This is a guest post from Mark Carrigan. Mark is a sociologist in the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge. His research explores how the proliferation of digital platforms is reshaping education systems, with a particular focus on knowledge production within universities. He is the author of Social Media for Academics, the second edition of which was published in October 2019.
It all seemed like it would be so simple. I was delighted when Sage asked me in 2017 if I would produce a second edition of Social Media for Academics. It was only a year since the first edition had been released and it felt like a resounding vote of confidence in what I’d done and how people reacted to it. I imagined it would be a straightforward process which would only take a few months. How wrong I was.
The idea of a second edition sounds more simple than it is. There are things which will need to be added. There are things which will need to be removed. The challenge is to decide what to add and what to remove. I went through this with the lovely James and Diana from the Education team at Sage, feeling by the end of our meeting that we had cracked the list of new material: a range of topics which I realised had been missing from the first edition, some new developments which hadn’t emerged at the time of writing and extensions of the features like ‘potential pitfalls’ which I had included throughout the original text. I came away with a sense that this would be a vastly easier undertaking than writing a new edition. Somewhat bigger than writing a paper but far less than writing a book.
Since the first edition I’d been routinely producing short blog posts tagged as ‘Social Media for Academics’ which identified developments, shared ideas and reflected on issues which had occurred to me since the first edition. After I committed to the second edition, I began to supplement this with a Scrivener project in which I collected short pieces of writing (500-1000) words elaborating on what I was reading and thinking about. I’d also done countless talks and workshops since the first edition, preparing my thoughts on piles of artefact cards which now littered my office, containing new thinking but in inevitably overlapping and disorganised ways. I tried to neatly pile them up but simply placing them together did nothing to help me process the thought contained on them.
It was extremely gratifying for the first edition to have received such uniformly positive reviews. The reception left me with a sense that the book had worked, people understood what I was trying to do it and I could in some sense be proud of the work. This should have led me to think more about the structure of the book when it came to revision.
After much deliberation when proposing the first edition, I had decided to focus on four practice based chapters (publicising, networking, curating, engaging) and three problem based chapters (managing identity, communicating effectively, time management). These were placed between an introductory chapter which provided an overview of social media and a concluding chapter which mapped out trends likely to shape the future. My hope was this structure would enable the book to be more about practices than platforms. Social media changes so fast that a preoccupation with platforms risks becoming out of date extremely quickly. The challenges are enduring but the substance of them changes as the underlying technology does. I was confident I’d produced a book which spoke to the experience of these challenges, largely by structuring it around them and ensuring the chapters weren’t over saturated with detail about specific platforms to the exclusion of more general guidance.
This became a problem once I found myself with 50,000 words of new material. Much of it overlapped because of the chaotic and uneven undertaking my daily writing routine had devolved into. In retrospect I realise it had become too‘efficient’… I would dive into it each day, quickly completing my assignment, before forgetting about it for the rest of the day. After years of trying I had managed to perfect an odd sort of free writing in which I could invariably knock out 500 high quality words or more in twenty minutes or so. But the fact I was doing it so quickly left the process as a whole increasingly thoughtless, taking what had once been the most reflective activity I engage in and making it something I’d rush through before getting on with the rest of my day. The fact the results were usually good, at least in their own terms, obscured the much bigger problem that was emerging. I’ve always been a chaotic writer, only figuring out what I want to say by trying to say it. But this began to spiral out of control with the second edition. Unfortunately I only realised it when the deadline began to approach and I was faced with the challenge of trying to incorporate this vast mass of new material into an existing book which had a tight and effective structure.
There were other things which got in the way that were unrelated to my writing. I was beginning to think about leaving the job I’d been in since the end of my PhD, while I’d also started a new job the year before which involved getting to know a university and department which were radically different from the ones I had been in for my academic career up until that point. In subtle ways the circumstances of my life were conspiring against the careful engagement which was needed to salvage the project, even as the regularity of my output meant that it felt to me as if my writing practice was flourishing. But the main problem was still the quantity of material I was producing, compounded by my failure to order it in any way.
When the first deadline felt as if it was sneaking up on me, I began to try and force each of these snippets of writing into the text. However without any ordering of them, I soon reproduced the repetitions in the text. In the process I managed to destroy the carefully calibrated structure of the first book, as chapters ballooned in size and their internal rhythm vanished under the weight of new material. It felt like the foundations of the first book had collapsed, leading the roof to cave in and forcing me to scrabble around in the rubble in the hope of bringing some order to what had once functioned so well.
I initially fixated on two writing retreats, convincing myself that all it would take would be a few uninterrupted days. But the first one was preceded by a massive argument with my partner immediately before hand, leaving me distracted and off balance for what was intended to be a week of deep focus. The second was just weird, as I discovered that ‘shut up and write’ really doesn’t work for me, particularly when editing is the pressing task at hand, leaving me awkwardly staring at the page for hours at a time in a way that left me with a lingering hangover of negativity and frustration even after the retreat.
The allure of the writing retreat was that the problems I was becoming cognisant of could be fixed ‘efficiently’ by blocking out a few days. But this drive to be efficient about my writing was the source of the problem in the first place! It had allowed a thoughtlessness to creep into what had always been a profoundly thoughtful activity and I couldn’t fix the second edition without accepting the scale of the task at hand. I had to lose myself in the text, giving the project as long as it needed, as opposed to fitting it into convenient windows in my life.
In the end I eventually rewrote the second edition from scratch. I went through it line by line, changing it as I went, in order to impose order on the remarkable mess I had made in the course of writing. This meant cutting liberally. I suspect I cut around 30,000 words from a text which still came out much longer than the first edition. It meant failing to include all the topics I had planned to, being realistic in the face of things which I simply couldn’t fit into the book’s structure. It meant remixing the existing content in ways I couldn’t have anticipated, moving sections around within chapters and moving material between chapters to better match the new structure which was emerging.
Most of all it meant a LOT of editing work. Much more than I’ve engaged in for any other project. In retrospect this is what a second edition involves. It needs thoughtful, careful and creative editing rather than the (overly)energetic production of new material. I’m really proud of the second edition because it’s turned out to be something much more like a new book than I could have imagined at the outset. But I’m still so shell shocked from quite how much work it took to produce that it’s going to be a long time before I attempt something like this again.