Sheepish book writing

A few years back I started fleshing out some old blog posts. Blogging is a great way to start a conversation and explore ideas, but it obviously favours short and snappy ideas and not long-winded explorations of complex ideas.

I had some ideas about my own research work and about science more broadly that I felt hadn’t been adequately explored in short blog posts. Also, when I was spring cleaning my blog, I noticed that many posts were connected in ways that I hadn’t noticed at the time I wrote them.

My new work habit came easily. I began waking early and writing for an hour or so in the morning quiet before beginning my usual daily routine. At first, words tumbled out easily, coalescing around ideas. I was really enjoying writing freely and wanted to give myself license to spend more time and mental energy focused on writing.

That November, I allowed myself to participate in Academic Writing Month (#acwrimo). I continued with my core research, but set some ambitious goals and loosened my ‘no weekend work’ policy.  By the end of the month, I was surprised to find that I had over 50,000 words written down.

I was still too unsure to name my writing activities, but I was writing a book. Some time before, I had carved out a plan, including chapter ideas and titles. But I was nervous and uncertain and told very few people what I was working on.

Book writing isn’t a standard activity for research scientists. While social scientists often aim to write their PhD theses into a book, scientists tend to shun books and instead read and write academic papers. Long form writing isn’t usually necessary to communicate scientific results, which can be disseminated in a paper, or possibly multiple related papers.

And so I kept quiet and I kept writing until the following year when I had an early draft. I sheepishly shared my draft with a few close friends for general comments. I was wracked with nerves and oscillated between thinking I should junk the whole damn thing and feeling obstinately driven to push on.

I didn’t have a plan for what I wanted to do with the book or any idea about how to go about publishing a book. But some positive feedback from my friends encouraged me to push on. After a few months with the book on the back burner, I returned to look at it with fresh eyes and set some time aside to give my rambling ideas a hard pruning.

It was crunch time. Either I pushed the book forward or I let it go once and for all. I decided to get serious. I researched the publishing process, shortlisted publishers that I thought would be a good fit for my manuscript and asked advice from seasoned book writers.

One generous academic friend shared his successful book proposal with me. It took a lot of time and thought, but I wrote up my ideas into a proposal, containing sample materials, information about length and style and the potential market. I drafted an email to my preferred publisher and couldn’t bring myself to press send. Eventually, my girlfriend made me.

The editor responded rapidly. She was interested but requested some tweaks before sending the proposal out to review. Time passed and the project was pushed to the back of my mind by more pressing teaching and research commitments until reviews came back.

The reviewer was fantastic and had clearly given the project considerable thought. They had some excellent specific suggestions about framing and some general encouraging. Before I could get my head around it, I had signed a contract and agreed to a tight deadline for turning around the manuscript.

I could not longer pretend I was just fooling around with some exploratory writing. I sat down and wrote a firm timeline, taking me up to my deadline, including time for editing and generous buffers for the obligatory disasters along the way. I then booked in 2 weeks of leave to get my head back into the writing mode, and blocked out a chunk of time in my calendar for just before the deadline.

For the most part, writing was enjoyable. The time spent on the proposal was an excellent investment, not just in securing a contract but acting as a guide. When I got myself confused about what I was writing about or why it provided a map that showed me that way to clarity. I had two excellent voluntary editors* who helped tighten all the loose threads and sloppy language. They also reassured me when I had regular and paralysing bouts of doubt that there was value in what I was doing.

Nonetheless, the few weeks before the deadline were stressful. I was nervous about how my book would be received and whether the editor would be unpleasantly surprised about what I was submitting. I woke often, stressed about whether I’d added a reference or a clarifying sentence. Eventually, everything locked itself into place and I submitted my manuscript. We are now in the editing stage of production, and my book should be published in the first half of this year.

The process took several years, but mostly because it started as loose intellectual meanderings, because I was filled with doubt about myself and my ideas, and because I only prioritised the work in the last couple of months. But it was a rewarding experience and my editor and her assistant have been brilliant.

My book reflects on my experiences of practicing as a climate scientist and discusses the ways in which the practice of science has changed over time. While this is somewhat peripheral to my everyday research and has prompted some gentle surprise from colleagues, writing a book gave me the space to explore broader ideas in a more reflective manner. This wouldn’t have been possible writing research papers.

In summary, if you are keen to explore broader or deeper ideas, a book provides an excellent and enjoyable medium for doing so. But in my experience, it also requires finding confidence in your ideas, good friends, time and persistence.

* i.e. My girlfriend and her eagle-eyed mother.


3 thoughts on “Sheepish book writing

  1. Loved this post, Sophie! Very glad you wrote it – and the book! – and I think you’re so right. Having the extended logic of a book in which to lay out concepts and theoretical developments (as well as cite relevant examples / case studies in relevant and nuanced ways) is so important to scholarship in any field. The driven-to-articles nature of much of our current publishing climate, even accounting for disciplinary variables, is skewing the kind of thinking work that’s happening (and, obviously, considered valuable). Speaking from the humanities areas, one good book could take around 4-5 years to research/write/develop. Scholars still do this, but it’s often under a cloud of wondering whether it’s ‘worth it’ (metrics-wise, for career and performance reviews, etc). For ECRs, it’s a big question when your track-record is regularly under scrutiny because of frequent fixed-term or sessional appointments. Hmmm. Maybe I should #tabit!

    • Thanks for the encouragement! I doubt it is ‘worth it’ in terms of metrics, career assessment etc. But definitely worth it in terms of my own scholarly/intellectual development.

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