has helped me think through how to approach book-writing not just as a professional task but also as a creative craft (more on that below).

Write the Book That You Wish You Could Have Read–And Should Have Been Able to Read

This one’s a nod to JD Salinger (check out Franny and Zooey and Nine Stories if you haven’t already), and it’s my response to the oft-given advice that you should model your book after a book you really love. While it is crucial that you deconstruct the joyous, fascinating, engrossing aspects of the books you love and try to reconstruct them in the context of your book, your purpose in life is not to be the mini-me of your favorite author. While book publishers want to hear (and you should tell them) that you want to be (in my case) the CJ Pascoe of gun culture, you are not making good on your ethical promise to your future reader, or your writer self, by simply replicating something that someone else did that you found compelling. Your book needs to exist not (just) as a homage to previous book writers but also as an acknowledgment of their shortcomings–not their individual shortcomings but their collective shortcomings that led to a circumstance in which you found yourself needing a book that should have been there for you to engage but wasn’t. You are to write that book.

This doesn’t just mean that you wish a book existed on Topic X. For the many scholars who find that their disciplines of choice have systematically silenced certain voices, perspectives, and topics, this means writing as an act of radical inclusion–a gift like no other to your past self, and to the future yous (that is, incoming graduate students) who will also search like you did but, unlike you, will find what they are looking for so that they can move onto the next mountain. From this angle, writing a book is about righting a wrong–carving out space for a voice where before there was just omission.

All good articles are alike; each good book is good in its own way.

Yes, I’m bastardizing Leo Tolstoy, but it gets the point across: there’s a reason why people think of their books–especially their first books–as their unique, beautiful, frustrating and ultimately irreplaceable babies. It’s because books are sui generis in a way that articles are not. While some peer-reviewed journals entertain looser guidelines, for the most part academic articles have a clear structure, one that is rewarded when followed. Despite some broad conventions, books vary widely not just in terms of the argument itself but also the form in which the argument is presented. To a greater degree than articles, the message is the medium, and the medium must be hashed out by the book writer. This inventive piece is what book-writing requires that article-writing does not, and it is the reason why book writers roll their eyes (or worse) when they are told by their article-writing peers that books can be mathematically translated into a number of peer-reviewed articles. That type of logic unthinkingly misses what the unique intellectual labor of book-writing entails.

The Process is the Empowerment

Now I’ll ripp off Malcolm Feeley’s famous “the process is the punishment” thesis; he used this phrase to succinctly and persuasively sum up the core argument of his book of the same title, that the process and outcome of criminal justice must be considered together as co-constituting the punishment that the system metes out. The elegant straightforwardness of Feeley’s entitling argument, the sense that something is so-self evidence once an author states it–that doesn’t just happen because an author happens upon a lucky turn of phrase. It is the result of the hard work of transforming complex ideas into simple prose. This is an incredibly empowering process–but only if you recognize it for what it is. Article writing is crucial in that it lays bare the groundwork for methodological rigor and analytical tightness, but by its nature, it is already speaking to the converted: people who already believe in the enterprise of, say, sociology. Books reach a broader audience, and they must flex muscles of persuasion in ways that engage people who may not be on board with, or may simply not grasp, the nuances of social science research in ways that articles assume.

The Myth of the Book Writer and the Article Writer

Even though I’ve already appealed to the tropes of the “book writer” and the “article writer,” I actually hate that this is a “thing” in academic disciplines like sociology. It is both problematic and self-defeating.

For example, I write blogs and books; articles and op-eds. I think of myself as a writer and sociologist who has a number of tools and strategies for getting knowledge (data + analysis) to my interested readers, who will be attracted to different styles of writing by virtue of who they are, how much time they have, and what they want from me. On the one hand, it seems ludicrous and lazy to limit my potential contribution to debates (in my case, debates about guns) because I simply refused to develop the tools to translate that thinking into a form that could be appreciated by different audiences. But on the other hand, I gain something different, and crucially useful, from the process of writing different kinds of prose. For the two research monographs I have written and the two more I have in the pipeline, I started data collection with a broad book idea, but I have always rooted data analysis first in article-writing. Why? Article-writing forces you to level up to a high degree of logical rigor: you must defend every methodological and analytical decision you make, and you must admit shortcomings. If you don’t, reviewers will ding you, and readers will be impatient with you. However, if you try to do that in a book format, readers will lose their patience–because books are simply not the format for that level of detail and exposure. But you still need that foundation to write a good book; you don’t get to bypass it just because the final product doesn’t include it explicitly. I thus treat articles as the basic foundation and framing around which I build my house; no one sees the two-by-fours hidden within the nicely plastered and painted walls of the house, but they are curcial for its integrity. Articles ensure that integrity–and they also provide a way for really interested readers to follow up further after they’ve read your book.

The Nuts and Bolts

If article-writing serves as foundation and framing for book-writing, the nuts and bolts are the habits and practices that ensure everything holds together in the end. When I feel like I have enough of a foundation and framing–usually in draft articles or memos, but maybe also in a peer-reviewed publication or two–I turn my attention to my nuts and bolts:

  1. The Book Prospectus. The book prospectus isn’t an annoying exercise to get a book contract. It’s a crucial opportunity to hash out the narrative arc that will drive the book and link all of its parts together. A prospectus forces you to nail out the overarching contributions of the book as well as imagine the progression of the argument, which makes it super clear what is redundant, superfluous, or missing in terms of what you are prepared to write. You may find that you need additional data; that a new substantive topic really needs to be covered; or that you have far more to say than can be tightly wound into a book-length narrative. Once you hash out the prospectus, you can use it either to develop a writing schedule and/or deadlines, or you can use it to shop to publishers for an advanced contract. Which you choose depends on your work style, your career stage, and your confidence in the project as you hash it out.
  2. Piece by piece. I know some people can sustain incredible focus and write for the better part of a day. I cannot do this. I tap out at about four hours of sustained book-writing–which includes compiling and analyzing data, compiling and reading relevant literature, outlining my ideas, writing, and revising. By the time I get to “writing the book,” I’ve already collected and analyzed at least some major chunk of my data; I’ve already worked on scaffolding up to the book with article-writing. So I’m not starting from scratch. At first, I spend a good month reading, brainstorming, storyboarding. I think about what kind of book I want to write. I think about books I’ve loved and books I haven’t loved–and what I’ve learned from both. And I think about narrative and how I want this book to help me develop not just an argument but also my narrative toolkit. After that, I spend about a month per chapter, splitting up my four-hour-a-day focus on my book between reading, outlining, writing and revising. This is how I wrote my second book during my one-semester sabbatical–after being told by well-meaning colleagues that in no uncertain terms, I’d unlikely finish it.
  3. As long as it takes. Once I have a very, very rough draft done, I work on it for as long as it takes to get it into the shape I want it to be. I share the draft with friends and trusted colleagues; I go back to the drawing board as necessary; I take fun writing courses aimed at freelance writers (many of which are now online thanks to coronavirus); I keep reading.
  4. Breathe. Last but not least, I add in a lot of breathing room–not to cushion me for deadlines that I won’t make, but to actually give me distance from the manuscript. For my first and second books, I wrote the first, very rough draft and then put it away for four months. I didn’t look at it, and I tried not to think about it. I wanted to get distance from it so I could come back at it with fresh eyes. Unless you are under a career-related deadline (in which case, GET THAT BOOK OUT!), there’s no reason to push–you’ll just increase the likelihood of burnout.

***

Your process is almost certainly going to be different than mine–and that’s what’s so wonderful about writing a book. It’s a process where you get to not just produce something but develop and get to know yourself in a really different way from article-writing. I hope some of this is useful as you hash out your own process as a book writer!

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