I’m writing. As I guess are many of you. I’m writing another book. You may be writing a paper, a chapter, a magazine article., a graphic novel. But my writing right now is – book.
It seems no time at all since I finished the last manuscript. And at the same time also a long time. I sent the last book in at the end of December 2021, having scribbled away through November’s AcWriMo (ACademic WRiting MOnth) and the Christmas period. And what is it now? Only mid-February? But there’s a publishing contract and a deadline that has already been extended twice, first of all pandemic demands and then pandemic ennui.
I’m not writing this book by myself. Co-writing is something of a relief after the last solo effort. There is now a good colleague to talk things through with, she will read my very drafty drafts and I’ll read hers. She will say whether I am going off track or not, whether this idea or that is working. We’ve spit the chapters up so we are doing half of the first drafts each.
Truth be told I’m relieved that I’ve finally put hand to mouse and I can see that it is actually possible to get the text together. I am of course in the first flush of enthusiasm. I’ve got past dread and the confusion of not knowing how to start off. Yes readers, despite the best laid plans. I still find that getting the first words down is hard.
I’ve learnt now that what often works for me is writing an introductory chapter. Not the book blurb, nor the acknowledgements and thankyous. Something about the book as a whole. Typically, an introductory chapter lays out the rationale for the book and tells the reader what it will do. The introduction explains some of the things that readers need to know before they begin to read. In my case, the introduction introduces the research project on which the book is based and the theoretical tools that we will use to explain our analysed data and make our argument.
But this introduction is a draft. A first draft is not generally written for other readers. It is written for the writer, or co-writers in our case. Writing the introduction has done some particular work for me. Writing the introduction has helped me to get back the sense of the book that I had when we submitted the proposal. I remember now what it’s about, and why it matters. And I’ve regained that feeling of excitement and seeing and making the story unfold. I hope reading it and responding to it does that for my colleague too.
We had already decided that the book would use anecdote, portraits and images. I wanted to do that but was finding it a bit daunting to be creative right off. So writing the introduction has been a good way to write myself into the book. I own it now and I want to see it progress. Writing the introduction has helped me to imagine the book being written. And imagine it as a written thing. The book has started to move off the outline pages and become something more tangible. Something of its own. Now there are actual words that have some heft, a tangible quality, they are a file, a number of pages of text. Yes, some of the words are crap and will change. Lots of them might change. But there is something to start with.
Of course, we aren’t actually at the beginning. You don’t always start a book, or any writing for that matter, at the beginning. We’ve already written from this research. Quite a lot. We have a blog, a research report, a couple of chapters, several powerpoint presentations and a couple or three of journal articles. So there are versions of some elements of the book and we have the overall argument we will make. Some chapters still require new work, putting analysed data into an entirely new construct.
You could say that we started the book in the middle. We did write a report which covered the whole research project, but it was a report. The bits that we’ve written since have been very much working through particular ideas. We were trying out theoretical explanations, seeing what we could do with particular slices of the story. To use a metaphor, we took some of the data for a few days out before we actually started on the book road trip.
Thesis writers also often have to begin in the middle sorting out their analysed data into big chunks, near chapters. Once they know what they have to say, they go to the beginning and write the text through so that they get a coherent top-line argument. They too write an introduction to get themselves into the whole text and move away from bits.
Here is a little glimpse of how we are using, and rewriting, already written stuff.
- Introduction – puts pre-existing but rewritten words about the project and theory into the argument we know and have talked about
- Chapter One – puts an existing heuristic from our report together with new analysed data to explain key concept one.
- Chapter Two – cannibalises and adds to material from a journal article to explain key concept two
- Chapter Three – cannibalises a journal article and uses new data to partly explain key concept three
- Chapter Four- continues key concept three using a little material from a journal article but also new data.
- Chapter Five – almost entirely new, uses analysed data and some material from talks
- Chapter Six – almost entirely new, uses analysed data and some material from talks.
- Chapter Seven – uses a journal article to explain key concept five
- Chapter Eight – key concept six uses material from two book chapters and data analysis
- Chapter Nine – the conclusion puts all of the key concepts together, new writing but we have already presented it in talks and have it summarised on a powerpoint slide.
We will probably have to get formal permission from publishers to re-use two of our journal articles for Chapters Three and Seven. The chapters will be similar enough to what’s published to count as self-plagiarism if we don’t do this. That[‘s a fiddle but part of the book writing game when you work with already written bits.
We know that many people write their books from scratch. They have no elements to re-purpose. We have done this too. But we do find that having already worked through key ideas does really help the book writing. It makes the writing much quicker because we write with more confidence about what we have to say. And we write more authoritatively.
However, even with all that material in hand, it still takes effort to get going. And writing the introduction has certainly been the thing that has got me out of my metaphorical armchair and into the book car, which is packed with all of the things needed for the journey ahead.
And a caveat, I’m not writing this post to say this is how you write a book. This post is about sharing some of the hidden stories of what i/we do when writing a big text, in case it sparks some ideas for you.