With my book ready for publication, now seems like a good time to reflect on the long journey towards its completion. If you’re at the stage in your career where you’re considering writing an academic monograph, your general academic writing skills will already be up to scratch. You’ve probably spent several years doing research and writing drafts, and received vigorous feedback on your efforts. But monograph writing differs from essay writing or thesis writing in several important ways that are not always immediately clear to the newbie. For me, in any case, it was very much a process of trial and error.
- Converting a thesis into a book is hard work
My book is based on my thesis, which is common for first-time academic writers. But a thesis and a book are radically different things. If you’ve managed to write a good thesis, well done, but it won’t mean that your writing is ready for publication in book form. There’s a lot of sound advice out there on how to convert a thesis into a publishable academic book – and I’ll cover some of it in subsequent posts – but for now I’ll stick to my own experience.
I cut two chapters from my thesis and added three completely new ones. I also changed the focus from one decade to five to broaden the book’s commercial appeal. As I did this my writing style changed. No longer was there a need to impress my supervisors or convince my examiners that I could play by the rules. My writing became more assertive and expert-like, even if I didn’t always feel as confident as I sounded. The great Anthony Hayes has said that no reader picks up an academic monograph to assess the competence of its writer. Readers who read monographs want to learn something new. So don’t waste your time on trying to convince them that you’re legit. Focus on the message you want to get across.
- Give yourself time
Writing three completely new chapters is, of course, a lot of work, especially because I also happened to have a full-time job while I did this. In my book proposal I gave myself plenty of time to get the work done and I’d advise any aspiring writer to do the same. No need to put unnecessary pressure on yourself by thinking you can do the work quicker than you know you can. Resist the temptation to set an important birthday or event as a deadline if you can’t comfortably deliver on time. Pressure will only result in sloppy work and, likely, more than one mental breakdown along the way.
- The book proposal is key
Take at least three months to write a really good book proposal. Without it publishers won’t even consider taking you on, no matter how brilliant you are. Most publishers offer templates and advice on their websites. Stick to their guidelines, if they have any, and do your homework. Most publishers want to see that you’ve thought about the market and how your book fits into it. Although academic publishing differs from trade publishing, most academic publishers are still businesses that want to make a profit. A sound book proposal will also help while you’re actually writing your book to stay on track and deliver what you promised.
- Be assertive
If a publisher decides to take you on, great. But don’t be so grateful that you lose your assertiveness altogether. Carefully read your contract, get independent advice if you don’t understand parts of it, don’t be afraid to negotiate or ask questions. Without you there would be no book to begin with, so see yourself as a collaborative partner. It goes without saying that you should always be polite and fulfil your obligations, but don’t let clever marketing speak and complicated contracts overwhelm you. Ask The Clash what happens if you do.
- Be prepared to work independently
Any researcher knows how to motivate themselves but having to write without a supervisor can be daunting at first. This can be negotiated by seeking out the advice of qualified peers – not your mum though, who will like whatever you produce regardless of its quality. But at the end of the day, this is your book now, so don’t lean too heavily on others. Being a qualified researcher makes you competent, full stop, even if you’re occasionally – or frequently – overcome by crippling anxiety. There’s no need to be perfect as long as you’re willing to learn. Mistakes can be rectified, knowledge gaps filled, and insecurity overcome.
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