How to write a book

So, I wrote the book proposal, sent it off, had my title changed into something quite pedestrian, but searchable and got a contract, which stipulated how long the book would be and when I would need to send the script. I also did all the research; I have a fair view of the literature. For all intents and purposes I can start writing. Now, in contrast to advice on book proposals, advice on how to write is considerably more difficult. Writing is quite personal and we all have our little, not so little, and quite sizeable quirks. Things like that when I start writing I immediately decide how much empty space I leave before I write the first line I write in a new book:

Chapter 2

 And then, how much space till the title, and then how much space till the beginning of the first paragraph. I can tell you that first it is 7 ‘enters’, then 2, then 4, all in single spacing. Will I change it when I shift to double at the very end? I don’t know and I don’t care. That’s the way I write.  Another quirk is that I never start the first paragraph without the title of the chapter. Never. No idea why, but that’s the way. And, let me add, yes, I start with chapter 2, and so should you. And I always have references to Star Trek. Go figure.

So, I offer here my view of writing a book, it’s certainly not the only one or the best one. You might even think, I‘ve lost it completely.

1. My first piece of advice is uncontroversial, but it is, in my opinion, the most important advice when you start writing a book. The advice is: always plan. Before I start writing I will have have mapped out the entire book structure. I know its parts, chapters, their order, topic, etc. In my view this is very important. A book is a whole and it should be designed as a whole. In other words, before you start writing you should have an overview of the entire book. The chapters in turn should fit into that whole. In fact, I tend to think there should be an ‘algorithm’ generating chapters, it should be obvious why they’re there.

Put differently, the chapters should be arranged in a way which makes them gel together. For example, the current book I am writing will be arranged ‘temporally’. I decided that my chapters would tell a story chronologically, the first chapter discussing what happened first, last last chapters talking about what happened last. It doesn’t have to be like that.  My book on fathers’ experiences of mental illness had a very different arrangement. I decided that I was writing about a triangle of relationships:

Fathers – illness – children

So I wrote first how the fathers talked about themselves, then about their illness, then about their children etc., etc.. To some extent it doesn’t matter what the algorithm is, as long as there is one, you are aware of it and stick to it and your audience understands it. In such a way the book becomes easier to write and to read. Then, of course, you should plan each chapter. The way I do it, is that I first decide on sections, then put the data I want to discuss in each of them, and only then do I start writing. In such a way, I first design the skeleton of the book, then design the skeleton of every chapter. Then I put the ‘meat’ on.

I want to be clear. I am writing my eighth monograph, I have significant experience in writing, and I still do it. I think this is the way to do it! In my view the writer’s block (at least in academic writing) is a result of poor planning. I might be wrong, but I never experienced it and all those that took my advice never experienced.

2. The second piece of advice is not as grand, but equally important. Never ever (like: never, ever, ever) start with chapter 1, that is to say with the introduction. The introduction is always something you write right at the end – there is a debate whether you write it before or after the conclusions, but it’s a minor one. The main reason why you write the introduction at the end is that the introduction reviews the book and no matter how much you plan, when you start you don’t really know what you end up with (within reason). Sometime you do actually have an epiphany that wrecks your plans (within reason). Moreover, the introduction commits you to things, commits you to remembering things, it commits you to the effort you don’t really want. So, first piece of advice is: always write your introduction at the end.

A little aside: It always irritates me when PhD students are asked to write a literature review right at the beginning. I think it’s silly. PhD students should read, of course, but a literature review is written at the end too. Well, literature reviews are for a particular thesis, there aren’t any generic reviews that can be written for a generic thesis. Incidentally, I also think that the PhD students should be allowed writing a dissertation like you do – with the introduction last.

3. These two pieces of advice are crucial. In my view, they are absolutely necessary in any large monograph writing (including a PhD thesis). The next 2 are not as crucial. Moreover, my third piece of advice is controversial and I want it to be taken as controversial. It will certainly not suit everyone.

So: I always first write my story without bothering with the literature. Of course, I will have read some, I know where the topic fits in, how well-trodden a path I go. Sometimes I will have read most, sometimes not exactly most, but still I always write what I want to say first.

I do it for two important reasons. First, it allows me to write fast, to write in a flow, to maintain a story (yes, I believe even academic books are stories), not to stop for checking, looking up. All this irritating stuff will come later. Second, and related, it allows me not to worry. Have I included X, have I remembered Y, gosh, good I put Z in. This thinking is disruptive, you start thinking about references not about your book. And I want to write a book! I want to tell a story of my data.  In other words, I want to focus on what I want to tell my readers about the research I have done, and not about what others have written too.

Needless to say, there are drawbacks of such writing, well, one significant drawback that I can see. It is that after you have written your book, completed the reading, it turns out that someone has already written about a particular point, made a similar argument. My response to that is: that’s tough, you make the necessary amendments. How many times has it happened to me? Three, maybe five? I have no idea, I don’t care. But, I do tend to operate in niche topics (fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your perspective). Still, for me there is no doubt that this is by far the best way – I like the flow.

4. I always turn off all spellchecks, grammar checks, I just write, never correct anything, even if I see that word in word out I make a hash of spelling. I never go back to read anything I have written until it’s done. Then I only do the spell check (as I make plenty of typos, it takes forever to check the spelling of one chapter, but there you are), nothing else and print it. Moreover, after I finish the first version of the chapter, I let it lie for 2-3 weeks. You must disassociate yourself from it, break the umbilical chord. For me it happens after 2-3 weeks. Also, I tend to read drafts on paper, never on the computer screen.

My books have 3 versions. First – without the literature (with many mistakes, infelicities etc.), second – with the literature, third – the one that I send to the publisher. Of course, there will be two other versions, one after the copy editor, the other after correcting proofs. Unfortunately, copy-editing is not what it used to be – but that’s another post.

Do remember, though, I have friends who wouldn’t consider sending anything to the publishers if it’s not in tenth (yes, 10th!) version. I find it an extraordinarily waste of time, they think that I’m extremely nonchalant in writing.

My final piece of advice is: always make a backup copy. ALWAYS. I have never lost an entire book (I did lose entire chapters), but I have friends and colleagues who have. The closest I was to losing a book was when my laptop packed it, without warning. It was the first time I saw my hard drive taken out of my computer and plugged to a different machine. Waiting for the result was excruciating. Most was saved – half a chapter disappeared. I have made copies ever since. Every day, after finishing work. Of course, today, it’s easier, it’s all in the Cloud….

I do realise, finally, that all that advice makes things look easy. It’s also very brief – there are volumes on how to write a book, dissertation and whatever else. And yet. I think this really what you need. Is it easy? The process of getting to writing is not, but writing on its own can certainly be. If your research is sound, you have a good idea (book proposal!!), and you plan the book well, then writing becomes a ‘side effect’ of all that I will have done before.

Happy writing!

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