Monday, June 22, 2020

Ten Reasons You Shouldn’t Write a Book (And One Reason You Should)

Guest post by Claire Sewell, Research Support Skills Coordinator, Cambridge University Library and author of "The No-Nonsense Guide to Research Support and Scholarly Communication" published by Facet Publishing

When I was asked to write a book on research support skills for librarians I jumped at the chance. A recent change in my personal circumstances meant that I was looking for a project to get stuck into and it also seemed like a good way to consolidate the work I’d been doing for the past few years. It’s fair to say that I was overly ambitious with timescales and what I’d anticipated taking just short of a year actually took closer to two. Below, I’ve brought together some of the lessons I learnt over those two years in the type of post I wish I’d read before I agreed to write the book. Please don’t let the title fool you - it’s written with tongue firmly in cheek! It’s also important to note that these are my experiences and they may not reflect the experiences of others.

  1. Writing a book will take longer than you think. Deadlines can become pretty meaningless when writing a book. I’ve written many different things over the last few years and I usually stick pretty firmly to deadlines so going this far over was a stressful experience. When writing a book and deciding on timescales it’s important to build in extra time for when life gets in the way. If you don’t end up using it you will submit your manuscript early but it’s always good to give yourself a bit more headspace.
  2. You will want to give up. At least twice. Books are longer than almost all forms of writing, especially when you’re producing the majority of the content yourself. They take a lot of motivation to complete and there will be many, many times when you feel like you can’t do it. The key is to set small, achievable goals rather than tackling the whole thing at once. For example, divide your chapters into short sections and set one of those as your task for the week. Over time you'll find that you build up into a manuscript without even realising it.
  3. It (probably) won’t be part of your day job. Even if you’re writing about what you do all day, your employer isn’t likely to consider it a work project which means you will have to work on it in your own time. Of course, this isn’t the same for everyone and some people will be granted permission or some form of study leave but it’s a good idea to find out how your workplace will react before you agree to deadlines. Writing about work in your own time is especially draining (as anyone who has written an LIS thesis will confirm) as it means no real break. Try to factor in plenty of writing downtime and perhaps leave the project aside for a few days here and there. This is especially important if you’ve had a bad day at work. Taking breaks will help you to feel refreshed and will speed up the writing process in the long run.
  4. You won’t become a millionaire. Depending on your publication agreement you may get a percentage of the sales but it’s unlikely to be enough for you to quit your day job. It’s important to remember that you don’t get into academic publishing for the money (as many researchers will confirm for you!). Instead, think about your broader motivations: to enhance your career, share your knowledge and gain new skills. These goals will help you to focus when things get tough and you wonder why you ever started this project in the first place!
  5. You may experience a backlash. This is especially true if you work promoting open access (as I do). I thought long and hard about accepting the offer to publish with a ‘traditional’ publisher before agreeing and decided that I was prepared to accept some criticism in order to publish formally and gain that experience. Whatever you write and however you publish you will face criticism, some justified and some less so. You have to develop a bit of a thick skin and learn not to take it too personally. It’s best to offer a polite response or just disengage completely. Take care of yourself both during and after the publication process and don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need to.
  6. Once you have spent months perfecting your manuscript you will submit it and have to start all over again. OK, so not completely from scratch but it might feel like it. Your editor has the job of turning your ramblings into something people will actually want to read and they will have lots of questions about what you meant in some sections and whether you could rephrase others. It can sometimes be hard to take comments on something that’s likely to be your final draft but remember that this is the first draft for an editor and they only want to help. Editors are truly the unsung heroes of the book writing process and they will add so much to your work through constructive criticism. Treat it as a learning process and you will be a better writer with a better book.
  7. Even if you are lucky enough to be approached by a publisher you shouldn’t expect special treatment. I had a long discussion with a commissioning editor but I still had to submit a formal proposal like any other author. To some this might feel like a pointless process but it was an important step for me to really think about and formalise my ideas into something suitable for a book. If you’re thinking of writing something I would suggest looking at examples of proposal forms online and answering the questions based on your idea. It’s a great learning process and you never know where it might lead...
  8. You will have to leave out a lot of what you wanted to say. Even though it seems like you’ll struggle to fill 70,000 words you'll be surprised at how fast it goes and how much you’ll have to cut. I certainly had to make some hard choices about what I wanted to include and what needed to go. This process really forced me to think about what the audience would need to know rather than just everything I wanted to tell them. I can always save the rest for volume two!
  9. People will actually produce public reviews of your work. And other people will actually read them. Of course, people can comment about all types of writing online but there’s something about a formal review that gives me nightmares! At the time of writing I haven’t yet read one but I’m sure it will happen soon. I’m sure they will be balanced when they do appear and I need to get better at accepting criticism so when it does happen it will be good for me. Top tip for novice writers: writing book reviews is actually a good way to get started in publishing your own work and you usually get to keep the book (you don’t have to review mine, I promise!).
  10. You will never be 100% happy with your manuscript no matter how long you spend on it and how far past your deadline you go. At some point you will have to follow the wise words of Disney and just let it go. This is true of all types of publication but a book takes up so much of your life that it can be difficult to know what to do once it’s gone. My advice is to treat yourself  - after all what better excuse have you got for a celebration?!

So, that’s the bad news but I wanted to end on a positive note. Having gone through everything outlined above and had more than my share of wobbles I can honestly say that holding the finished book was a great moment which gave me an enormous sense of achievement. It helped to make everything worthwhile and if you’re thinking about writing something I would highly recommend going for it. You never know - it might be the next bestseller!

More information about Claire's book

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