why write book chapters

I like writing book chapters. If you look at my publications – well I don’t mean you to do this literally – but IF you did, you’d see that I’ve written quite a lot of them. In the last month I’ve been sent two books which I’ve got chapters in, I’m expecting another collection as well as some chapter proofs any day – and I’m just starting on writing a chapter. So I really do think they’re OK.

The reason I like writing chapters is because they (generally) offer different opportunities for academic writing from the stock-in-trade journal article.

For a start, you can assume with a book chapter that you don’t have to convince readers that the topic you’re writing about is important. The editors are going to do that in the foreword. They are also likely to do a pretty thorough survey of the field, and to cover its history. So you don’t have to do that kind of literature work in a chapter, unless it is one about the literature ( see below). You just have to situate your own position and indicate the literatures that you draw on and to which you are talking/contributing.

And I reckon you can often be more creative as a writer in a chapter.

Not all book chapters are the same of course. There are different kinds of edited books which require different kinds of writing and different kinds of creaivity.

There are for example overtly pedagogical texts written for under- and post- graduate courses. The writing challenge here is quite different from a journal article – the reader is a learner, and the job of the chapter writer is to teach them about something. The writing must therefore be clear, engaging, the content well scaffolded; there may also be a need for examples, exercises and annotated bibliographies – perhaps even online links. It takes imagination and innovation in order to present instructional material so that it anticipates questions and answers them.

Then there are the chapters in international handbooks which set out to provide a state-of-the-art review of the field. The challenge here is not only to present a survey which identifies key debates, challenges and trends, but also to construct and argue for a future agenda – all the while not sending the reader to sleep with an excess of authors and titles and dates.

And there are topic based edited collections which aim to deliberately offer a variety of perspectives, to explore and to debate important questions. This is where the writer is most likely to be able to negotiate with the editor/s about a creative response. This is because topic-based edited collections often benefit from having variations as they keep readers moving through the text. So there is room for writerly manoeuvre. I have for example contributed chapters which are photo essays, multi-voiced accounts, auto-ethnographic words and images, heavily edited interview transcripts and variously structured narratives.

These kinds of chapters are the ones I most enjoy writing. It’s not that you can’t play with the journal structure, you can if you choose your journal carefully, and if you argue your case. But you generally don’t have to work so hard on this with the edited book. Provided the editor is up for some variation in the collection, you can think pretty creatively about how to present your material.

You can of course exercise the same kind of creativity in a whole book – but it is a much more challenging task. A book chapter is a good way in to alternative modes of academic writing. It’s a place where you can think and do much more about the WRITING aspect of academic writing. It’s a place to focus directly on the reader rather than primarily on the referees. It’s a place to practice and develop the craft of authoring.

So, that’s why I like writing book chapters….which I’m now about to get back to.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, authorship, chapter, creative writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to why write book chapters

  1. Thank you for this. Very useful and interesting as ever. I wonder if you could say a bit more about what we frequently hear, i.e. that book chapters aren’t as ‘good’ for a CV as journal articles?
    thank you


  2. Michael Wilson says:

    I’m working on a book chapter right now and I’m having a hard time finding my voice outside of the usual academic writing style. I want to be precise but they want lively and accessible for a well informed audience. Any tips?


  3. Len says:

    Thanks for writing this. I am about to commence my 2nd book chapter ever. I was not sure about the differences between a book chapter and an academic paper. My first chapter is probably a combination of both. However, as i now see it, one is free to be a bit more expressive and ambitious (dreamy and ambitious?) in a book chapter as opposed to the more closely-focused journal article?


    • pat thomson says:

      You need to negotiate with the editor any radical departures from the norm, but if just more relaxed and expressive IRS likely to be welcomed


      • Ali Balador says:

        I need to say thank you to you. But if it is possible, please explain the differences between journal papers and book chaperts. I’ve read your posts regarding to different academic writing but I didn’t find any clear difference between journal article and book chapter. Actually, I’ve written different journal and conference paper in my field but now I am just starting to write a book chapter but I don’t know what are the new challenges in writing a book chapter than a journal paper.


      • pat thomson says:

        Ill try to do that in the next couple of weeks.


  4. onky says:

    So how do you find editors for your book chapter? Do they normally come to you and ask? Or do you write a bookchapter and propose it then? Or are there calls for contributions?
    As a PhD student, do I have a chance to get a book chapter in?


    • pat thomson says:

      Occasionally editors will put out a call for possible contributions but Im afraid mostly they just ask people. The best thing to do is to talk to your supervisor first of all about who they know they is editing books or journals in your area.


  5. M-H says:

    I’ve recently contributed chapters to two books which are of the creative type, and I’ve really enjoyed writing them. The purpose of one book is to orientate clinical health workers to university teaching, and our chapter is called “Sally goes to Uni”. I wrote a fictional narrative “Sally was really nervous before her first lecture…” and a co-writer wrote some very focused theory about teaching with technology, then we layered these together with a reflective narrative. It was certainly more enjoyable than labouring over journal articles.


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  13. Thank you. I’ve been invited to write a 4000-6000 word paper for a chapters in an edited collection international handbook and found your article very helpful.

    So, if I’ve understood correctly, Handbooks tend to concentrate on reviewing rather than adding to the research? However, my research review will not merely summarize the literature, but also move the conversation along by making recommendations, building a new concept, or suggesting further research avenues.

    Also if you could kindly clarify if citation within the paper is acceptable and Apa referencing is okay?

    Thanks a lot.


    • pat thomson says:

      Some handbooks are reviews. Others try to create a new knowledge base. It depends which one you’ve been asked to contribute to. I am guessing the Editors know roughly what you’ll do which is why they asked you. Each publisher has their own referencing style. Your handbook editor should send you instructions about word count, referencing style, number of citations etc. If they don’t, ask them, as it will be specific to their proposal and the publisher.


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