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.

How. . . ? A Post of Questions

The Wallypug of Why, by G. E. Farrow, illustrations by Harry Furniss and Dorothy Furniss, 1895.

The farther that we get into this [what do we call it? And to what am I referring? Pandemic? Isolation? “Crisis-schooling?”], the more that my thoughts are filled with questions and not answers. Thus, I am launching into a cathartic list of my current uncertainties. Some of these questions (concerns, issues?] have answers, but are they the right ones? Other current mysteries will be resolved soon [by me? Others? No one?].

  1. If/when we do this reopening [or as?], how do we do it? Who should go? Where can we go? What is okay? What is not? How do we balance safety with a need to take care of certain things [and what are those things?]? If wearing a mask is for other people’s protection, why do other people get to decide the level at which I am protected?
  2. Why won’t my kids go to sleep so I can write my post?
  3. How do we keep doing the impossible balance of caring for children and working from home? Who gets the short end of the stick? Or is it a regular stick with so many branches that it is the tree that suffers? When can a sliver of uninterrupted time become a regular expectation and not a moment of luxury?
  4. At what point can we acknowledge that online learning at any stage is not the same as an in-person experience [or did I just do that?]?
  5. Is it okay to admit that this time of isolation is hard, even though we are safe and healthy?
  6. What does the future hold? For my kids? For my students? For everyday life? Will I get to enjoy my office in the Fall, especially the chocolates I left on my desk? Why did I leave them there when I need them here more?
  7. When will we reach a point in which we can stop contextualizing everything with [COVID-19, “this weird time,” “the current situation”]?
  8. As someone who has studied epidemics, should I have more answers?
  9. How will this pandemic end? When? In how many waves? With how many lost?
  10. When will we move beyond this crisis? Will we remember? How do we make sure that generations after us know about these experiences?

Why We Need Journalism More Than Ever

Until the number of U.S. cases and deaths recently skyrocketed, many people have been dismissive of encroaching pandemic. A Pew Research survey from the week of March 10-16 showed that 37% of the 8,914 adult participants believed that media greatly exaggerated the risks of coronavirus. Perceptions of media coverage have varied by the amount of news and the specific source primarily consumed. As the tides are tragically turning, with cases skyrocketing in the U.S., this is not a time to criticize or dismiss messages, nor clump all outlets and content into a faceless “Big Brother” media entity.

I’m not advocating that we heed all advice, especially the (mis)information spread by social media. What I mean is that we need to stop demonizing journalists and recognize that we have never needed them more. If we’re lucky enough to be stuck at home, professional and citizen journalists are our link to local, national, and international information. Without our own eyes and ears in the world, we must rely on others to tell us what is going on, especially when the stakes are so high.

To keep reporting and producing media content during an outbreak is an act of bravery. In 1793, Andrew Brown was the only printer to keep producing his daily newspaper throughout the yellow fever epidemic. In an era centuries before computers, the Federal Gazette became the only means of informing and connecting the people of Philadelphia.

While we certainly have an abundance of choices now, it doesn’t make the work less dangerous. Journalism is an essential service. As Chris Kieffer wrote in this letter of appreciation to the staff of the Daily Journal of Tupelo, Mississippi, “Great reporting and photography can’t be done from a safe ‘social distance.’” Reporters have already become sick on the job. And yet, our focus has largely been on criticizing this risky work.

Instead, we should be supporting journalists and producers of media content at this critical time. We need to recognize the value of all people who continue to work to make our society function. Without credible media sources to turn to, we won’t know how the pandemic is impacting lives outside of our own bubbles (which are quite small these days). We won’t know who needs help or ways to help from afar. We won’t know what to do if we have symptoms or where to go. And, without news, we won’t know when the crisis finally subsides and life can return to our new normal.

Social media is great for connecting with friends and family, but it is not a substitute for local, national, and international news content. Recognize the value of those producing content so that most of us can have the luxury of staying home and the benefit of learning through media channels when it is once again safe to experience life first-hand once more.

The Book Contract Process

contract header

Before we proceed, complete the following checklist:

I certify that I

  • have tenure and/or in a field that requires books
  • am a self-driven person who meets deadlines
  • realize that my work is imperfect and will need revisions
  • may not have a ton of control over some of the book’s aspects
  • likely will not yield enough profit from this book to take a vacation or retire
  • can wait 2-3 years to see the finished product

Okay, now that you’ve passed the test, we can continue onto the content. How do you get a book contract for an academic book? I’m assuming you already have a great idea and some of the manuscript written. You don’t need to have the whole book done, but write at least two sample chapters. You also need to understand the scope and target audience before you start seeking a publisher. How to write a book will need to be a separate post.

  1. Do your research, part 1. Talk to your mentor, friends, and other authors about their books. You can ask to see sample query letters and proposals. Find out which presses they used and if they had positive experiences.
  2. Do your research, part 2. Study presses that produce series or individual books related to your subject area. Think about the best fit for your book, as well as the ranking of the press. On each of the websites for the presses, look at submission guidelines and elements to include. I like to make a spreadsheet of potential presses, with contact information. At the same time, determine which presses NOT to submit your work. A publisher that only produces poetry is not going to start churning out books on 19th century carpentry just because you submit a proposal.
  3. Send a query email to the appropriate editor. Do not send a proposal without an editor requesting it first (unless the press website specifically says to do so). It is a waste of your time and theirs. Instead, create a query letter/email that states who you are, the tentative title, an abstract, why you think it would make a good fit and your proposed timeline. Identify the acquisitions editor at each press and address the email to that person. This is your first interaction with this press so keep it formal, confident and humble. You may send query emails to multiple presses at the same time.
    Three things may happen:

    • You never hear a response. It’s frustrating, but it’s life. Move on.
    • You get a quick “thanks, but no thanks.” Do not take it personally. For all you know, the editor may have just signed a contract on a similar topic.
    • An editor expresses interest and asks for a proposal [this is the response you want].
  4. Prepare your materials. Before you send queries or as you await responses, start writing a sample proposal. Each press has its own format/questions/section areas (which is why you wait to send proposals upon request). That said, for every prospective book, you’ll need to figure out the following components:
    • A tentative title
    • An abstract
    • The scope of the project
    • The audience(s) for your book
    • A tentative Table of Contents and chapter summaries
    • Possible courses for the book to be used as a text
    • 3-4 potential reviewers
    • A proposed timeline for completion. BE REALISTIC. If you are more than 1.5-2 years out, wait to send the query and work on the book. (Some presses do grant advanced contracts to established authors).
    • 1-2 sample chapters. I always include the first chapter.
  5. Send in only the requested materials. DO NOT ADD ANYTHING ELSE.
  6. Wait patiently. Different presses have different processes/hierarchies for publication.
  7. Read the editor’s response (see above) and make your next move. If it’s a “no thanks,” query more presses. If you are given a contract, hooray! Contract negotiation is beyond the scope of this post, but read it carefully, ask questions, and have your mentor or another author also read it and give you advice.

Good luck! This is just the beginning—kind of like locating a hiking trail, parking your car next to it, and lacing up your boots before you head down the path.

trail

Tips for Writing Success

Computer

How do you become a productive writer? How do you finish a thesis/book/journal article/poem/other piece of writing?

Over the years, I’ve pondered these questions and employed various strategies to effectively start and finish! different writing projects. I don’t have just one answer and I fully realize that writing is very personal. What works for me may not work for you. That said, I’ve read the popular guides on effective writing and have participated in writing partnerships, groups, and retreats so I will offer some advice.

Tips for Writing Success

1. You can’t write well if you don’t feel well. Establish healthy routines in other aspects of your life. Even if you are in thesis/dissertation mode, you should still be sleeping, eating, and exercising regularly.

2. You don’t need a lot of time to write. Aim small. It’s better to have 1-2 hours of quality writing than 4 hours in which you just stare into space and pretend to write. I have two kids and can be really busy. I write in short time blocks all the time.

3. Have a strategy to help you focus. Like everyone else, I sometimes struggle with motivation. Creating a clear goal helps me get back on track. There are many different approaches (I’ve tried them all). You can set a timer for 30 minutes (write, 5 minute break, repeat), aim for a word count, or use other means to get yourself to turn off social media and get the job done. Some people like to establish section objectives for themselves, such as writing a specific paragraph before they do other tasks. Whatever works for you–just stick to it.

4. Don’t hesitate to work in unusual places.  I try to utilize my time, which often means I take out my laptop and write. I have worked at the Toyota dealership, karate school, the ham store, a doctor’s office, and other odd work spaces. Make the most of small windows of time.

5.Recognize that writing is a process. You will rarely write the perfect draft the first time around. Write, revise, write, revise. Getting some words down is the first step to a finished manuscript.

6.Write in stages. Depending on my mood, primary research conducted, and state of the current draft, I focus on different levels of writing, so to speak. Sometimes I write from a macro perspective, outlining my draft, or do free-flowing brainstorming to get started, bolding parts of my manuscript that can be filled in later. Other times I work on the nitty-gritty details, adding sources and smoothing out word choices and transitions. My point is that writing doesn’t have to be linear. You need a clear outline and a plan, but you can switch between the big picture and the building blocks (or as my adviser used to say, between the “forest” and the “trees”).

7.Never stop writing. The more you write, the better you become at writing.  Have a plan for your upcoming work. If you are writing your thesis, you should know what your next objectives/chapters. As my other amazing adviser once told me, tenure-track folks should aim to have projects at each stage of the writing process. This might seem like a lot. However, if you have a solid plan and you get moving, it is very doable.
Stages of Writing Peer-reviewed Journal Articles
1. Idea
2. Conducting research/writing the manuscript
[Presenting paper at conference]
3. Revise & resubmit/under review at a journal
4. Forthcoming
5. Published

8. Always meet your deadlines. I’m ending these tips with the big one. Be honest with yourself and prioritize writing to meet your deadlines. There will always be demands on your time. Recognize this and work writing into meeting your other obligations. Effective writing behavior combined with adherence to deadlines are the keys to finishing your manuscripts.

There you have it. I don’t have a magic potion for writing, nor am I a perfect writer. I choose projects that I find interesting and worthwhile, set deadlines for myself, and almost always meet those deadlines. Good luck!

The Art of Revisions

As you revise your thesis, remember that your adviser is trying to work with you to produce the best possible product. Be mindful of your adviser’s time. This means that you should give your adviser ample days to read and comment. It also means that you need to make all of the requested revisions before you send your thesis in for more comments.

The Revision Process
When you revise a draft with feedback, I recommend the following steps:
1. Take a deep breath and remember that your adviser is trying to help you.
2. Skim the feedback, but do not start making changes.
3. Create a revision plan for yourself.
4. First, make the easy changes. Go through any “Tracked Changes” and “Accept” (and, as needed, send quick clarification questions if you don’t understand a tracked change).
5. Then address easy-to-fix comments (like adding a year or fixing a typo).
6. Now move to the big edits, making sure to address each one.
7. Proofread your new draft and check citation formatting.
8. Create a quick list for the body of your email that explains the changes that you made.
9. Send in your revised draft with the list of changes made.
10. Thank your adviser.

If your adviser seems slow in responding, it is perfectly fine to email after 5 days or so, checking in about your latest draft.

What’s in a thesis proposal?

The thesis proposal is your first step toward finishing your thesis.  It should give your committee an overview of what you intend to do, supported by the justification, background, literature review, and theoretical framework for your proposed study. It is not a “preview” of your findings/results.

Proposal Components (*note: these may vary a bit by project & thesis chair)

  1. Introduction
  2. Statement of purpose
  3. Justification for the study
  4. Background for the study
  5. Literature Review
  6. Theoretical Framework
  7. Method
    1. Research Questions or Hypotheses
    2. Methodology
    3. Sample
    4. Operationalization (how you will conduct the research)

Library

What is the process?

Manuscript

“Dr. Foss, I would like to finish this semester.”

I love to read or hear this statement.  But how does one finish? More importantly, does the person making this declaration understand what finishing entails.  (See here for MTSU dates and formatting information Thesis and Dissertation Guidelines).

The general process for writing your master’s thesis

  1. Brainstorm a few projects that suit your interests, strengths, and program.  Meet with your adviser and identify the project.
  2. Develop a statement of purpose and an outline of the project.
  3. Ask faculty to serve on your committee.
  4. Work on the proposal, making sure that you and your adviser are on the same page.
  5. Submit the IRB paperwork, if applicable.
  6. Send a draft of your proposal to your thesis chair/adviser.
  7. While you are waiting for feedback, work on other aspects of the thesis (i.e. setting up your study or gathering materials).
  8. When you receive feedback, revise accordingly, addressing every comment and suggestion. You will very likely have several rounds of revision.
  9. Defend your proposal.
  10. Conduct your primary research and write up your analysis.
  11. Send the findings/results and discussion to your thesis chair.
  12. While you wait for feedback, revise the first half of the thesis.
  13. When you receive feedback, revise, revise, revise–addressing every change. Repeat the revision cycle as needed.
  14. With your chair and committee, set up the defense.
  15. Defend your thesis. Bring copies of the signature form.
  16. Revise the thesis per the committee’s suggestions.
  17. Submit your thesis to Graduate Studies, following all of the university guidelines.

The Introduction: How do I start this thing?

Writing the introduction to your thesis can feel difficult. You want to grab the reader’s attention, set up your big question or driving purpose, and sound academic all at the same time. You want to give enough info about your topic without giving everything away.  So how do you do it?

I recommend writing the introduction after you’ve shaped the other parts of the proposal.  You’ll have a better grasp on the literature and understand how your project fits in.  It will also seem less daunting.

Some Approaches for the Introduction
I will use media representations of breastfeeding as the sample topic to show different approaches.

  • An event related to your thesis topic or that spurred the inspiration for your topic “In 2012, hundreds of mothers gathered on the lawn of Capitol Hill for the Great Nurse-In, a rally to celebrate breastfeeding.”
  • Legislation that dramatically impacts your thesis topic.                                                  “A mother’s right to breastfeed in public is protected by law in 49 states.”
  • Statistics about your thesis topic.                                                                                      “Although 81.1% of  U.S. women attempt to breastfeed, only 44.4% are exclusively nursing at three months.”
  • An example from news or entertainment on your topic–USE THIS SPARINGLY IF YOUR THESIS ANALYZES MEDIA (more below).                                                              “In the Game of Thrones episode “The Wolf and the Lion,” Lady Lysa Arryn openly nurses her school-age son, a groundbreaking moment due to the visual aesthetics and child’s age.”

Avoid These Pitfalls

  • Using cheesy generalized expressions “Since the dawn of time, women have been breastfeeding.”
  • Writing your introduction like an abstract “This study explores media representations of breastfeeding”–You will make a statement like this, but not yet. Introduce your topic first.
  • Describing your stream of consciousness and/or writing informally “When I think of breastfeeding in the media, I wonder. . . .”
  • Using media examples from your primary sources–i.e. for a study on TV’s representations of breastfeeding, I would not start the thesis with the Game of Thrones reference above.
  • Taking too much space to get to your statement of purpose.  The introduction should be concise and used as a stepping stone to the heart of your thesis.

It’s fine to try out a few approaches. When I wrote my dissertation, I had several files with different openings.  Remember, your introduction can change as you move from the proposal to the thesis.

Good luck!

From the Intro to the Statement of Purpose: Making the Transition

Toddler bed

This part is like the toddler bed (for non-parents, the step between a crib and a regular bed. Note the little railing).

So how do you create the bridge between the introduction and the statement of purpose? As discussed in my last post, your introduction broadly sets up your topic.  Within 1-1.5 pages, you need to get to your project.  In other words, this is not the place for pages of background.
Start with the problem/statistics/event/anecdote (rarely) for the introduction and then move to your study using 1-2 sentences to set up the gap in the literature. For a study related to media, this transitional part likely brings in media.
Here’s an outline using breastfeeding in media as the sample topic:

I. Case of woman being ridiculed for breastfeeding in public (as posted on Facebook)
II. Breastfeeding is protected by law
III. Gap between legal protection and public support–likely influenced by negative media representations
IV. Statement of purpose about exploring media’s influence on perceptions of public breastfeeding

Notice how the sections flow to each other and set up the current study?  All of this is on page one (and backed by scholarly literature, of course :)).

Remember that you need to quickly and clearly established what you are doing and why.