Writing a book is one of the most overwhelming, intimidating projects a junior scholar can undertake. Many writers quite logically look for resources on how to write a proposal, what should go in an academic book, developing a timeline for writing it, and so forth. There’s some excellent advice out there – in books, blogs, and from mentors. One question that I rarely see answered, however, is how to start writing a book.
We usually don’t write books in a linear way. I don’t know many writers who start with page one and proceed chapter by chapter until they finish their conclusion (if you’re one of them, tell us your secrets!). But, if you don’t start at the beginning, where do you start? You might be thinking, “I have some jumbled notes from when I participated in that writing challenge, the dissertation chapters I haven’t looked at in months, and a conference paper I finished on a tight deadline. How do I make that into a book?” It’s a valid question. There’s no single book-writing system out there, but there are strategies you can learn and adapt to your needs.
In this post I’m going to present two points of entry for your academic book. I’ll describe the strengths and weaknesses of each approach, then show you how to assess if this approach would work for you. Then, I’ll share an approach that I rarely advise writers to take and explain why.
Entry Point #1: The proposal
Every author needs a book proposal. One of the benefits of starting with a proposal is that you can dive right into the overview of the book. Additionally, the proposal will serve as the book’s blueprint. It’s an opportunity for you to think through the big issues of the book and move from contribution to data to detail. You tackle some of the hard questions about significance and structure early in your process.
The downside of this approach is that if you aren’t sure what your book is about, it’s going to be hard to get a grasp of what to put in your proposal. As developmental editor and author Laura Portwood-Stacer says in her newsletter, “Can you articulate the argument, contribution, and structure of your book without having the (to) write the whole thing?” If the answer is yes, then fire up your engines and start that proposal. If not, then put it on the back burner and try a different approach (which I’ll explain shortly!).
The length of a proposal is certainly less intimidating than the other option I’ll present. Even so, short doesn’t necessarily mean easy. A book proposal has its own set of rules, and in my opinion it’s a different genre of writing than anything else you’ll work on as an academic writer. It’s definitely worth it to spend the time to do it right.
Your publication timeline can also influence whether you should start with a proposal. If it’s important in your department that you’re in conversation with an editor, then a proposal is one way to initiate a conversation with an editor. Also, if you are aiming to publish with a press that accepts a proposal packet (which in my experience is a proposal and two chapters) in lieu of a full manuscript, it might be worth it to adjust your process accordingly.
Entry Point #2: The anchor article
Many authors write articles that serve as the basis for their book. You’ve likely read some of these articles. This is a smart strategy because you can get feedback relatively quickly. It’s also likely something you’ve been working on already, so you’re not starting from scratch. Given the demands of tenure or even generating a conversation about your ideas, an article is a good first step.
What can the article be about?
- The most compelling part of your data
- The framework or argument of your book
- A theoretical contribution or concept you’re developing
For instance, sociologist Ashley Mears’ article “Discipline of the Catwalk: Gender, Power and Uncertainty in Fashion Modeling” introduces her argument about the relationship between gender and markets, which she then elaborates in her book Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model. You can also read Ranita Ray’s (another sociologist) article, “Exchange and Intimacy in the Inner City: Rethinking Kinship Ties of the Urban Poor,” alongside her book The Making of a Teenage Service Class for another example of how an author presents a version of their book’s argument in an article.
Another benefit of this approach is that you’ll have an article in your publication pipeline while you work on your book. In fact, this article might already exist. Many graduate students write articles based on their dissertation research, then start the process of transforming their dissertation into a book after they successfully defend. If this is you, then you already have a foundation from which to start.
If you’re feeling confident about one specific idea in your unwritten book, an article can be a great place to start. I find there’s usually one part of an argument that authors are particularly excited about, and that enthusiasm can be motivation enough to get writing. It’s also a smart idea to test your argument in this way before you give it a book-length treatment.
One potential obstacle: it’s not easy to transform an article into a book chapter. One objection I hear that I believe is grossly over exaggerated is that you shouldn’t publish any part of your book as an article, because it makes your book less “marketable.” This just isn’t true. For the most part, being able to show that your peers hold your work in high regard is a strength, not a weakness. Unless you’ve published your entire book manuscript as article chapters, this isn’t something you should worry about.
The strength that both of these options share is that they help you build the foundation of your book. Which leads me to what I consider an inferior option:
One approach I don’t suggest: empirical chapter as article
If you start with one empirical chapter as an article, you can end up writing that in isolation from the rest of your book – without thinking about how it fits into your larger argument or narrative arc. That doesn’t help you flesh out the book. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t write this article. It can be a phenomenal article. Just don’t expect it to give you some type of epiphany about your book.
I find that authors who wrote very traditional social science dissertations – introduction, literature review chapter, three empirical chapters, conclusion — are drawn to start their publication profile by trying to transform an empirical chapter into an article. I understand the logic: the chapter already exists and you think to yourself, “with just a few tweaks I can make this into an article.” The revision process is rarely just a few tweaks, however. So if you’re going to make the time commitment, be strategic about it.
Writing a book is hard, but it doesn’t have to be confusing. You don’t have to rush into writing! If you take the time to plan your first steps, you’ll set yourself up for success throughout the process.