book update – on the importance of chapter structure

It’s been a while since I wrote anything about my current book project with Barbara. We are still in the throes of revising the text, turning our incredibly messy first draft into something more readable. But we are up to the last couple of chapters and we hope to have the whole thing ready for its third revision at the beginning of next week. With any luck we will have the completed text off to the publishers at the end of May, or not long after.

This second revision has been pretty major. We already had substantial content in the first draft but when we came to it again, it didn’t hang together in the way that we wanted. We had to find the big organizing idea for the book and then use that to revise.

We’ve had to make two key decisions:

(1) We had to work out a structure that would be roughly the same for each chapter, one that would carry our organising idea through the book without labouring it beyond the possible. We didn’t know at the start we would need to do that. The book is called Detox your writing, and we decided at the start of this  revision to focus each chapter on a common problem that doctoral writers experience. We then offer a reframing idea and a set of strategies that readers can try out to address/redress/interrupt the problem. So our chapter structure is this – Problem, Big Idea, Strategies.

Now, this might seem like a pretty obvious set of moves, and indeed it isn’t rocket science. But we haven’t written our other books using such a strong framing structure. Like most authors, we’ve dealt with each chapter as it comes. We’ve stuck to letting the argument dictate the organisation of the material. But to our surprise, we’ve found that this structure is rather pleasing. It has been helpful to have a frame that we can work with, that we can riff and remix as the material demands.

The pleasure of having an underlying chapter pattern reminds me that the results chapters of a thesis can also be organised using a common framing. A little bit of chapter structure can be a very good thing. While the reader may not be very aware of a commonality in the sequencing of contents, they do get the sense of systematic thinking that structure provides. Having a frame which orders the material can be very helpful, both for the writer and also the reader. It is a Good Thing for doctoral researchers to convey in as many ways as possible that they have been methodolocal in their approach; a consistent but flexible, unobtrusive internal results chapter skeleton can help. 

(2) We had to decide/re-decide what goes where. This actually was our fourth go at getting the material in the right place, sigh. We’ve done some very major re-organising during this revsion. On two occasions we’ve had to work with two chapters at the same time in order to match “the problem” with appropriate strategies. We’ve had to reshuffle the contents of the chapters, cutting and pasting and interleaving the pieces we already had into new chapters. It’s been a bit like working with a patchwork quilt, moving pieces around until we find the best possible arrangement.

Now, our book shuffling and interleaving is not at all dissimilar to the experience of thesis writers. It’s not unusual for a thesis second draft to require some major adjustments in order to get the argument moves in the right order and  avoid overlap. The thesis examiner must be able to follow the steps of the argument in a logical sequence. 

As experienced writers, Barbara and I are not afraid of major revision, and we quite like the challenge of making something better out of an existing draft. However, some thesis writers do get terribly upset when they find they have to do major rethinking, and they opt for a patch-it-up approach, rather than something much more fundamental. Our experience is that the big restructure always pays off  – you own the changes. You decide what has to be done. Revising a thesis or book is not like having a peer reviewer give you a set of things that they think you ought to do. This is you, the writer, deciding for yourself that there’s a need for a rethink.

What’s also interesting for us is that we’ve managed to do all this slashing and burning over long distance. We’ve struggled with distance before and until this book, we thought that we wrote best when we were face to face. However, this time, the writing apart has been more than OK. 

We’ve had weekly skypes where we’ve agreed on the general changes that need to be made to a chapter – or two chapters – and then allocated ourselves weekly tasks. Mostly we’ve worked on one chapter serially throughout the week, Barbara during her day, and me during mine. I’ve got up in England to find what changes she’s done overnight during the Australian daytime. There’s often been a surprise waiting for me, a new twist on an old idea, a chuckle at a turn of phrase. There have also been times when we’ve worked on different chapters, Barbara editing the most recent one, and me starting on the next (or vice versa). Via this talk-and-then-take-turns approach, we’ve been able to make continued progress on the text.

We’ve been able to work collaboratively but apart for a complex mix of reasons. While the chapter structure has undoubtedly helped, we are also very used to working and writing together. We’ve been co-writing for fourteen years. We trust each other’s judgment. So if one of us says “this here doesn’t work”, then the other will stop, listen and think about what the issue might be and how it might be fixed. And we generate a lot of ideas through talking; we are prepared to put in 60-90 minutes a week talking on skype. We know this is how we get things done. We are also forgiving of each other’s schedules and demands and quite often one of us will do a bit more on the weeks when the other has less time to give. We don’t keep score.

I’m already a bit sad to think that this is our last book. But then, Barbara did say that last time and look… Here comes another one.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in Barbara Kamler, book writing, chapter, co-writing, revision and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to book update – on the importance of chapter structure

  1. Mehdi Riazi says:

    Thanks for sharing your reflections on your writings. They’re really interesting, insightful and helpful to think about and to consider in my writing.
    One interesting point from this post which strikes me is that it seems to me that you’ve had a total freedom and flexibility over the content and the structure of the book without necessarily having proposed them a priori. I am currently working on a book too. However, it took quite a while for me to put in a proposal to a publisher, having it reviewed by three reviewers, and finalising both the content and the structure of individual book chapters. Perhaps different publishers have different styles and procedures.
    I can see that ultimately the two approaches end up with almost the same product (a book with different chapters with some reasonable content and organisation). But while your experience can be mapped against an “emergent” experience in which both the content and the structure of each chapter has emerged as a result of a heuristic process; my experience is of an “structured” nature in which I do know in advance what the content and structure of each chapter should be based on the approved proposal.
    Perhaps there are advantages and disadvantages to each of the two approaches.


    • pat thomson says:

      Aah, we had a plan for this book too. And all my books have had plans in the proposals.
      But like a thesis, sometimes things change when you get into them. This need to change plans happens to me more with books where there isn’t a preceding text like a thesis or research report. So when there’s nothing else to go on.
      One of the good things about working with a publisher you know well is that they are happy to let you change the initial plan if it doesn’t seem to work, without consulting them. If it s a new relationship you do have to talk to the publisher if you want to make bigger structural changes.
      Ultimately publishers want to get the best book you can write.
      Good luck with your writing.


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