Top 10 Pitfalls of Thesis Writing

Sometimes a change of scenery is just what you need for that tough thesis section (pictured here: writing at Toyota).

Writing your thesis or dissertation may seem like an impossible task — like someone told you to just run a marathon tomorrow or go roof the historic Victorian off the town square. But as with these monumental activities, thesis writing is best conceptualized as a series of steps for which you are prepared to do. So what are the top 10 common mistakes?

  1. Thinking too big. You shouldn’t downplay your work or undervalue yourself. That’s not what I mean. Thinking too big is believing that you must take on the world’s issues and questions for the scope and depth of your thesis. Your life’s work should not and will not be carried out in this thesis. What you are doing right now is a project, albeit a big and important one, that will lay the foundation for more research projects. It is better to have a more narrow scope and a realistic timeline that to try to tackle the world and never finish.
  2. Thinking too small. On the flip side, the thesis is a big deal and you should treat it as such. This is not the same as the 10-page paper you put off until the night before it was due. Take the time and brain space to work steadily to produce quality work. What will be your contribution to the existing field of literature?
  3. Delay, delay, delay. Excuses will not write the thesis. Working with your adviser, establish both a broad timeline that gets you from coursework to graduation and a more specific schedule for each chapter (or section of a chapter). Make every deadline, even if you are a bit unsure of yourself or the overarching magnitude of the project feels too daunting. Do not accept reasons why you didn’t get that chapter done. Just get it done.
  4. Trouble with your adviser. Let’s back up. If you are still in the planning stages and haven’t picked a thesis chair yet, I encourage you to think hard and do a little investigating before you ask (yes, ask) a professor to serve as your adviser. Have you had this person as an instructor? Do you know the potential adviser’s style? You can ask other grad students what the faculty member is like as an adviser or as a t.a. supervisor. Different professors have different ways of approaching the thesis-writing process.
    This is a big deal and marks the start of a new type of relationship. Don’t be afraid to ask (once again, yes, ask, don’t assume). Be polite, explain why you’d like to work with that person, and briefly state your timeline. Usually, professors agree. When they decline, it’s typically not personal, even if it feels that way. Maybe the faculty member is about to go on sabbatical or has recently been approved for a large grant. You just don’t know.
    If you already have an adviser, but it’s not working out, it is perfectly fine to switch thesis chairs. Have a polite conversation with your current adviser before switching. Never badmouth a faculty member to another professor or student.
  5. Getting stuck in the writer’s block quicksand. We’ve all have certain parts of our projects that feel especially tough. Throughout the thesis process, you will definitely hit obstacles in which the section or chapter just feels too hard to continue. It’s important that you don’t get hung up and miss your deadlines. When you don’t know what to write, first take a little break (workout, take a walk, shower, talk to a friend — whatever works for you). Don’t be done for the day. Just rest your brain. Sometimes doing something else is enough to push you through. If you still don’t know what to write, backtrack and read your previous words to give yourself momentum.
    For a difficult section, I recommend switching locations to a place that seems special and only work on that section. More than 12 years later, I still recall the day I reworked my theoretical framework at a coffee shop. Sometimes just focusing can get you through.
  6. Comparing yourself to others. You are writing your thesis. Period. Don’t get caught up in envying a peer’s progress or comforting yourself about missed deadlines by thinking about a person who took an extra year to finish. Like I tell my children all the time, focus on yourself. It is not fair to look at others’ accomplishments or lack thereof. You don’t know their situations and the comparison won’t make you less of a writer or more of one. As I will elaborate in the next point, grad students need to lift each other up.
  7. Going at it alone without peer support. While you shouldn’t compare yourself to others, you also shouldn’t be a lone ship in the sea of thesis writing. Cohorts are wonderful. If you have one, turn to this built-in group of people who understand what you are experiencing. At the very least, find a writing partner or group. This is not your goof-off buddy, but a person who is equally dedicated to writing when it is writing time and pleasant to chat with on your breaks. You will look forward to writing sessions more if you can share in the experience.
  8. Going at it alone without a mentor. Trying to go solo without a mentor is a mistake. Graduate students, especially Ph.D. students, should try to find a faculty mentor in addition to the adviser. If possible, this person should be outside your department or even your university. It’s good to have additional guidance on thesis committee etiquette, the job hunt, and other issues. Making this connection now will also help you as you begin your first tenure-track position.
  9. Getting distracted. Now is not the time to take on extra projects or to do more additional work than you need to pay the bills. Don’t try out for a play or sign up for unicycle class. Write every day with clear objectives, make your deadlines, and FINISH.
  10. Strike a balance. At the same time, you can’t write for 14 hours straight. It is okay to work on your thesis in 2-3 sessions per day, with breaks in-between. In fact, I recommend this approach. If you are a grad student with kids, this will be your life anyway (just make sure you get some uninterrupted writing time). You should eat food, get enough sleep, exercise, and socialize a bit. Finding a balance actually boosts productivity.

Trust me on these tips. We’ve all been there.

For more advice on graduate school, check out my new anthology: The Graduate Student Guidebook: From Orientation to Tenure Track, written by the AEJMC Board of Directors.

Supplies and tricks to make in-person learning easier for kids (and you)

First day of school

If your kids will be at school at all this year, I bet you’re wondering how you can help set yourselves up for success. With all of the uncertainty, this is a tough time. My girls have been physically back in school since August 20th. We’ve figured out a few things over the last few weeks.

School supplies that probably aren’t on the official list

  • Masks (duh, hopefully): Don’t underestimate how many you will need or what type will feel the best for the duration of the school day. Our favorite have been the Old Navy packs.
  • A lanyard or chain to hold the mask: You can get them for under $2 in the craft section.
  • Mints: If they are allowed at school, it’s nice to have a freshener under the mask.
  • Chapstick (for home): Masks can dry out your face.
  • Hand sanitizer: Hands can be sensitive to publicly distributed sanitizer. Bringing your own also saves resources.
  • Sunscreen: At least for my kids, this year has brought extra outside time.
  • A water bottle with a straw: Drinking fountains are likely closed. Straws can be slipped under masks.
  • A lunch: Hot lunch may not be offered.
  • A book: There may be extra downtime as teachers are working through the technology or helping distance learners.
  • A comfortable backpack: With protocol to reduce kids in the hallway, they may not have access to lockers. Consider getting a rolling bag if it is allowed.

Tricks for Fall 2020

  1. Have kids try out different masks and practice before school starts — tie ones, adjustable ear loops, different fabrics, etc. Letting them pick the design is a good idea.
  2. Add a disposable, wrapped-up mask that stays in the backpack as a back-up.
  3. Pack at least two cloth masks plus the disposable to plan for a dropped mask or a change after snack or lunch.
  4. Post a visible list of tasks and items to gather somewhere near the door. There are so many extras this year that it’s hard to keep track of everything. We also have a list for after-school in the hopes that dirty masks make it into the washer.
  5. Get a family calendar and use your digital calendar to help keep everyone on track.
  6. Use a white board to write out tasks and reminders for the next day, especially if activities have started up again.
  7. Build in extra time in the morning. Even two weeks in, waking up has been rough.
  8. Prepare for a few days of tired kids. Having structure for the first time in months can be exhausting.

This is obviously a weird and hard time in which no option is really ideal. As you prepare for the school year’s start, talk with your kids about how things may be different. At the same time, don’t underestimate their ability to adapt. We have had no complaints or resistance about mask-wearing or other additional rules this year. Even in this strange reality, my children are happy to be back, love their teachers, and feel engaged in learning.

Fall 2020: The Challenges of Teaching in a Jenga Semester

A typical surface for Jenga, sparking memories of the pre-pandemic classroom.

Even with the tension of the first move, rearrangements are easy early on — sliding pieces out and stacking them on top. A few more rounds bring confidence before the precarious state of the unbalanced structure seems to become too much before CRASH!

Our first week of the semester felt like the beginning of the game. Between the Zoom outage and skyrocketing university COVID cases, it was “game over” (at least temporarily) before many players had a turn. For those of us still teaching hybrid, hyflex, web-assisted or whatever you’re calling the partially online, partially in-class experience, week 2 parallels the midway point of the Jenga game.

It’s not just the cloud of potential quarantines and campus shutdowns that threatens this game though. The demands of what teaching now looks like have skewed how the game is even played. Instead of placing the Jenga tower on a flat table in the dining room, it’s as if we decided to foolishly set the blocks on a porch swing.

Jenga on the swing. Not the best idea.

Things may be relatively still or quiet for the moment, but we know that current conditions are unstable at best.

We have to factor in the additional challenges to the initial environment. Add a breeze to the rickety old swing. The technology that enables social distancing-teaching and flexible attendance also burdens us as instructors. We now have to consider whether or not the system is capturing our lectures and if our makeshift classroom spaces will adequately serve the day’s content. Wearing multiple microphones, we have become amplification marionettes and must be careful not to tangle our wires.

For good measure, let’s let two dogs out to the porch as we play.

This is not going to last long.

Or that’s what it feels like as we find ourselves needing to police the state of classroom health. Was that a sneeze? Or two? Is two too many? Should the student be excused? How do we balance the feelings of one student with the anxiety of the many?

I’m not attacking the protocol of what needed to (and needs) to happen for any in-person classes to occur, nor am I condemning these interactions. My point is to highlight the numerous obstacles shaping our teaching this semester. Just like porch-swing Jenga, we cannot demand “normal.” It’s not going to happen.

We need to redefine expectations. Instead of focusing on class as a vehicle for information delivery, we should aim for the experience itself. Why are we meeting in this way? For me, the real purpose is for us to engage with each other about the course material in (hopefully) meaningful ways. Reducing the emphasis on course objectives helps us to center on class discussion, communication, and camaraderie. All of my good moments thus far have come from student engagement, with me and with each other — the answer to why are we here and even trying this?

This is not a semester for lofty goals or an overhaul of, well, anything. We are already in the midst of that overhaul and must do our best to compensate as we teach on the fly. Much like the Jenga game, we can only take on so many challenges before the tower falls.

Who will clean it up? Will we be expected to immediately play again without changing up the situation or putting the puppies inside?

The game should be the fun part. Picking it all up (especially out of the bush), not so much.

A special thanks to Rosie and Rivet for their participation in my photo illustration.

Transforming a Journal Article into a Book Chapter

A picture of a journal article and its chapter
A journal article-turned chapter in my Breastfeeding and Media book.

Journal articles and book chapters are not interchangeable. You can’t (or at least shouldn’t) take your published article and insert the text into your book. The format, tone, language, structure, and reference section often differ from a peer-reviewed one-time publication to a chapter, which needs to fit into the overall book. So how do you make this switch?

Before you do any revising, you need to get permission from the journal editor to have the article appear in your book. Send a polite email, asking for permission and explaining the outlet in which the article will appear (your book). Some publishers grant individual authors the rights to their work. Others don’t. Always make the request–as soon as you know you’d like to reprint the article. At the same time, check with your book editor about the reprint, at least giving a “heads up.” If you are writing your manuscript and don’t yet have an editor, you will disclose this reprint in your book proposal. It is totally fine to include published articles-turned chapters in your book. It actually makes sense. If you are an expert on this topic and have published articles, your book can be (at least partially) a culmination of your work. Do note that editors typically want the majority of a book to be new content, but that still leaves space for revised reprints.

Assuming you’ve gotten written permission for the reprint, you can move forward. It’s tempting to just drop the article in, call it a chapter, and be done. Not a smart move though. You are (hopefully) including your article as a chapter because it adds to the content of your book. You want this addition to be seamless and not stand out as a journal article floating in the middle of a book.

Journal articles and academic book chapters do share similarities. They are typically both comprised of secondary and primary sources, woven together to create a narrative driven by a purpose and set of objectives. The differences stop there. Book chapters don’t usually have the rigid, standard sections of a journal article, especially in the middle of a single-authored book (you may find more “journal-article” elements in a chapter for an anthology, as each contributor spells out theory and method for their own projects).

Step-by-step Instructions for Making Your Article a Chapter

  1. Identify the reasons for including the article-as-chapter in your book. What does it add? How does it fit?
  2. Read your journal article with fresh eyes, looking at your work as it will fit in your book. Note spots in the chapter that need to be updated or revised to match the rest of your book, especially if it’s been a few years since the article’s publication.
  3. Remove the theory and method sections, unless they are unique to this chapter. You likely already covered these areas in your introduction.
  4. Conduct additional research needed for the chapter (updating the literature review, analyzing material that’s been created since your article research timeline ended, etc.). For example, for me to transform articles to chapters, I often have to add a sample of media content that has been created since the articles were published.
  5. Revise the chapter into a chapter format. (Yes, step 5 is the big one). Adopt a slightly more conversational tone in your writing. Define concepts for readers outside of your discipline. Add headers, topic sentences, and other language that creates a flow for your chapter that parallels the other chapters in your book. Most book chapters don’t have a RESULTS or FINDINGS section. Rephrase your primary analysis to thematic headings.
  6. Revise the references to match your book’s citation format. In my discipline, journals typically use APA, while books use Chicago Style.
  7. Read the chapter as it fits into the other chapters. Does it flow or stand out? Revise as needed so that it no longer reads as an article turned chapter, but just a chapter. Have you adhered to the press guidelines?

Chapters need to tell a story within the book’s overarching purpose. Only include journal articles if you would have wanted the topics covered in your book anyway. By revising your article into a chapter format, you increase its likelihood of success with editors and reviewers and improve the overall experience for your future readers.

10 Mistakes to Avoid in Writing the Introduction

Your first chapter might feel like a throwaway, perhaps written as a sample to accompany your book proposal in hopes of a contract. However, the intro matters. It gives readers their first impressions of you as a writer and your book as a whole. That may sound a little daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. Like most forms of writing, a good nonfiction introduction follows a set of (ironically) unwritten rules.

  1. Failing to follow the “introduction” road map. At least for academic books, most intros contain the same elements: An “intro” to the intro, statement of purpose, justification, brief background and/or literature review, relevant theories that guide the research, a description of the method/approach and an overview of the chapters in the book. Choosing to skip one of these critical components will likely stall you up in the revising process or if you make it through, leave your readers wondering why you omitted an important part of the set up.
  2. Using too much jargon. This is an error I see mostly in student work and early-career scholars, who are eager to use the vocab of the discipline and to “sound smart.” Convey your ideas in plain language, saving the jargon for spots that make sense (i.e. in your theory section). Even then, it should be defined and connected to your overarching topic.
  3. Lacking a sense of purpose or direction. Your chapter and book need to have a clearly-stated purpose and flow. I recommend describing your book to a relative, a scholar outside of your discipline, and someone in your field. Talking through your book’s main objective with various audiences will give you a better idea of what you are doing and why, which you can then communicate in the first chapter.
  4. Giving too much away. I realize that you’re writing nonfiction, not a murder mystery. That said, avoid saying too much about what you’ve found in your primary research right away in the introduction. You can outline what you will do, but shouldn’t have conclusions in chapter 1.
  5. Providing too much background/literature/theory. The introduction is an introduction. If any of these sections becomes too lengthy (more than a page or two), they will take away from the chapter’s purpose of setting up the book. Consider shortening your sections and incorporating them into later chapters of the book. For example, a historical background could be split up by time period and relocated to other chapters that fit chronologically.
  6. Not providing enough background/literature/theory. Assume your reader is intelligent, but may not have the same expertise as you in the material (because you are writing the book). Giving short definitions, brief explanations, and a few sentences of background can be immensely helpful. Unless you are writing a technical manual, you want people in outside areas to enjoy your book. Write and define in such a way that your work can be understood by readers in other countries/cultures and by future generations. References that seem to be obvious now lose their familiarity over time.
  7. Including material that should be in the preface or acknowledgements. Chapter 1 is for introducing the book. It is not the place for an origin story of your book’s idea, what television shows you enjoyed as a child, or praise for your favorite barista for refilling your coffee. Put backstories and other personal info that make your book more interesting in the preface. Thank everyone in a separate “acknowledgements” page. These elements are important, but don’t belong in the intro. Note: I’m not talking about reflexivity for analysis. Identifying your intersectional positions in your theory/method section is different than reminiscing about Auntie Annie’s rice pudding (so delicious, but not intro material).
  8. Floating down the river of tangents. Every word and sentence should serve a purpose. As you edit your chapter, look (and fix) concepts that stray from the objective of a paragraph and section.
  9. Not writing enough or writing too much. Besides failing to adequately address the sections of the book, a short intro doesn’t properly set the foundation for the book. It can be a little shorter than a typical chapter, but not too far off. Conversely, a lengthy intro is not really an intro. Think about splitting part of it off into a new chapter.
  10. Skipping the intro. Don’t jump right into the main topic without first telling us what it is about and other key factors for really getting the book. Do what you want with fiction, but nonfiction needs the purpose, justification, and other relevant information laid out.

If this list made you panic about your own in-progress book, you can always revise the introduction. In fact, I recommend it. With my own books, I write the intro first and then return to it much later in the process. I typically wind up changing quite a bit, as I have a better grasp of my project after I’ve written a few chapters. None of my published single-authored books have their original beginnings. You can always revise, but only if you’ve written something in the first place.

Writing Through This World of Distractions

Dogs and kids at the park
Outings help reduce distractions at home. Plus we have fun going on a nature walk.

I will state the obvious and say that it’s really hard to focus right now. As I wrote about in “Why I Bought a Boat: Juggling Gender Roles in the Pandemic,” women have been particularly affected by the lack of childcare and added crisis-school responsibilities. The outcome has been significant. In academia, while male professors have been able to increase their journal article submission, women’s research output has steeply declined, covered in this article in The Guardian. Adding to this pressure, of course, is the stress of the pandemic, racial injustice, the economy. . . . I could go on and on, but I won’t.

My focus here is to help you to move past the distractions to get a little bit done right now. That’s right. A little bit, not 15 manuscripts, but small projects accomplished that can add up. I will frame this around working while having children at home as the primary sources of interruption, but you can also apply my tips to your own situations.

Feed the meter. I love Dr. Harvey Karp’s concept that giving your kids a little attention before moving on to an independent activity can greatly improve behavior. I employed this approach when my girls were little (focused time and then a little independent play while I did something else) and I definitely still use it.
I personally get more done if I focus on my kids first, break away for awhile, and then have planned segments of attention throughout the day. In fact, this has been my strategy throughout the last few months. We eat breakfast together and outline the day, then a balance of independent play/crisis school/chores and check-in moments from me. It doesn’t always work, but I am definitely more successful and my children seem happier if I focus on them first before attempting to work.

Make your kids wait. If you’ve fed the meter and your children are still interrupting you, it’s fine to put their non-emergency needs on hold. Even little kids can wait a minute for you to finish something, as long as they don’t need to use the potty.
We’ve struggled with the barrage of interrupting Mom (me) during the quarantine. I’ve found that it helps to sketch out the day’s plan on a portable whiteboard, laying out the schedule and required tasks to get electronics. Sometimes I give my kids an “distracto” pass, allowing for one interruption. I also have a “snack guide.” It’s low-tech and nerdy, but cuts down on the “I want a snaaaaaaack” whining.

My cheesy summer snack guide. I made it myself.

Ration out TV and electronics. Tablets, games, and Disney+ can be wonderful tools in helping you get some work done. I caution against overusing them to boost your own productivity for a few reasons though. First, it’s (obviously) not healthy for kids to be consuming media all the time. Secondly, too much TV/devices can actually lead to more interruptions. When kids get too used to being entertained, they can have a harder time with free play. I’m not saying NO TV (totally not, no way, not happening), but save the coveted electronics for special times of the day (i.e. when you need to focus).

Value your writing time (and make others value it too). Writing should not be perceived as an afterthought, as the first activity that gets cut out during busy times. If you are a professional writer, you need to write. If you are an academic, you need to write. If you are a person who just likes to write, you need to write. Have an outline of your writing tasks for the session, day, week, and month. Set specific times in which your partner is fully on kid duty and no one is allowed to interrupt you (lock the door if you must). Writing time should not be viewed in the same category as online surfing or social media posting. Yet don’t limit your writing to your sacred sessions. Get the small, low-focus items (see below) done during distracting parts of the day, freeing up your blocks for high-focus tasks. If you don’t make writing a priority for yourself than others won’t either.

Don’t wait for a perfect “day” of writing. I’ve never understood the need to write only in lengthy blocks. Or maybe I’ve just never had this luxury. Carving out short sessions regularly can be more productive than attempting to get one full day of writing. I also recommend using moments throughout the day to handle low-focus tasks (see below). Here’s why: the more you write, the easier it is to write. You spend less time getting back into a project and feel less pressure to create your masterpiece. If you can miraculously get a day to write, savor it, but don’t wait for it.

Divide your tasks by level of focus. As you plan out writing objectives for your current project, identify which components are high-focus and which ones are low-focus. Save the high-focus tasks for parts of your day that you are least likely to get interrupted, when you can shut the door, put on the noise-cancelling headphones, and have your partner handle whatever minor/major crises emerge. Getting up early to write may also help you carve out some high-focus time.
Some aspects of writing don’t take a lot of brain power. Your low-mid focus items can be addressed during potential interruption times. Try to use these moments to format a source, save a journal article, or email an editor. The trick to productivity right now is to finish low-focus items when you can so that your precious minutes of high-focus time can be used to tackle tough writing tasks.

Get your social media distractions out and then stop. News and social media lure us in right now. We feel a need to be part of the world and know what’s going on. Indulge this need for a little bit. Even better, do it at a time in which you wouldn’t be writing, but also doesn’t cut into interacting time with your kids. Use some of your waiting time to do this: waiting for kids to brush teeth, use the bathroom, come downstairs, for a pot to boil or something to heat up in the microwave. If you must start a writing session with a social media looksie, then limit your time online before starting the project.

Acknowledge that there will be “off” days. This is a tough time. Not every day will be a productive one. Sometimes the kids need more engagement. Sometimes the world is just too troubling for anyone to focus. Sometimes the dog rolls in poop and needs an emergency bath. It’s okay if you didn’t make today’s goal. Reevaluate (perhaps with a dish of ice cream) for tomorrow. What could make the day better/smoother/happier? I’ve found that planned outings can boost our overall moods and I actually get more done when we return home.

Feed your own meter. It’s hard to focus if you are not getting enough sleep, food, water, exercise, or mental breaks. It might seem counterproductive to give up some writing time for walk, shower, or early bedtime. Nope. Taking care of yourself will help you think more clearly and be more efficient. Plus you might get inspired during non-writing times. How can we fit it all in? Eat and exercise with the kids, which gives you multiple check marks. Or work out alone for the head-space–whatever works for you. Establishing healthy habits will aid you in the long-run.

Here’s the deal. If you have kids, dogs, a partner, elderly relative, etc. at home, you will get interrupted and face countless distractions. I fully get this and am living it. While I was writing this post, my dog tried to eat a marker and both kids woke up, needing my attention. The key to getting things done is to set low expectations, have a plan, and maximize the teeny bits of time you do have.

When “Just Get It Done” Isn’t Cutting It: Tricks to Make Your Writing Session More Productive

Coffee and a rosemary scone next to my computer
Coffee and a scone help me through a Structure Session.

Writing a book or creating a new manuscript can feel incredibly daunting, particularly in the early stages. You’ve done your research. You know you want to tackle this project. You feel intrinsically and extrinsically inspired to do so. You made your schedule. I’m not going to lie. Sometimes it’s still hard to get the ball rolling, especially in this world of distractions.

Numerous books have been written on improving productivity. Setting a timer, turning off your internet, aiming for a certain number of words, paragraphs or pages, and making an appointment with yourself to write are all good tips. I regularly use all of these tricks, depending on my current task.

However, they don’t say much about how to approach your writing to maximize your efforts. Adding structure helps navigate the blocks and smooths out the process. In other words, motivating yourself to write isn’t always about words met or “butt in chair.” It’s also about developing a writing session that feels and is productive.

Before you sit down to write, think about what type of writing you will do. I don’t mean genres, but conceptually, where are you in your process? Identifying which type of session will set you up for success. Broadly speaking, I have 4 types of writing sessions that move from a macro look at my project to the nitty-gritty details and then back to the macro level (or from the forest to the trees to the forest again).

Free-write (airplane view of the forest)
Purpose: To get the words flowing on a new topic or on a project that I am still trying to structure.
Process: I write as fast as I can, marking spots that need sources or additional facts with bold type, focusing on the macro level of the chapter.
Rule for this session: Write now, edit later! No worrying about word choice, sources, or details!
Works well for: New projects or sections of a project, especially ones that feel difficult. Free-writing gets me over the hill of beginning.
Ideal Space: Outside so I can’t really see my computer screen.

Structure Session (forest)
Purpose: To transform my outline (or freewrite) into a structured chapter or manuscript.
Process: Take the freewrite or start from scratch and work on building your chapter or manuscript, adding in topic sentences and outlining paragraphs, adding shape to your manuscript. Use bold type or another system for points that you will fill in later (i.e. ADD SOURCES or ELABORATE).
Rule for this session: Avoid external research or fretting too much about a word or sentence.
Works well for: Fully laying out a chapter to help you know what additional sources/research/books etc. you might need.
Ideal Space: Anywhere you can see the screen.

Fix the Bolds Session (among the trees)
Purpose: To turn your draft into something that you can really edit.
Process: Address every bold word in the chapter, filling in sources, adding information, clarifying points, and subbing in synonyms for repetitive words.
Rule for this session: No skipping a bold word to get to the easy fixes! Find that source. Clarify that point! Insert the transition. Solve the problem. Do not move on to the “Big Picture” until the bolds are fixed.
Works well for: Rounding out your draft and, practically speaking, interrupted or short writing sessions.
Ideal Space: I prefer my dining table or the library–somewhere in which I can lay out piles of books.

Big Picture (looking at the forest)
Purpose: To carefully edit your chapter or manuscript as a whole.
Process: Read through your work, examining word choice, wordiness, flow, organization, clarity, use of sources, and other components that contribute to the quality of a manuscript. Fix typos, check spelling, and address stylistic issues.
Rule for this session: View your manuscript as an outside reader might. Take your time.
Works well for: Your last read before submission and your first read after you get the reviews back.
Ideal Space: Office or coffee shop–a place that allows you to focus.

This approach works well for writing book chapters and other types of manuscripts. Using bold type allows you to keep moving early on in the process, instead of becoming stalled out on finding a source or too fixated on a particular word. It’s also easier to edit as you move through these stages, rather than trying to look at both sentence structure (micro level) and organization (macro level) at the same time. By adhering to a session type, you set up yourself for a smoother writing process, one that isn’t just measured in word count or time.



Deciding to Edit a Book: Finding Contributors and Setting Yourself Up for Success

At some point, the opportunity for editing an anthology might fall in your lap. Or maybe you organize an amazing panel that could make a great text. Either way, editing a book can be a very rewarding experience. It can also feel daunting and frustrating at times. I learned a lot with each of the 3 books I’ve edited. Hopefully, my advice will help get you started on a positive path.

Two of my edited books. The Graduate Student Guidebook: From Orientation to Tenure Track is in production.

Is it the right time to edit a book?
My checklist for editing is the same as for writing a book. Unless you are in a discipline that prioritizes books over articles and counts edited anthologies as authored books, wait until after tenure. Even then, I recommend making sure you have other projects well underway before committing to an edited manuscript. Edited books aren’t always valued much in terms of promotion. That doesn’t mean you should do one, but know how it will impact your full professor application.

Why should I edit a book?
If book editing is a lot of work and may not count, why do it? For me, editing feels different from authoring a solo book. It’s a social process that straddles research and service (how it feels to me, not for promotion processes). I really enjoy working with other people to create a collective body of scholarship around an interesting topic. It can also be very satisfying to transform an excellent conference panel to something more permanent, sometimes helping early career scholars along. In other words, edit a book because the project excites you and feels like it would be personally satisfying, not because you think it will make you money (probably not), bring you fame (um, no), or be a ticket to promotion (again, check your own university’s guidelines).

Identifying the Topic
I personally believe that easiest, most organic way to do an edited book is to start with a great conference panel. The panel session is an excellent outlet for shaping the topic, especially with feedback from the audience. Furthermore, assuming the panelists all contribute, you also lock in 3-5 chapters of your book.

Another approach is to identify a gap in the existing literature that would be better addressed from an array of scholars, rather than one person. Perhaps the subject extends beyond your own knowledge, you’d like to span across disciplines, or you’d like diverse perspectives about an issue. If so, create a text with a collection of experts.

Finding Contributors
There are several ways to get scholars to write chapters for your book. I’ve worked with 39 contributors over my 3 projects and have used a few different approaches.

You may be planning to create a book out of an existing committee/set of conference participants/other group around a particular interest. This is a different kind of edited book then the next section addresses. Contributors will be motivated to get their chapters done because they are invested in the book’s success. With The Graduate Student Guide, the contributors were all past or current AEJMC Board of Directors who genuinely care about helping grad students. I mapped out a broad table of contents and then had board members select chapters that fit their interests (or add chapters that they felt were missing). An open call would not have made sense for this book’s intent.

Other Ways to Get Contributors

  • Do an open invitation for scholars to submit abstracts to be considered for your book.
  • Invite specific scholars to submit their work as chapters.
  • Build your Table of Contents from a combination of the first two (or start with panelists and then extend an open call).

I do not advise the first option for your book. if you completely start from scratch, you have little control over who will submit proposals and what topics will be addressed. Even more than that, the quality may vary significantly and you may worry that the chapters won’t be completed.

I recommend choosing the second or third option. It may be difficult to do all invited chapters (that’s a lot of people). A more practical approach is to start with a panel of people you know, invite more scholars that do work in the general area, and then do an open call. It’s less of a gamble and early in the project, you’ll be able to draft a table of contents. Plus, it’s comforting to have a few chapters that you know will get done and will get done well. At the same time, the open call may produce interesting perspectives on the topic that you hadn’t thought of or are outside of your expertise.

Working with Familiar Faces vs. Strangers

It can be a little tricky to edit the chapters of friends or colleagues. When things are going well, hands down, I will choose the friend, particularly when I am confident that the person reliably produces quality work. Some of the best chapters in my books were written by my friends (who had done research in the relevant area). It was easy and their contributions strongly enhanced the anthologies. However, if the person is routinely late or backs out, it can be an awkward and difficult experience.

When you don’t know the contributor, it’s more of a wild card experience. Will the person drop out or just never finish? Maybe. If some of your chapters come from an open call, assume at least one person will back out. Always build in time and a back-up plan for dropped chapters (more on that later). However, it can also be easier to edit a stranger’s work since you have no prior personal connection that may interfere with your feedback. You should still be positive and constructive, but it feels different. Of course, you’ll get to know your contributors through editing the book, meaning they aren’t strangers anymore.

The Call for Proposals (CFP)

After you’ve done your conference panel, confirming panelists as contributors, and solicited chapters from other scholars you know, you may need additional chapters to round out your book. Create a Call for Proposals (CFP), which should include a general description of the book, relevant bodies of theory, sample subtopics, instructions for submission (including the deadline), and your contact information. Here’s the CFP I used for the prison book.

I suggest requesting a 300-500 word abstract and not a chapter. It’s not a big commitment for scholars to write abstracts, the turnaround deadline from the CFP release can be fairly quick, and they will give you a good idea of the quality of the writing.

Once you have your submissions and the deadline has closed, determine which abstracts fit the scope, purpose, intended audience, and theoretical frameworks of the book. Start to draft the table of contents, figuring out what fits and what doesn’t. Also note the quality of the writing in the submission. If the abstract is poorly written, the chapter will likely be poorly written. Don’t be afraid to omit submissions early on. It’s much less painful than having to cut full chapters because they are indecipherable.

As you notify potential contributors of their acceptances (and also those you can’t accept), ask if any of them have their chapters ready. It’s helpful to have 1-2 chapters to use as samples.

With the ToC outlined and the contributors confirmed, you can start querying editors. It’s the same process as with solo-authored work, except that you are highlighting the expertise of a groups of people.

Setting Up the Project for Success

I will address the editing process in a future post. But I do have some tips in getting started:

  • Identify a clear vision for your book and stick to it. You want it to be cohesive collection.
  • Have a system for organizing contributions. I use an Excel sheet to keep track of the contributor, contact info, chapter status, and my last date of communication.
  • Remember that you are the leader of this project. It is your job to edit. Don’t hesitate to do your job. Be proactive in reminding people of deadlines. Communicate changes that need to be made. Take charge and don’t doubt your abilities. At the same time, be helpful, friendly, and understanding. You want others to want to work with you.

How much time does it take to write a book? Planning the timeline

Let’s start by acknowledging that I am talking in generalizations, things can happen to slow down the process, and every press is a little different. That said, this post focuses on the timeline to get the completed manuscript submitted, not the timeline for publication.

Factors to Consider

  • How much of the research will you have to conduct as you are writing? If your book requires months or years of research before you get to the writing stage, you’ll obviously need to build in that time. Some authors prefer to do all of the primary research first and then start writing the manuscript. Others switch off by chapter. Your approach will depend on the type of research, external considerations (i.e. travel to an archive), and your own preferences. I generally prefer to work chapter by chapter, but have had to be flexible based on archive trips. For me, it is easier to live and breathe a particular time period and topic than to jump around. Always take detailed notes and keep your materials organized so it is easy to access them even when you’ve been away for a bit.
  • What other work and personal obligations will you have? Build in extra time if you have a life-changing event coming up, lengthy trip, or other time-consuming work/home project. Note: you will always feel like there’s never enough time until writing becomes your priority.
  • Are you a quick writer? Are you used to writing every day? How much time do you need to edit your work? Writing a book will help you become more efficient. If you are not already doing so, start blocking off part of each day to write and set detailed goals for your self. Consider joining the “Any Good Thing Challenge” for extra motivation. To write a book, you need to write consistently and productively, routinely making your daily, weekly, and monthly objectives. It’s the only way to write a book.
  • Have you written book chapters before? I ask because the style differs from writing peer-reviewed journal articles or popular works. If you are already accustomed to writing chapters, creating your own manuscript will probably be a little easier. I will post about writing book chapters in a later blog entry.

Estimating the Length of Your Book

How do you go about estimating the length of your proposed book? Different presses have preferred word count rages–the longer the book, the more expensive it is to produce.
To give you an idea of the word count vs. finished product, here are the approximate counts/pages of my books:

85,000 words = 152 pages in Microsoft Word= 263 pages in the proofs
56,741 words = 176 pages in (edited) book
81,118 words= 148 pages in Microsoft Word= 286 pages in book
133,169 words = 352 pages in (edited) book
108,424 words = 316 pages in (edited) book
48,000 words = 120 pages in book

I won’t get into how long your book needs to be, except to advise you to be mindful of the length. If you are estimating more than 250-300 pages and this isn’t a sought-after, advanced contract for a senior scholar situation, consider saving some of the content for a second book later on.

Start with your proposed Table of Contents (ToC). For single-authored books, I usually estimate about 6-8,000 words for the introduction and conclusion and then 8-10,000 per regular chapter. With this formula, a book with 8 chapters would be approximately 80-85,000 words and a 10 chapter book would be about 96,000-100,000 words (I rounded up the range). Figures, tables, images, references, appendices, and other extra features will also impact the page length.

Does your estimated word count range work with the press guidelines? If it’s not specified, look at the typical length of books that the press has recently published in your area. For my epidemics book, my press (University of Massachusetts) requested a maximum of 85,000 words. I omitted several chapters from the original ToC to make this word count. You can always expand your work to fit the word count or cut your material down later. However, your completed manuscript needs to match your book contract. Do not produce a manuscript that is significantly under or over the number listed in the contract.

Contract Question: Manuscript in Hand or to be Completed?

Some people prefer to seek a contract with only sample chapters. Others like to complete the manuscript and then find a publisher. There are pros and cons to both approaches. If you get a contract with much of the work ahead, you can shape the manuscript to the press guidelines and consult with the editor on the content and scope of the project. Yet, it may be more difficult to get the contract and you may run into issues if you can’t finish on time. On the flip side, it may be easier to get a contract with a manuscript in hand. This might make sense if you are turning your dissertation into your first book. If you are starting from scratch, though, I don’t recommend waiting to write a full manuscript before getting the contract. It is helpful to work with an editor as you are writing your book and it’s also motivating to have a deadline. Plus the contract can (positively) factor into hiring and promotion decisions.

So how long do you need?

Going forward, I’m assuming you do not have a completed manuscript as you query editors. Save deciding on the estimated completion date for the last step of the proposal. You should write the sample chapters, query editors with emails, and apply for grants (if applicable) first. Once an editor requests a proposal, then you think about the date — after you’ve written the other parts of the proposal. Why wait? Because writing sample chapters and querying is time-consuming. Going through this process will also help you clarify the scope of your project.

Estimating your timeline in your book proposal is a tricky deal. On one hand, you want to be fairly realistic in your approximation. Don’t list 6 months from now as the completion date if you really mean 2 years. On the other, if you list a date that is too far away (and this is your first book), you likely won’t get the contract. If you honestly don’t think you can finish and submit a manuscript within the next year, I recommend writing more of the book before you seek a contract.

Setting (and Making) Your Own Deadlines

I’m a big fan of using an Excel sheet for all of my books, noting the chapter #, tentative title (or topic), deadline for my self, status, and word count (once it’s finished). Like this:

Once you’ve laid out your chapters and identified the general word count, determine the order for writing your book. Do you want to work chronologically? Are there resources you need to request that will take time? Do you have research trips planned? Are some chapters going to be easier to write than others? What chapters currently exist as peer-review articles and just need revision? (Get permission NOW for the reprint).

I can’t advise on how long conducting your primary research will take. Nor will I delve into the particulars of writing a book chapter (maybe in a later post). What I will say is that you need to a). WRITE everyday (not just listing literature or taking notes from your microfilm. Actual writing that will lead to a chapter, which will lead to a draft). and b). Make every deadline that you set.

Break it down. If you have a 8-10,000 word chapter to write, with the primary research completed and organized, you should be able to produce a chapter draft in a month. 8,000 words/30 days is only 267 words per day. Or, if you’d like 2 days off per week (following the Any Good Thing Challenge), is only 364 words per day (but write at least 400 for the challenge). Set a word count goal per day, plus other assigned tasks (editing, finding sources, reviewing literature, etc.). It’s not really a secret. The best way to get writing done is to write. See my tips here. In other words, have your big deadline (one week before your manuscript submission date), individual chapter deadlines, and then micro-deadlines for each chapter. Give 5-7 days between each chapter deadline to allow for additional edits, elaboration, etc.

Remember that this is only the first draft. You want to produce quality work, yes, but you also need to finish your manuscript. A draft is the beginning and can be revised. An empty Word doc cannot. Don’t become so worried about the final product that it halts your writing. The more that you write, the more that you will learn about your project and gain confidence in creating the manuscript.

What if you don’t make your deadline?

Don’t allow one missed deadline to sabotage your project. If life truly gets in the way, then you’ll need to do extra to get back on track. Reevaluate your daily goals for just that chapter so that you can catch up before you miss the next deadline.

If you come to a point in which you do need to ask for an extension, be upfront and polite in asking your editor about pushing back the deadline. Only ask once though. Presses have deadlines too and your project is part of their production schedule.

The Timeline Beyond the Timeline

As I will cover in a future post, completing your manuscript is really just the first (HUGE) step toward a finished product. When you submit your manuscript, definitely celebrate the accomplishment! Know that it’s only the beginning of revisions, proofs, cover design and other steps. Then again, you’ve come this far so you can get the rest done!

How do I get started on a book project?

A colleague recently asked me this question, prompting my post. I’m assuming you have an idea and that you are a good person to do the project you have in mind.

Prep Questions

  1. Have you conducted research in this area before? It would be difficult to write a book on something completely out of your area. If you are breaking into a new sub-discipline, you may want to start with conference papers and journal articles to get a handle on the literature, method, terminology, and other aspects.
  2. Have you published on this topic? If so, do you plan to use published articles as chapters in your book? It’s great to begin a project with a few chapters semi-completed. You will need to get permission for the reprint. Do note that most presses want mostly original content. I recommend not having more than 3-4 chapters based on articles. Exceptions exist, of course.
  3. Is this the right time for you to write a book? As I wrote in my “Book Contract” post, unless you are in a field that requires books, I advise waiting until after tenure to seriously focus on such a time-consuming endeavor.
  4. Did a meeting with an acquisitions editor prompt you to think about writing a book? If so, really consider (as in #3) if this is the right time for you and the right press. Know that you don’t have to go with that particular press unless you’ve signed a contract.

More Prep Work

Before you are ready to completely plunge in, spend time doing your pre-research research for the book. Look over related books, noting style, archives used (if applicable), existing literature, and presses that published on similar topics. Identify people that may be helpful to your project and speak with them. I also recommend seeking a book-writing mentor: someone who has successfully written books before and is willing to offer guidance.

Throughout this time, take plenty of notes, including lists of literature to consult and ideas about your book as they come.

Planning Out Your Book

This is my favorite stage. In fact, I think I write books because I enjoy planning them out so much. Before you approach a press, you need to have a clear idea of what your book will cover and accomplish. Figure out the answers to the following questions. My answers for my epidemics book are in red.

  • What is the conceptual question that drives your book? “How have media products constructed epidemics, both in the moment and in collective memory?”
  • What will its purpose be? “To study all media content available during a particular epidemic, as well as depictions of a disease in contemporary media.”
  • What will your book accomplish that others haven’t? (In other words, how will your book fit the gap in the literature)? Existing books either focused on a media coverage during one particular epidemic or broadly addressed epidemics without giving much attention to media. My book, then, was the first to examine media various roles across epidemics.
  • What are the parameters for the book? What will be included? What won’t be? I took a case-study approach and selected 7 epidemics in American history that were significant for different reasons. Each had a local focus. I did not include international coverage or epidemics outside of the seven selected.

Next, sketch out a Table of Contents for the chapters. Don’t worry about chapter titles, just the topic. Consider how broad you would like to be and what resources you would need to successfully write this book.

On the Timeline

How much time do you realistically need? Book manuscripts can be very time-consuming to write. And it’s not just about writing the book. Conducting the primary research can take months or years, as you take pages and pages of notes. I will do a separate post on breaking down the timeline. In general, though, after the primary research is done, I would allow at least a month per chapter, plus two months for editing/additional work.

What needs to get done before seeking a press

If an acquisitions editor has approached you, great! Skip the next few lines (but know that you’ll have to complete these steps anyway). Assuming you don’t have a specific press, don’t seek a contract until you have sketched out answers to the above questions and written at least one sample chapter. Although book proposals differ by press, they all contain variations of the planning questions that I listed. Don’t waste your time on a proposal yet. Instead, spend time crafting a quality sample chapter or two. I recommend writing the introductory chapter and one chapter that demonstrates the style and content of the bulk of the book. Have 1-2 friends give you feedback on your materials.

Once you have your scope, purpose, parameters, ToC, and 1-2 sample chapters, then you can move to the “book contract stage.” I’ve outlined it here.

Writing a book is a stressful, all-encompassing journey, but it’s also really fulfilling. There is nothing like the first time you see your manuscript published as a real book.

Me with my first book, Television and Health Responsibility in an Age of Individualism.