The two hardest parts of writing a book for me has been project design and the daily starting line. The design for the book’s research question was a fraught process that took nearly two years of graduate school. It is in this aspect that I think the Sciences have a leg-up on the Humanities in that they are explicit about the intentionality of scope.
But this post is not about the woes of graduate education or the difficulty of getting started. I mention these two as the most difficult because they seem unavoidable. I cultivate morning routines, budget and set aside specific times to write, and make it a priority, but its inherent difficulty always proves a psychological impediment to launch, even if a small one. No, this post is about how to do yourself favors along the way of the writing process. Or really, how to do yourself one particular kind of favor.
There are aspects adjacent to the drafting process that could be left for later. This post is about what they are, and why not to leave them behind. This is an argument about paying-it-forward to yourself in the revising process when you’d rather not. These include:
- In- and end-text citation
- Figures and permissions
If you are hoping to be a part of a press with any sensibility about the age of the Internet, you will likely be asked for two things you won’t expect: an abstract and a bibliography for each chapter instead of the book as a whole. This is because a press may want to sell chapters of your book individually, and so want to ensure the apparatus travels with that excerpt.
The temptation is to “save” the workman-like tasks of the book creation process for the end because you either don’t see them as part of the writing process (hint: they are) or because you simply don’t like doing them (fair enough). Like any unlooked-for task, it only gets worse when they compound. Here are a few tips to save you the heartache and keep you from blowing your publisher’s deadline.
1. Cite while you work.
No matter how virtuous the author, this seems to be the aspect most folx resist to the bitter end. It’s litigious as hell, I get it. I’m not saying build-out the whole footnote whilst you are in the heat of a paragraph. For me the work of archive and argument, on the page anyway, require separate if related energies. I have found that leaving an author and page number is enough. Then, while I am catching up on some television (Fleabag) or listening to a new podcast (Battle Tactics for your Sexist Workplace), I complete the mindless citation work of the day. That way, it only takes a few minutes every day, and it provides the bonus of passively reflecting on the work you completed.
Not infrequently there will be a citation that is complex because it refers to a manuscript or unique archival object, or references a complex online database for which you will have to tweak your given citation style to meet the needs of the item. Best to do it at this small scale and establish a convention early, rather than in a massive rush slammed up against a deadline at the end.
The added benefit of doing this while you work is that you can be certain of your documentation’s accuracy because you took your time at the moment when you will be most uncertain: when you turn the thing in. What will the reviewers say? Will the press send it back for a huge overhaul or reject it entirely? That’s enough to manage psychologically and emotionally without the added stress of whether you cited that British History Online resource or Folger Library manuscript correctly.
2. Proofread the bits.
In an earlier post, I discussed strategies for taking apart chapters in order to evaluate, revise, and tackle the task of revision. For each subsection of a chapter I am working on, I print and line-edit by hand once I feel I have my argument’s moves and sentences lined-up. I grew up speaking a creole form of English in Hawai’i called pidgin, which is actually more inflected slang combined with Filipino, Hawaiian, and Japanese words than anything else. Four degrees later and there are, in fact, still words for which the slang Hawaiian variant and sometimes a related gesture is the first thing that comes to mind. It is also not uniform, but has distinct tonal and vocabulary distinctions between the different islands. This is all to say I have long been and remain highly self-conscious about my spelling and grammar in print. It’s also no doubt part of the reason I was drawn to the non-standardized spelling of early modern English.
Proofreading each of the sections, and then doing a final pass when they are all cobbled together, distributes and disperses the work throughout the different stages of the revision process. A caveat: of course never been polishing mechanics until the shape of your ideas, evidence, and paragraphs are where you want them to be. There is no point in polishing a turd you are about to flush. With this process, however, when you do finally read through the whole of the chapter, you can in fact effectively take on the double-duty of assessing for structural coherence and sentence-level mechanics simultaneously precisely because all of the low-hanging fruit has been dealt with long ago.
3. Compose the abstract before the introduction.
My students hate this piece of advance: write the introduction last. You don’t know the journey you want your reader to go on until you’ve been there yourself. Every single student has sworn they are truly unique in their process and couldn’t possibly—until the square pegs of their nuanced evidence don’t fit the round hole of their banal thesis. By extension, I have found it highly productive to write the abstract for each of my chapters once I have revised and polished everything but the opening salvo.
To clarify, I am a proponent of the three-to-five paragraph introduction to a 10,000- to 13,000-word chapter. I realize that there is a significant tradition in literary criticism from the 1980s through the early 2000s that attached prestige to the ten-page introduction, often with the added hurdle of burrying the thesis in the middle of a paragraph in the middle of the work.That is simply too high a price of admission for a work of scholarship—for me, anyway. In creative work or another kind of genre I can understand this. Argument structure is also culturally specific, and the long lead-up is better valued in UK contexts certainly. I expect no one to savor my criticism, while at the same time I do value those scholars for whom every sentence sparkles.
For me, however, I’ve got a claim to make and I don’t want to make it harder on my reader than it already is. Shakespeare Studies dawdles enough in gate-keeping shenanigans and I don’t want to add to it.
Thus, I have found it productive to write the abstract of the chapter just before the introduction. It helps me capture the scope of the work in miniature, and I will often end-up crafting sentences I then re-use and expand upon in the introduction. It is a useful primer, giving me the birds-eye view of the claims to come so I can better position my reader.
4. Permissions—collect them all.
Not all research will give you the opportunity to reproduce images from archives. In the case that your project does, I recommend getting in the habit of enquiring with the library as you hit it in your writing. I say this for several reasons:
- Acquiring permissions and the images themselves takes a long time. This might be sometimes weeks or even months if it requires a great deal of email exchange or snail mail. And not all libraries have engaged the internet to streamline this process.
- While some institutions will provide images at a rush fee, not all of them offer such a service. Collecting everything you want to include, and noting approximately where you want to include it, will ultimately save you money in the long run.
- Costs vary, and sometimes that image may actually not be worth it. Try to be realistic with yourself as to whether that image really is doing the work you envision for your claim.
- Whether or not you can acquire the image will, of course, change the shape of your writing. Locating the image and checking that it can be had sooner rather than later can ultimately save you time and labor.
To start, make a note that is easy to reference of the number of images your desired presses typically agree to, as well as what kind of rights they require. For many first books, the convention is to propose approximately ten figures and go from there, whether or not you use them. Do you need world-wide rights? One language or more? Only hard cover or soft? One boon of a non-profit like a university press is that you can typically use images for free through Creative Commons licensing.
In all these cases, from abstract and figures to proofreading and citation, I’d just rather not. And I suspect I am not the only one. I’d like to luxuriate in the fact that I have finished a chapter! One more step closer to my goal! Why sully the feeling? I’ll be the first to admit that crossing “t”s and dotting “i”s is an anxiety- and imposter syndrome-management strategy for me. Attention to these details bolsters my sense of my own personal ethos in the work at the moments when I am the most insecure. They are also small techniques that help me adhere to the discipline of writing. If I can get myself to do the bibliography tonight, I can probably stave off the desire to spend hours scrolling through IG in the morning rather than write. And that whole writing bit—that’s really the hardest part, isn’t it?
- I’ve been trying to document my first academic book experience, composing a series of posts at different points in the process in lieu of my usual performance review agenda. If you interested in where I’ve been thus far, check out:
- this list of books about academic writing.
- this list of blogs about the book proposal genre.
- this discussion of book series, how and where to find them.
- this discussion of myths and realities of getting your book taken.
- this five-part series on funding your book process (1, 2, 3, 4, and 5).
- this list of material strategies I’ve been using to revise.
- In the Humanities, we talk about organization of argument, theoretical framework, and archive selection, but rarely do I hear or read discussions of how these three elements coalesce into a designed programme of research. A soap-box for another day is a discussion about the implicit given structure of the dissertation project and ways in which a lack of conversation about designing Humanities projects is part of the perceived lack of transferable skills with a PhD.
- Image permissions and reproduction costs are out of your pocket, at least for the first book. Some folx budget start-up funds to help mitigate this, but don’t expect the press to help unless it is a book about art specifically. Another option is applying for publishing subventions either through your professional associations or, if your university happens to be big enough, to a central research pool.
- I can think of a recent case where I spent a whole paragraph and significant signposting to allow me to explicate an image that supported a point about performance. The original was housed in a small regional library whose fee was more than ten times that of other institutions. While I’d love to support them, as a scholar at a small teaching-focused university and from a working-class background, I have to have to be realistic about my financial choices for the book development. In truth, it wasn’t worth it or necessary for the chapter. It is also an image not infrequently published, so I cut the exposition and relied on a passing reference that would have to do for the more discipline-specific readers.