Why Write a Book? How Do You Meet Deadlines? And Other Answers
I'm affiliated with the Ronin Institute, which is an academic community and virtual/remote/distributed organization focused on supporting scholars who don't follow the conventional academic path. Recently, some of us formed a women's interest group, in which we meet monthly to discuss professional development, work/life balance, and other issues we face as independent women scholars.
This month's meeting focused on books. Several of us are currently writing books (here's mine on thriving in grad school while maintaining a healthy personal life). Several others are interested in the book writing process. Everyone helped brainstorm questions prior to the meeting; we used these questions to guide the conversation.
Here are some of my answers!
How do you develop ideas for your books and how do you narrow the topic, especially if you have several books you’d like to write?
I have many ideas for books. When deciding which to write first, I asked: Does the topic feel timely? Can I do justice to it now, or do I need to let the ideas sit longer to get the book right? Do the ideas feel urgent and exciting?
My first book is a practical guide to grad school. I was highly motivated to work on it first, since I had just come out of the trenches, balancing a baby with PhD work, defending my dissertation while pregnant, choosing a non-conventional academic path. My grad school experience was still near the forefront of my mind. I wanted to reach out to other grad students to help them find their way and their own balance—and let them know that no, you don't have to have tenure before you have kids.
When is the right time to write a book?
Write a book when you're ready to write a book. When your ideas are bigger than a blog post or an academic article. When it feels like the right next step.
Why a book and not something else?
I chose a book for two reasons. First, I enjoy writing, so putting my ideas into a written format of some kind is a natural direction to take for me—as opposed to a podcast or video series, for instance. Second, my primary audience of graduate students and academics tends to read a lot. A book supports the main use case: students who want to easily refer back to this section or that as they make their way through grad school.
If you’re not invited to write a book, do you start the process yourself by writing a proposal and finding a publisher?
Nonfiction books are almost always sold on the strength of a proposal. I wrote a proposal, then I found an agent, and then we found a publisher. For some nonfiction, especially niche academic books that are published with university presses, agents are optional; if you want your book to reach a wider audience or if you're working with a bigger publisher, an agent is almost a necessity.
I'll do a more in-depth post about finding an agent and a publisher later!
How do you come to feel you’re the best person for that book—how do you overcome self-doubt?
Lots of people could write about your topic. Most won't bother. And no one will write about your topic the way you would write it.
Are writing coaches, mentors, or formal training in writing necessary?
Nope. They may be helpful for some people. Definitely not required. All you need is the passion to write and a willingness to improve your craft.
I took the required freshman writing seminar in college (which had as much astronomy and math as it did writing); I took a writing class at the community college before that and wrote a lot as a kid; that's the extent of my formal training.
I read a lot, fiction and nonfiction. I read about writing (read my reviews of Zen in the Art of Writing and Good Prose). I listen to podcasts about writing; one of my favorites is Writing Excuses.
What other skill sets do you need to complete a book project?
Project management and marketing skills wouldn't go amiss!
In what ways do you find book writing different from academic writing in journals or reports?
The style of writing is very different. It's looser, less formal, more engaging. Part of this is because of the kind of books that I am writing; the writing style is closer to a blog post than an academic article.
The time frame and size of the story also impact how the writing feels. Everything needs to connect into the larger narrative of the entire book.
What strategies do you use to manage timelines with caregiving responsibilities?
I write every day. I have a minimum time goal of 20min/day for revising my work in progress, as well as a minimum word count goal of 200 words/day that I use for first drafts (e.g., dictating to my phone).
I write during nap times, after the kids go to sleep at night, and when my husband has all three kids outside. While 20min is my minimum, some days I can get 1-2 hours of continuous writing time in.
The only way to hit my deadlines is to split up the work into small, manageable pieces and to incrementally work towards the larger goal. For example, each chapter has smaller sections within it, so I can tackle just one subsection. I leave comments in my documents with little tasks such as chasing down a citation.
How do you motivate yourself to keep writing?
I like writing. I feel happier when I write regularly. I also care about what I'm writing—I want it to exist! The only way to make it exist is to write it.