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Writing a book – when life gets in the way by Astrid Bracke
astrid

Astrid Bracke writes on twenty-first-century British fiction and nonfiction, ecocriticism, narratology, climate crisis and flood narratives. Her monograph, Climate Crisis and the Twenty-First-Century British Novel, is under contract with Bloomsbury Academic. This is her final post for AcWriMo 2016.

astrid_4_edits-laptopSo far in this series I’ve written about the difference between writing a dissertation and writing a book, about planning the book and about the actual writing. In this final post I want to talk about two things: when things don’t go as planned and, related to that, communicating with your editor(s) throughout the process.

Although I loved working on the book, around seven months into the process my work life outside of the book became increasingly difficult. Looking back things hadn’t been going well for months: I had struggled with boredom – even though I kept busy – and disinterest in teaching, my colleagues, basically everything. And I just couldn’t stop talking about it: about the things that went wrong, about the things that annoyed me, about the issues that I couldn’t stop thinking about. Sunday evenings became horrible: I’d sit at home stressed and worried about the week ahead. I suffered headaches and a lingering sense of nausea, had nightmares about work, felt tension in my legs and neck, and became much more emotional than I usually am. The turning point came when one day I spent all of a lazy Saturday breakfast with my boyfriend complaining about work, did the same over lunch with a friend, and then over drinks with another friend. By the evening I realized that something was wrong.  

This story perhaps really isn’t part of a series on ‘how to write a book’. But at the same time it is. It’s important to me, though difficult, to tell this part of the story. Yes, I enjoyed writing the book, it went well and I am pleased with the result. But at the same time I also ended up having to take a break from writing and suffered from burnout. I know – and I’ve learnt since – that many, if not most, people working in higher education and academia experience extreme stress or burnout at some point. It seems to happen especially to people early in their career. Particularly people in their (late) twenties and thirties experience high levels of work-related stress. What weighs on many of us is the stress of trying to live up to high standards – usually our own.

By early May I was off work sick. Even though my burnout was not related to my book, I ended up taking off time from writing as well. Originally I had agreed to submit the finished manuscript to the publisher by the end of July. I was on schedule when I became ill, but had to ask for an extension. Many authors end up needing an extension on their book – either because of illness, because of work obligations or simply because of not being able to finish on time.

It’s important to be realistic when you draw up a plan – either at the beginning of the project or when asking for an extension. No one is served with you making a plan that is too optimistic. If you’ll only be able to submit the book on time if you work faster than you usually do it’s not a good plan. And even when you’ve been realistic in the beginning, things might happen that keep you from finishing on time. Sometimes people don’t communicate, or communicate too late with the publisher. They are ashamed or try to persuade themselves that they could still finish as agreed. This strategy really helps no one and will put you under (even) more pressure. Also, publishers depend on authors delivering their work on time: they draw up publication schedules in advance, and when an author is very late in asking for an extension this can affect the schedule.

Once I realized I had to take a break from writing the book I contacted the publisher and the series editors. I told them I was ill and that I would be unable to deliver the manuscript on time. But I also, importantly, gave them a date on which I thought I’d be done (three months after the agreed date). This was a bit of a gamble: in early May I honestly didn’t know for sure that I’d be feeling better, but with being off work and the summer coming up I assumed that I’d finish the book by the new deadline, September 30th.

It’s been two months now since I submitted the manuscript. It’s currently at the reviewers, with publication set for 2017. The process has been good overall: I enjoyed writing the book, and am generally pleased with how it turned out. At the same time I also had to deal with things not going as planned. What saved me in the end was drawing up a new plan and being clear with the publisher about the delay. And now, all I have to do is be patient for the reviewers’ comments and the published book!

Writing a book, from start to finish II by Astrid Bracke
astrid

Astrid Bracke writes on twenty-first-century British fiction and nonfiction, ecocriticism, narratology, climate crisis and flood narratives. Her monograph, Climate Crisis and the Twenty-First-Century British Novel, is under contract with Bloomsbury Academic. This is the third of four blog posts she will write for AcWriMo 2016.

astrid_3_2_chapter-revisionSo you’ve drawn up a plan for the book – now it’s time to write!

When I started I thought I knew really well what I was going to write. After all, I’d written a detailed book proposal. But while I was writing I decided differently on a few things – and, to my surprise, discovered connections between chapters that I hadn’t seen before. I’ll discuss that in this post, and share my revision checklist for making the manuscript ready for submission.  

It’s fine and totally normal to divert from the proposal you submitted. Even though the publisher offered you a contract based on it, it’s really not set in stone. I had planned to write four chapters, each on what I call a narrative of nature. Beforehand I had decided that the chapters would form companion chapters: pastoral and urban were a pair, and so were environmental collapse and polar. But I discovered another connection between the chapters: in both pastoral and environmental collapse narratives, time plays an important role. Urban and polar narratives share an emphasis on space.

A bigger change was that I decided to take out two novels and replace them by two others. I doubted for a while whether I would run this change past my editors. The novels discussed in a book also partly determine the audience so taking out an important author like Ian McEwan might make an impact. I ended up discussing it with a colleague who has experience in publishing and decided not to tell my editors. If I’d wanted to make a bigger change, though, like taking out or adding a chapter, I would certainly have told them.

When I started I believed my focus would be on four narratives of nature that show how climate crisis is imagined is twenty-first-century British fiction. As the project progressed it slowly became clear to me that the real argument of my book is slightly different. It’s not, as I thought, just that these books depict certain narratives, but rather that they participate in and reflect a wider cultural awareness of climate crisis. In practice this meant that at the beginning of every chapter I explicitly referred to a film or other non-literary example to show this cultural awareness, and that I did that even more in the introduction. My book now starts with a reference to Leonardo DiCaprio’s 2016 Oscar-speech.

When I drew up my plan I made sure to include plenty of time for revision. In general I don’t edit as I write – I very much believe in the principle of shitty first drafts and try to keep my internal editor at bay while I’m writing.

 

I’m a list-maker so naturally I made a revision-checklist for myself:

astrid_3_1_book-checklist

  • Make back-ups in more than one place!
  • First read-through and edit, paying attention especially to structure;
  • Second read-through and edit, with special emphasis on the argument on section and sentence level;
  • Revision based on first reader’s comments;
  • Revision based on feedback of other scholars in the field (this revision includes the next steps);
  • Is the argument of the chapter clear?
  • Do all sections contribute to the chapter’s overall argument?
  • Does every chapter have a strong conclusion?
  • Do the chapters contribute to the argument set out in the introduction?
  • Does the conclusion follow logically from the chapters?
  • Do the parts of the book taken together feel like a whole? Have I signalled shared themes and other connections between the chapters? Is the overarching argument reflected in each of the chapters?
  • Final revision: publishers’ stylesheet (spelling and punctuation preferences; reference style); final spell-check.
  • Manuscript ready for submission, including all the preliminaries requested by the publisher.

I left writing the introduction and the conclusion until the very end. First I read all four chapters again and revised based on the feedback I had received. This helped me immensely to get the distance and perspective I needed for the introduction and conclusion. More than once I complained that I thought the introduction was the most difficult part of the book to write (that is until I started on the conclusion and I complained about that…).

The introduction is where you probably make – and write about – most of your choices. This is where you concisely set out your argument, but also where you decide how much you want to write about the wider field, how your book fits in with other work. My book ties in with two fields of literary criticism. Choosing to focus on four ‘narratives of nature’ means explaining why these four are important. Focusing on twenty-first-century British fiction means explaining why British literature and why twenty-first-century fiction.

The conclusion is really about finding that sweet spot where you don’t summarize too much, but still bring together the main points, and showing the wider relevance of your book without going off at a tangent about other directions.

And then, much faster really than I had anticipated, most of the work was done. I put all the chapters in one document and set out to check whether it followed the publisher’s stylesheet. Although they recommended using it from the beginning, I hadn’t. I ended up writing the four chapters according to the stylesheet I used most often, and had to make the changes at the end. It wasn’t too bad though: I was going through the individual chapters again anyway and had made a list for each chapter of the things I had to change.

The publisher’s stylesheet also specifies what you should include when you submit the manuscript – not only the text of your book, but also preliminaries (or prelims). Depending on the publisher, preliminaries consist of one or more title pages, a series page, acknowledgements and the table of contents. At this stage you don’t yet have to provide the index: your contract will specify if and when you’ll need to provide it, generally a few weeks after receiving the final proofs.

Once you’ve submitted the manuscript it’s time to congratulate yourself for pulling this project off. And that’s when the wait starts to hear back from the publishers and the reviewers. In my next post I’ll write about the final element of writing a book: communicating with the editor(s) and publisher.

Writing a book, from start to finish I by Astrid Bracke
astrid

Astrid Bracke writes on twenty-first-century British fiction and nonfiction, ecocriticism, narratology, climate crisis and flood narratives. Her monograph, Climate Crisis and the Twenty-First-Century British Novel, is under contract with Bloomsbury Academic. This is the second of four blog posts she will write for AcWriMo 2016.

astrid_2In the previous post I explored the differences between writing a dissertation and writing a book. In this post and the next I’ll write about the process of writing the book, both in terms of practical matters and in terms of deciding on the kind of book you’ll write.

There are two ways of going about writing a book: either you write a book proposal first, submit that to a publisher and wait for them to accept it (fingers crossed!), or you write the entire book first, and then submit that to the publisher. While some people go for the second option, most academic publishers don’t want you to send them an entire book immediately. If you do want to write the book first, or you want to publish your dissertation, you could write a proposal based on the finished manuscript and submit that. All academic publishers have a section on their website with details, so make sure to check that out first.

There’s a few risks involved with writing a book without having secured a contract from a publisher. The publisher might not accept it, or will require changes to be made to fit the book in with a series. Most importantly, though, having a contract in hand can be stimulating: having a deadline adds a sense of accountability to a project that can be quite lonely at times. Also, even though you haven’t yet written the book, having the contract gives you something to be proud of (and it looks much better on job and funding applications to have a book ‘under contract’, then just to be working on it as anyone can say that).

At the same time, I know of a few publishers who will express interest based on a proposal but won’t offer a contract until they’ve read a substantial part (i.e. a few chapters), or all of the manuscript. In that case it’s really up to you to if you want to proceed: if the publisher is renowned, if your book fits their list well and/or if you feel secure enough to go through with the book without the contract, you should.

I spent a few months researching and planning the book and then submitted a proposal with detailed chapter descriptions to a publisher. I was lucky to immediately be offered a contract. In my final post of this series I’ll write a bit more about this process and communicating with the publisher in general.

By the time I was offered the contract the timeframe that I had sketched in my proposal didn’t fit anymore. Hearing back from the publisher had taken longer than I had anticipated and I had decided not to start on the book until they had accepted it. Before I could start on the project I also had to write two articles I had committed to. With this in mind I asked for the delivery date of the manuscript to be pushed back a few months, which wasn’t a problem.

The process of writing a book has a practical dimension and a more content-focused dimension. You’ll have to figure out when you’re actually going to write it and, even though you’ve already written a proposal, you’ll have to figure out what kind of book you’ll write. Although I thought I had a pretty good idea about this going into the project, it did take quite a lot of work clarifying what I wanted to write, and what my emphasis would be on. I’ll discuss that process more in the next post.

First, though, the practical side. Once I actually started on the book I had about ten months in which to write it. In the beginning that felt like forever – I had all the time in the world to write this book! It would be fine! By nature I’m a very disciplined and organized person so despite feeling like I had plenty of time I drew up a detailed plan first.

My book consists of four chapters (13,000 words long each), an introduction (10,500 words) and a conclusion (5,000 words). I also needed time for revision at the end, as well as after every chapter, and wanted to schedule enough time so that I could ask other scholars for feedback.

My preferred method of making a plan for any kind of project is to use both a paper calendar – I currently use this one by Moleskine for my research projects – and an app, OmniFocus. I need to see on paper how much time I have available, so I began sketching out my plan using my paper calendar. I started off by planning in big chunks: around average 2½ to 3 months per chapter. When I began work on a chapter I drew up a more detailed plan, which I added to both my paper calendar and OmniFocus.

The benefit of my paper calendar for me is that I get a month at a glance – and I find it easier to plan on paper. OmniFocus, on the other hand, syncs with the app on my phone and iPad, so I always have it with me, and allows me to create projects. My book was one of those projects, and I could add to it even tasks that I didn’t need to schedule immediately but that I didn’t want to forget. Using the review-function, I was able to go back to these tasks and assign a date to them when they became important.

While planning, try to be realistic. The first chapter I wrote was the sample chapter I had submitted with the proposal, so I was rewriting more than writing from scratch. Consequently, this took me about two months at most. The next chapter’s subject matter was already very familiar to me from my PhD, so I knew beforehand that I wouldn’t be needing that much time for it either. Chapters three and four, on the other hand, were on new material, so I needed about three months for each.

Using my calendar helped me to keep other commitments in mind. I knew that by the time I had to write my introduction and conclusion I wouldn’t be teaching so I planned one month in which I wrote both. In practice, though, I wrote the book on one day a week.

While I wrote the book I used the proposal as the basis, but as I went along I ended up making changes and had to figure out in more detail what kind of book I was actually writing. I’ll discuss this process in my next post, as well my revision process.

Weekly Wisdom: Brought to you by the Letter Q
Boxes

BoxesQuestion your questions. Your research question is the first step to putting your ideas into action. The process involves forming viable research questions that address what interests you, indicate a trajectory for your research, and make a contribution to the field. Yet the first questions you articulate may not be the final questions you answer. Throughout your research, be sure to question your questions. Are you asking the best questions? Might your research take a novel approach if you ask it another way? Does your question have an easy answer? Does it get you where you want to go?

 

Weekly Wisdom: Brought to you by the Letter O
Boxes

BoxesOn over-organization. Workshops, books, planners, webinars, retreats–everywhere you turn, someone is promoting a new method for organizing your workflow and your life. It is not difficult to be persuaded by a hard sell trying to convince you that a new product will be just the thing to transform your life. Many academics go from one planning system to another, looking for the right software, hardware, or paper system to match their scheduling needs. Unfortunately, those investments of time, energy, and money spent on transferring your information to a new system and learning its quirks can drain the time and energy you might spend on writing and research. Organization is key to successful writing, but over-organizing can be a terrific distraction.

Weekly Wisdom: Brought to you by the Letter N
Boxes

BoxesNoticing: a nip of mindfulness. One of the important concepts in practices of mindfulness is noticing. This can be useful in situations where it is difficult to get started writing, where the process becomes frustrating, and where distractions lead you away from the work you would like to be doing. If you find yourself out of sorts, take a moment and notice what you are doing, how you are feeling, and what you might wish to be different in that moment. Noticing is a basic first step to getting to where you want to be. An analogy for road travelers: it’s not until you realize that you are lost that you pull over and look at your GPS, your map, or ask for directions. Then you can reset your course.

 

Weekly Wisdom: Brought to you by the Letter M
Boxes

BoxesHave a meeting. Rather than have a meeting about your project, have a meeting with your project. Maybe you’ve assigned a pet name to your research project, or otherwise seen that it has some anthropomorphic qualities. Imagine that your project has a persona. Fix it a cup of coffee or a cup of tea. Write an agenda if it would be helpful. Then you two can talk. What’s going well? Where does Project need more help? How has Project been successful? What resources can Project benefit from? What are your concerns? What do you need from Project? How can you help it along? It’s best recommended to not have this project meeting in public spaces…and you both might appreciate some privacy for your discussion.

Storify for June 11 #acwri chat
Weekly Wisdom: Brought to you by the Letter L
Boxes

BoxesGet to know your librarian. Researchers have few better allies than librarians, who are themselves trained to conduct research broad and focused, using any and all available sources. Good librarians love good challenges, so they are not only tremendously helpful but may also share your enthusiasm for finding an obscure document, a new theorist, or a new direction for your project. Librarians are also among the leaders at the forefront of digital humanities.Your campus librarian can be a great resource for promoting your scholarly work and helping you develop digital projects.

 

Weekly Wisdom: Brought to you by the Letter I
Boxes

BoxesBe inspired. This may seem like an impossible request for those of us who struggle to come to the page and begin writing. However, where inspiration appears difficult, it can be made simple. Imagine your positive outcomes. Imagine your success. Imagine yourself deeply engaged in the flow of writing and thinking, and how satisfying that feeling can be. Some of us are inspired by process, others by product. Figure out what works for you and imagine yourself in a space where your goals are easily achieved. It may seem far-fetched, but it can also be inspiring.

Weekly Wisdom: Brought to you by the Letter D
Boxes

BoxesDetermination. For its multiple meanings and applications, determination is a helpful quality to consider in writing and research. On the one hand, determining precisely what you want to accomplish is a first step in bringing those goals to fruition. On the other hand, approaching your work with a sense of determination and drive can put you in a frame of mind that pushes you toward completing the goals you set out to accomplish. To determine what you can accomplish in a particular block of time, figure out what the best measure is (word count, page count, time committed) and set realistic, manageable goals.

 

Weekly Wisdom: brought to you by the Letter A
Boxes

BoxesMake Arrangements. Making, arranging, organizing: creating the spaces in which you write can be a first step to starting a new project, finishing a forgotten one, or moving forward with work already underway. How you arrange your space can make a difference in your comfort level–physically and otherwise. Being mindful and deliberate about how you make arrangements might lead to a more engaged writing experience.

Storify of 22 January Twitterchat
Weekly wisdom: tips and tweaks #64 by Linda Levitt
Diorama_-_19_(8126284371)

Diorama_-_19_(8126284371)Create an emergency. Noting the similarity between “emerge” and “emergency” inspires some word play that leads to creative thinking about deadlines. Many writers will agree that deadlines can be a strong motivator: when you finally reach the point where you absolutely must get your writing done, there is little choice but to put everything else aside and focus on meeting that deadline. Now imagine creating a microdeadline that is an emergency: I absolutely must finish this paragraph/abstract/outline/chapter before I do anything else. On deadline, we’ll excuse ourselves from obligations to family and friends, let the call go to voice mail and let email go answered. What might emerge if you create a small space of no contact with an urgent deadline for yourself?

 

#acwri chats will return on Thursday, January 22 at 8:00 BT (3:00 ET)!
twitterwritte

Htwitterwritteost Pat Thomson will moderate a discussion on the challenges of setting and meeting academic writing goals. Everyone is welcome to join in with their questions and insights about productivity in academic writing. At this time of year, many writers are trying new approaches and making new resolutions; in this chat, we will consider why those resolutions are so hard to keep. Are we setting unrealistic goals? Are we saying “yes” to too many non-writing activities? Are we trying to find time to write without giving up anything else? Are we sticking with writing approaches that haven’t worked well for us in the past? Are we getting discouraged by the lack of immediate results? Are we assessing our own writing too harshly? One thing that we know often hampers attempts to develop new habits is trying to do it alone. While writing is often a solitary task, we can still gain solace from a community of other writers. The #acwri chats are a way of building that community and creating a space for writers to share their experiences with all facets of academic writing. Please join us on January 22 to be part of this valuable forum. In addition to questions and comments about goal setting, we welcome suggestions for topics for future chats.

To learn more about the history of the #acwri hashtag, read this post from Anna Tarrant. And to learn more about the #AcWriMo hashtag, read this post from Charlotte Frost.