Janet Murray: How to Write a Book

[General,Talks] (10.09.08, 10:16 am)

Last Tuesday, Janet gave a good spiel on bookwriting. It is intended for us upcoming PhD students, and blends work on dissertations with actually writing a real honest to goodness book. I took pretty detailed notes, and, with her permission, figured I would put them online for safe keeping and for the world to see. Here is what I’ve got:

You should think of your PhD thesis as your first book. In humanities, you usually publish your dissertation, generally as a book, but sometimes through articles. You can think of chapters as papers. But, the worst thing to do is to publish other papers while working on your dissertation, because you should be investing your full time into writing the thesis itself.

When you think about your thesis as a book, the first thing to consider is: what other books are out there that are like the one you are writing? This should be easy because you’ve probably been reading tons of them. This is a good way to find a publisher. Also, when you read the books, make a note of who the author thanks in the preface. The author might thank an agent, but probably will thank an editor.

You should look for an agent or an editor. When you first publish, you will generally do so with an academic press, but when you have tenure, you should publish more generally.

In terms of contracts and proposals, for your first book, the publisher will expect you to have the book written. But, later, the process is a little different. After your first book, you will want to sign a contract to write the book. You will want to send a book proposal and one to three chapters. Explain in the proposal: what is new about what you are doing, who is your audience, and what other books are in this category.  When you articulate an audience, explain what categories of people might be interested in this book, for example: digital media students, people developing digital tabletops, people teaching and studying game design. The proposal should have some example chapters, but also an overview of the table of contents and a couple of sentences to describe each chapter.

It is important to look at what books have been published, and consider the editor who is responsible for those. You do not need to look at sales figures.

The first hurdle for publishing a book is to see the book as a business decision. The decision to accept something is different in the academic press than, for instance, the popular press or Hollywood. You should look at your book in terms of its value and who is likely to buy it. For example, libraries might buy it, school courses might buy it, it may be appropriate for certain conferences. Demographics are different intellectual groups: people who might teach courses or attend conferences. Some books in digital media have an interdisciplinary dimension, so they might be important for both an art schol and MIT.

Conferences are a great place to chat up publishers. Often times, the editor may actually be there personally. If someone from marketing is there, you should ask what is selling and make contacts.

You want to be fresh and new, but also grounded in an intellectual tradition. You want to appeal to the editor, and have the editor fight for you. You should show yourself as someone who can lay out a multi-chapter product. The book is a way for you to show your credentials as both a writer and an academic. Usually you will not make money from your first book. You should not have any expectation that book writing will be lucrative. You are doing this for the advancement of knowledge and to show yourself as a distinguished scholar.

There is a difference between academic and popular styles of writing. When you write more readably, the book will be more popular, but this invites criticism as an academic product. There is a recent trend among academics that has rewarded poor writing, but I think the fashion of obscurity and unreadability is going out of style. Similarly, you don’t want to write ham-handedly in an imitation of French playfulness. You don’t want to write like Marshall McLuhan in sound bytes.

Usually dissertations are written defensively, to show that you have read everything and thought of every possible objection imaginable. It is a credentializing ritual. This style of writing is far too paranoid and defensive for a book.  Publishers will usually reject a book proposal if it is a dissertation. Definitely do not tell the academic press that your book is your dissertation!! Or, if you do, say that it has been thoroughly rewritten!

Think about scope. What is a book sized chunk, versus what is a dissertation sized chunk, versus what is 10 years worth of work. For a book, you need to answer the question: why is this important for the world to know? For a dissertation, the question is more personal: what would I like to obsess about for four or five years? Your dissertation must be a contribution to knowledge that will not go out of date. The book is a work of scholarship, but asks a question meaningful to a wiser circle and it should be relevant beyond the degree.

You should not worry about someone else publishing the same research topic ahead of you. Your topic should not be so narrow or answerable that someone could beat you to it. If someone does publish ahead of you, you can build off their work, and use them as an example of why this field is so important. But it is unlikely that you will be working in the same way with the same approaches or conclusions.

A rough size metric for a book is 100,000 words, although there has been a trend recently to publish shorter and shorter books. Size really does not matter for books. Your book should have an integrity of argumentation. It should have a balance. The first chapter should be foundational (that is, the rest of your argument builds from it). Chapter titles should be precise. A common mistake is to make the chapter titles catchy and appealing, but this makes it seem like your argument is not well though out.

Writing is about design. Especially, work in our field is about clarifying design values. You should justify and contextualize elements of design. Be clear about what your values are. Understand that others will value things in your writing that you do not anticipate, or people from other backgrounds might get different meaning out of your work. Keep in mind your use of values and how you express those values. You are participating in a discourse of value.

Acknowledge the way a term is used in another discourse if you appropriate that term. When you use terms, you should define them. For instance, what do you mean by game or narrative? You should explain what gives you the authority to assign a definition to a term. You should acknowledge the definitions that others have given to the terms you use. A lot of academic terms have been monitized or abused to the point where they become meaningless. For example, emergence means “good,” given the way that it has been used recently. Carefully define terms if they are important for your work.

Steven Johnson is a good example of a writer who is popular, but also suitably academic. His writing is not tenurable, but it is academically sophisticated. Another example is the articles in the New Yorker, which is an educated and sophisticated discourse. For example, their article on John Stuart Mill.

Regarding the process of writing the thing: For a book, you can’t do an all nighter, or an all weeker. You need a sustained process. A writer’s group would help. You can meet to mark progress, or just to unwind. Writing is a lonely activity, so a social goup helps. What is best is to write every day. Research shows that success is more likely if you write every day than in long isolated periods over each month. You should write in short periods over time to sustain continuity. Write no more than four hours at maximum. Keep a journal to keep track of yourself. Self tracking is important.

But the most crucial bit is this: When you stop writing for the day, write down notes for where you are and what you are going to do next. This will help you from getting lost when you start back up again.

The best writing comes from throwing out your most cherished phrases. If you cut something, you can paste it into a new file, and just save everything that has been cut so that it is not lost. This dull the pain from having to throw out your ideas. This way, you might be able to refer back to the things that you cut, but in practice you probably won’t after a couple of days.

Often, when you’re writing, you come up with a great idea that you want to come back to. What you should do is to put in an asterisk which you can search for later. Start a new document, or write separately as another project. When you are writing it is much more important to continue and finish rather than generating new ideas. So, you should keep track of your new ideas, but you do not want to explore those ideas within the book you are already writing. Sometimes it is useful to have multiple projects going at once, so when you are blocked on one, you can move on to another. Sometimes when you write, you will encounter some question that makes it seem like you cannot continue until that question is resolved. When you get blocked, you should put the blocking forces into their own space. Then turn back and continue on what you need to finish.

1 Comment »

  1. Awesome.

    Comment by Hank — October 9, 2008 @ 12:46 pm

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