So, you want to write a book. II

As promised, this is the second of two posts about writing your first book, post-PhD. In my previous post I went through the steps from deciding you want to turn your thesis into a book to getting a book contract. But what’s it like to actually write the thing?

First of all, what did I actually have to do? According to my contract, the completed book had a word-limit of 95,000 words, all-in: front matter (contents, acknowledgements, list of abbreviations, etc) + the substantive chapters (5 plus intro and conclusion) + the index (which I have yet to do and live in dread of!). When I sent my manuscript to my editor on 7th July, it was complete except for the index, and it currently sits at around 93,500 words. The index doesn’t need to be completed at the manuscript delivery stage, as you need to wait until you have the final pagination from the publisher in order to complete it. Most publishers will give you the choice of either compiling the index yourself, or paying to have it done ‘in-house’ – either by paying a fee or having the cost deducted from your royalties (according to my contract I will receive 2.5% of net receipts of hard back sales). Before you get too excited, royalties for research monographs don’t tend to be very large. If you write a text-book that gets picked up as the go-to core text for a degree programme then you could make actual money from royalties, but it’s unlikely that a book based on your thesis would be such a book.  But anyway, I had to produce a manuscript of roughly 93,000 words to send to my editor by the manuscript delivery date – which was originally the 1 May 2017. That left me just under 1 year to complete the book.

So, how was the writing experience? In many ways I found writing the book to be very similar to writing the thesis, but there were also important differences.

When I first sat down to tackle a chapter I felt curiously like a first-year PhD student again! I remember thinking, at the start of my PhD, “OK, I know how to write an essay, and I know how to write a 15,000 word dissertation. But I have no idea how to write a thesis!” Five years later I found myself thinking, “OK, I know how to write a thesis, but I have no idea how to write a book!” I think that what I was really worried about was ‘voice’ and confidence. There are certain crutches that we can lean on when writing a thesis which a publisher will expect you to have left behind when you write your book, including the ‘safety-blanket’ of the words and arguments of scholars who have gone before. I’m thinking here of those lengthy notes we all like so much, which essentially say to the examiner: “Look! Look how much I’ve read!” and “While I may be taking a slightly different approach to problem or issue ‘x’, it obviously has some merit because these senior scholars ‘a’ and ‘b’ have also made a similar point”. I’m not saying that you should be producing a book which makes no reference to the work of other scholars, but how you do this is different with a book. It took me a while to feel comfortable writing without prefacing my point with phrases like “as ‘x’ argues”, or “in line with ‘y’s argument that”, and just making my point with confidence, in my own voice, and including a citation to another work if necessary. The number of times I found myself stopping and saying to myself when writing the book: “Says who? Me? Why should anyone care what I have to say?” And it took me quite a while (maybe about 6 months) to recognise that I needed to write in a more assertive way if I expected others to take my points seriously. Now, you may be a person who doesn’t struggle with being academically assertive, in which case I envy you. But I’ve always struggled with confidence, and so I found this to be a real challenge.

The other major similarity that I felt with writing my thesis was a sense of panic at the thought of this work being read by anyone other than me – but in all likelihood this is also a result of my lack of confidence! I remember being filled with dread at the thought of sending draft chapters to my supervisor to read. I don’t know what I thought was going to happen: that he’d read my chapter and immediately email the Director of Postgraduate Research recommending the termination of my studies as I was quite obviously an idiot and not capable of doing a PhD? It always turned out absolutely fine, but perhaps because what we produce is a product of our minds, of our ideas – our mental blood, sweat and tears, if you like – I found it really difficult and frightening, certainly with the first few chapters of my thesis, to expose myself like that, so to speak, to a person that I respect immensely as a scholar. I got over that feeling toward the end of the PhD and became more comfortable sending drafts that were incomplete or lacking in some way. But that feeling came back when I started to write the book. But it came back in an even scarier form! There were only ever a handful of people that were actually going to read my complete thesis. But a book is another matter entirely. I’m not arrogant enough to think that my book is going to be a best-seller, or that it will even be particularly widely read. But the thought of sending out my ideas and words into the big, bad, academic world, where they could be read and torn apart by any number of people, terrified me. And, I’m not going to lie, it still does. But I did reach a point, probably around mid-May of this year, when I realised that I’d come to the stage with my book that we all reach when we come to the end of the PhD thesis: when all you see when you look at it are problems. All you can see is what the book doesn’t do. And you lose sight of all the valuable things that your book has going for it. I couldn’t see the wood for the trees by the time I’d completed my thesis, and all I could see were what I thought were fatal problems. But, as it turned out, they weren’t fatal problems – they weren’t even problems. And so I decided to simply have faith in my ideas, my work, and the feedback that I was given by people I trust and respect, and by the reviewers of my original proposal who saw something worth publishing.  And so, if you are anything like me in this regard, have faith in your work! And if you can’t do that, then at least have faith in the reviewers who recommended that your book be published!

Perhaps the most important difference between writing my PhD thesis and writing my book was time. I worked pretty methodically throughout my PhD – I was averaging 1 chapter per semester (research plus writing). I was lucky enough to have funding for the first three years of the PhD and so I didn’t have to work full time or even ‘part-time’ to make ends meet. I did, however, discover that I very much enjoy teaching as well as research, and so I was doing quite a lot of teaching in my department. But I never felt like time was against me when doing my PhD. That changed when it came time to turn the thesis into a book, even though I didn’t have revisions to make that were too extensive. So why was time such a factor?

The reality is that, as an early career researcher, you are probably going to have to find the time to write your first book in the spare hours (and if you’re very organised, the occasional days) between preparing for teaching, actually teaching, attending meetings, writing conference papers and articles, and doing job applications, rather than having that glorious period of (paid) ‘research leave’ in which to do it. This means that preparing the manuscript will, in all likelihood, be a more stressful experience than you’d like.

One way of dealing with the writing process in general, but also to keep stress levels down, that it took me quite a while to figure out, is to set yourself small targets or goals, either for each day or for each week. Targets that I found helpful were:

  • Go to bed having written something that day. It doesn’t have to be much, even just one paragraph. In fact, smaller targets are more easily met, and often exceeded, leaving you with a feeling of satisfaction rather than failure at the end of each day.
  • If you realise that writing just isn’t going to happen that day, do a ‘housekeeping’ task for the book: fix citations, update your bibliography, make sure all the headings and sub-headings are consistent, draft your table of contents, write your acknowledgements, and so on. These are all things that need to be done for the final manuscript anyway, so you may as well do them when you get writer’s block.
  • Drafting a section of a chapter by the end of the week. Rather than trying to write a whole chapter in a week (which is possible if it’s a chapter that will be transposed pretty much as-is from the thesis), break the writing down into sections or sub-sections.

Targets that I found to be toxic once I actually tried to meet them:

  • Complete Chapter ‘X’ by the end of month ‘a’, Chapter ‘Y’ by the end of month ‘b’, and so on. These seem like great targets when you first write them down, but the problem with planning in months is that all the other things we have to do on a daily or weekly basis can very quickly derail such plans, leaving you feeling as though you’ve failed to meet a key target.
  • Write ‘x’ thousand words a week, or a month. Again, this seems like a great idea, but as soon as you put a specific (large) number to these targets you open yourself up to additional stress and feeling disappointed in yourself if you fail to meet them.

I wish that I’d figured this out prior to January 2017, but I didn’t, and so this past semester, when I ended up putting most of the words onto the page, was intense to say the least!

It’s also important to remember that turning your thesis into a book is not just about writing, especially if you are adding new material. You also have to find time to do the additional research. This is something that you hopefully factored in when coming up with a manuscript delivery date for your editor! But research can take more time than you might initially think, especially if circumstances change and this has an impact on the amount of ‘free’ time you have to devote to the book.

Which brings me to deadlines. I have always found deadlines to be helpful for my productivity (I’ve found that I am much more productive as I approach a deadline than I am when the deadline seems quite far away), but they are also a source of stress for me. You and your editor will have agreed on a manuscript delivery date, and you should, ideally, try to meet this. There is a lot of work that has to be done once you deliver your manuscript to the editor in order for the book to be released (related to production and marketing), and late delivery of the manuscript – especially if you don’t tell them that it’s going to be late – can cause a lot of inconvenience for the publisher and sour your relationship with your editor. But, editors are reasonable people, and they understand that as academics, and especially as early career academics, we have a lot of other demands on our time. So, if you think you are going to end up needing more time, just send an email to your editor explaining the situation, asking for an extension, and suggesting a new date for delivery. In all likelihood you’ll get a swift reply saying that the new date is fine.

  • My original manuscript delivery date was 1 May 2017. Toward the middle of January 2017, however, I was starting to lose sleep over it, and I was sure that I wouldn’t be able to meet that deadline. I had just started my new job, and had a heavier teaching load than I’d had before. Much of my time in the previous semester had been taken up with job applications, and completing a new article to send out for review, and so I felt very behind on the manuscript. I sent an email to my editor explaining all of this, and asking if we could push the deadline back to the 1st July (which she approved the next day). I sent that email at about 2 in the morning after a couple of days of not being able to get to sleep, and almost as soon as I clicked ‘send’ I felt calmer and fell asleep shortly afterwards!

I think it’s also important to be honest about the impact that teaching has on our ability to research and to write, and not just in terms of the number of hours or days we spend on teaching-related activities. As I said above, I love teaching, but I don’t love it more than I love research. And there were numerous times, during this past semester especially, when I resented my teaching. I am very lucky with my department: they don’t load Teaching Fellows up with a ridiculous amount of teaching and so on paper there were plenty of hours available (“plenty” is perhaps an exaggeration) to devote to the book. But, teaching is incredibly time consuming outside of the hours you spend prepping and in the classroom. I found it very difficult to make the mental switch from focusing on, and thinking about, the topics and materials I was teaching that day or that week, to focusing on the research or writing for my book. Even when you’ve left the classroom for the final time that week, or answered (what you really hope will be) the final email for the day or the week, it still takes time to get into the right mental space for working on the book. Which is, I think, another reason why setting yourself small targets, and having a book-housekeeping list that you can turn to each day, or each week, is helpful.

The final struggle, or aspect of my writing experience, that I wanted to share, is a piece of advice that is really easy to give, but which I find it very difficult, personally, to follow: take time for yourself away from your book (and all your other work). You are not a robot and you cannot be productive all the time. If you try to be productive all the time then you will continuously feel disappointed and frustrated. So don’t do that to yourself! Now, those of you who know me well will, at this point, probably be screaming “Hypocrite!!!!” at the screen right now. For all of you, and for those of you who don’t know me, I make the following admission: “Hi. I’m Natasha. And I’m a workaholic.” I’ve known for quite some time, but have been unwilling to really say it out loud to myself, that I don’t know how to not work. I can do it, maybe, for a day. But toward the end of the day I start to feel pangs of guilt for not working. And I really am trying to address this, even though I’m not doing very well at it yet! So I offer this advice not because it’s something that I did, but because it’s something that I wish I had done and that I think would have been beneficial to me. So, take time away from your work! I didn’t, and you don’t want to be like me!

Now that the book is complete – and I heard from my editor yesterday that she’s happy with the manuscript and has handed it off to the production team (yay!) – how do I feel?

At first, I felt a little underwhelmed, but that was probably just from being so tired! And also, it didn’t feel real when I emailed the manuscript over to the editor. This may be because I assumed that, as a first time author, the editor would probably come back to me with a list of things she wanted me to change. So, in a way it didn’t feel complete even though it was. Later on that evening when I got confirmation that the manuscript had been received I was also sent a series of book covers to choose from – a choice I have now made with input from various friends (thank you!) (number 23, by the way). And I think that was when it started to feel a bit more real because I can now picture what it will look like. But I didn’t start to feel excited until my editor emailed to tell me that it’s been handed over to the production team, and I was sent an initial proof with all the copyright information and information on the series it will be published in: Routledge Research on the Global Politics of Migration. And so I now feel like Carlton at Christmas:


Until, that is, I have to compile the index……………………


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