Thoughts On Writing Book Chapters

Sage handbook of QREI have written two chapters for edited collections, both on qualitative research ethics. The first was for a book called Qualitative Ethics in Practice, edited by Martin Tolich and published in 2016 by the late lamented Left Coast Press. I said ‘yes’ to that one straight away because it was the first time I’d been asked. Writing the chapter was an interesting and enjoyable exercise but economically pointless. I got a free copy of the book, but I could have bought the paperback for £24.99 from Amazon or, no doubt, for less elsewhere. (I recommend using the book price comparison site Bookbutler, though it doesn’t index all sellers; I don’t see Wordery on that site, and Wordery often have good discounts as well as free shipping worldwide. eBay is also worth checking for discounted new copies; as an author myself I am not advocating buying secondhand books). Given that the chapter took me at least a week to write and edit, an affordable paperback is poor recompense. Also, book chapters don’t carry the academic kudos of journal articles, so they don’t do much for my reputation with universities.

When I was a doctoral student, I loved a good edited collection for offering a range of viewpoints and arguments within a single book. As a reader, I still do, when it’s well done. That suggests I should contribute to such collections. Yet there is so little recompense.

I thought about this carefully. On the morning of 5 January 2016 I decided it wasn’t worth the effort, and made a belated New Year’s resolution that I wouldn’t write another book chapter. On the afternoon of 5 January 2016 I got an email from Ron Iphofen and Martin Tolich asking me to write another book chapter, for the Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research Ethics which they were beginning to co-edit. Ron and Martin are colleagues with whom I get on well, and that makes it harder to say ‘no’. I did say that I could not take on a chapter requiring primary research or any kind of extensive review of literature with which I wasn’t already familiar. (Well done, past Helen!) After some discussion we found an angle that worked, as it would cover an area where I already had some knowledge that I needed to develop, and it also suited the editors.

I got my copy of the book this week. It’s almost 600 pages, 35 chapters, and retails at £120 on Amazon. On one hand, that still represents woeful recompense for several days of work. On the other hand, £120 is way beyond my budget for buying any book, even one as extensive as this book. And I’m very glad to have a copy.

So I’m rethinking the whole book chapter thing again. Now I think I am more likely to say ‘yes’ if the book in question will be big and expensive and useful for my work. I also think I’ll keep to my decision not to write chapters that need primary research or extensive new reading. Some new reading is inevitable, and that’s OK, but essentially I’m only going to write chapters that I can actually write straight from my desk.

Another thing I have learned about writing book chapters is to ask the editors for the book proposal, so I can see where my chapter fits, and not duplicate work others may be doing in their chapters. It doesn’t seem to be common practice for editors to give the book proposal to potential contributors (I’m not basing this solely on my own experience, I’ve heard the same from other academic writers) though I expect some do. If you’re asked to write a book chapter and the editor doesn’t give you the book proposal, ask for it before you decide. It can give you a much clearer idea of what you’re contributing to.

As with all academic writing intended for publication, book chapters are likely to be peer reviewed individually, and the typescript of the whole book is also likely to be reviewed. (The proposal will have been reviewed, too, before being accepted by the publisher.) So be prepared for edits, proofs etc to come your way. You may also be asked to review a chapter by another author, as sometimes book editors and commissioning editors get around the difficulty in finding reviewers by having their chapter authors review other chapters. Overall, there will be more work than just the writing.

I’m currently reviewing the typescript of a book which is reminding me how much I like a good edited collection. The book’s theme is strong and consistent, and the variation in the chapters is fascinating, in terms of both their content and how authors are addressing the topic. This offers a particular type of richness that no single or co-authored book can achieve. So I’m content with my decision, now, not to say a blanket ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to requests for book chapters. I will say ‘yes’ to writing chapters that will benefit me in the process and the outcome, as well as benefiting editors, publishers, and readers.

Books on Academic Writing Productivity

This is a review of six books that address productivity in academic writing (though some cover other topics too). They are listed in order of publication date. Page counts do not include prelims or appendices, indexes etc. All costs are recommended retail prices for paperback editions apart from Helen Sword’s book which is only available in hardback. Prices were taken from Wordery (who offer significant discounts on the prices shown here) apart from Jo Van Every’s book where the information was provided by the author.

Zerubavel bookThe Clockwork Muse: A Practical Guide to Writing Theses, Dissertations, and Books. Eviatar Zerubavel, 1999, Harvard University Press. 98 pages. £15.95.

Zerubavel is a professor of sociology in America. This book is short, readable, and practical, with a decent index, and is lightly referenced using endnotes. It focuses on scheduling writing time, timetabling writing projects, and managing deadlines, both self-imposed and external. The voice is authoritative with touches of humour. Some points feel a little dated now: for example, Zerubavel advises the reader to check their electronic mail before they start to get it out of the way (p 19), but then the volume of email most people received in the late 1990s was very much less than it is today. But most of the advice given in this book is still sound, including the take-away message: that all progress is good, however slow or fast, and perseverance is key to making that progress.

Silvia bookHow To Write A Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing. Paul Silvia, 2007, American Psychological Association. 132 pages. £15.95.

Silvia is a professor of psychology in America. He also focuses on scheduling, looking at goals, priorities, and ways to monitor progress, and again his book is lightly referenced. The voice is chatty, informal, often amusing, and the index is adequate. Silvia suggests setting up a writers’ support group as ‘a constructive source of social pressure’ (p 56). Only half of the book is focused on productivity, the other half addresses writing style and gives advice specific to writing academic journal articles and books. The short concluding chapter comes back to productivity and reminds the reader to set a schedule, get on with it, and keep making progress.

Murray bookWriting in Social Spaces: A Social Processes Approach to Academic Writing. Rowena Murray, 2015, Routledge. 135 pages. £29.99.

Murray is a professor of education in Scotland, UK, and has written several books on academic writing. She also conducts formal funded research into academic writing practices and this book is based on the findings from several projects. Although only one chapter of her book addresses productivity directly, it is a central theme. Her argument is that writing has a social aspect and that this can be leveraged to enhance motivation and productivity through goal-setting and progress management. The voice is clear and well-informed. This is a thoughtful book with a lot of detailed information on how to put its advice into practice. Sadly, the index rather lets it down, with only 32 main headings for a 150-page book, and no entries even for key concepts used such as leadership or containment. Nevertheless, the book is well worth reading.

Goodson bookBecoming an Academic Writer: 50 Exercises for Paced, Productive, and Powerful Writing. Patricia Goodson, 2017, Sage (second edition – first edition 2011). 235 pages. £32.99.

Goodson is a professor of health education in America. She has developed the POWER model (Promoting Outstanding Writing for Excellence in Research) from a study of academic productivity research, psychology and neuroscience literature on talent and elite performance, and the writing theory of Peter Elbow (1998). Her argument is that academic writing improves with practice. Her first eight exercises focus on productivity, and (among other things) they cover the now familiar areas of scheduling writing time and monitoring progress. I don’t find exercises in books particularly useful, so I simply read the book and benefited from the information conveyed by the author. If you like doing exercises from books you’ll benefit even more. The voice Goodson uses is warm and encouraging, and the index is excellent.

Sword bookAir & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write. Helen Sword, 2017, Harvard University Press. 206 pages. £17.95.

Sword is a professor of education in New Zealand. She is also a poet with a background in academic literature. Her book is based on a specific research project: she interviewed 100 academics around the world about their writing. From this research she developed the BASE model (Behavioural, Artisanal, Social and Emotional habits) which demonstrates the complexity of the writing process. Productivity is covered in the section on behavioural habits which is designed to help writers identify their own best time, place, rhythm and ritual for writing. As you would expect from a poet, the book is beautifully written, and it has a calm reflective voice. Sword has an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of relevant literature to draw on for the ‘read a book’ sections at the end of the chapters. Also, her book has a very good index.

Jo Van Every bookFinding Time For Your Scholarly Writing: A Short Guide. Jo Van Every, 2018, self-published e-book. $3.75. (paperback coming soon)

Van Every is an academic career guide in England, UK. I am grateful to her for the review copy e-book that prompted this blog post. Her book is full of practical advice on how to identify and manage writing time, whether that time is measured in minutes, hours, or days. Van Every covers the topics of scheduling and goal setting that are common to many of these books and, as with them all, the book is well written in itself. Like Zerubavel and Silvia, it is lightly referenced. The book has a lovely consistent voice, like that of a friendly, supportive, knowledgeable auntie; someone who is on your side and has helpful advice to offer. Van Every includes information about other resources: books – including those by Helen Sword and Rowena Murray mentioned above – and online resources. There is no index in the e-book, but that doesn’t matter because you can search it electronically.

Each of these books is full of wisdom. Perhaps you may think you have learned all you need from this blog post: schedule time, set goals, monitor progress, persevere. At one level it is that simple. But if you’re looking for ways to increase your writing productivity, I’d recommend reading one or more of the books I have reviewed. I hope this post will enable you to choose the book or books that suit you best.

Let’s Talk About The Index

indexDo you ever think about the indexes of textbooks and reference books? Do you ever wonder how they’re created? Because they don’t appear as if by magic, and as yet no software has been invented that can extract a good quality index from the text of a book. It takes human intellectual effort to figure out how readers will want to use a book, and so which words and phrases and ideas from the text need headings or cross-references in the index.

The best indexes are created by professional indexers. In the UK they are likely to belong to the Society of Indexers (SoI), which also provides training and accreditation for would-be indexers. The SoI’s distance learning course includes four assessed modules, online tutorials, an online workshop, and practical indexing exercises and assignment. The SoI also provides a conference, various workshops, and online resources for members and non-members. There are equivalent organisations in other countries, such as the American Society for Indexing, the Indexing Society of Canada, and the Australian and New Zealand Society of Indexers.

As a reader, I care a lot about indexes. A good index makes it so much easier for me to use a textbook or a reference book. Even if I’ve read a book thoroughly and taken notes as I went along, there’s almost bound to come a time when I want to look up something I remember reading but didn’t note down. Some academic publishers, such as Sense Publishers, don’t seem to provide indexes at all. I find that hugely frustrating, digging around among 240 pages of text to try to find the paragraph or two that I want to read again.

Other academic publishers pass the responsibility of creating or paying for an index on to the author. That can lead to indexes of variable quality. Here’s a photo of one from a Palgrave Pivot book, Writing Anthropology by Francois Bouchetoux.

Writing Anthropology index

That is the entire index for the whole 120-page book. Palgrave is an established publisher which has published many fine books, some of which have excellent indexes. The author of this book is evidently highly intelligent, with many skills, such as writing; it’s a worthwhile book. But I don’t think indexing is in his skillset.

Some authors can produce good indexes. Pat Thomson is one, but she’s in a minority. Yet publishers still try to persuade authors to create or pay for indexes. As authors don’t get paid for writing books, and academic books earn much less for authors than they do for publishers, this seems both wrong and stupid to me. Wrong because an academic publisher should accept the financial responsibility of providing a good quality index, stupid because if they don’t then their book is less useful so fewer people will recommend it to others. I am not the only person who takes the quality of an index into account when writing reviews online (as I plan to demonstrate, next week, upon this very blog).

Several times in my life I have been in discussion with various publishers who have tried to pass the responsibility of creating or paying for an index on to me. Each time I have argued that they should pay for it because I have neither the skills nor the budget, and the lack of an index will reflect more poorly on their reputation than mine. Each time I have won the argument. So if you are a writer in this position, fight your corner. And if you’re a publisher, be like non-fiction publisher Mango Books.

Round of applause!

Personal Branding for Academics

stylish-logoThis is a post with a difference: it’s written by Tee Ola, Managing Editor of Stylish Academic, a fashion and lifestyle website for academics and other professionals. Tee completed her PhD in Digital Media and the culture of democracy in 2015. And although she works full-time in digital marketing in higherEd, she is never faraway from the lecture theatre.

My own post for this week, The Unstylish Academic Speaks, is on the Stylish Academic blog.

Do you see yourself as a brand or just an academic/scholar busy with research, writing, publishing and teaching?

Your personal brand is the sum total of you and how you’d like to present yourself to the world – or at least certain target audiences (colleagues, students, employers, funders, etc.)

It is not vain or narcissistic to be intentional about your personal brand.

To be intentional about your personal brand as an academic is to carefully curate the aspects of your complex life that fit in with the professional goals you’ve set for yourself.

“I want to be a leading thinker in… <insert niche field> ”

What steps can you begin to take in this direction?

You are neither lying, nor pretending when you cater to your personal brand. You are simply putting your best foot forward (like we all should).

Branding and marketing yourself are not dirty phrases. And simply sitting back to allow your work to do the talking will not cut through the clutter of the information age we live in.

You can decide to stand yourself out, and by extension, your work, through your personal brand.

Here are 2 reasons why I think it’s important to pay attention to your personal brand as an academic:

  1. Because your personal brand is happening with or without your deliberate input…
  2. Because it is vital for career progression

Your personal brand is happening with or without your input

Your personal brand already exists.

You are already being perceived in a particular manner  – online and (or) offline; so why not get in there and control the narrative since it’s happening anyway?

In this highly digitised world, you have tools at your disposal to do this.

Gone are the days when opportunities for academics to provide public commentary on topical events in the news were limited to newspaper pages, radio and TV.

Today, you can tweet directly at a journalist, set up your own blog, podcast, or YouTube channel … and so many other opportunities for public engagement.

A few of my favourite academics (in my area of digital media and communication) that do this so well are Jeff Jarvis, Zeynep Tufecki, and Evgeny Morozov.

The first time I attended a conference in London where Morozov was a speaker, and I got the chance to speak with him in person – I was star-struck. I was a 1st year PhD student, so that’s excusable.

However, my point is, my respect for him and his work had grown over time from following and listening to him on Twitter.

His views influenced my thinking as I wrote my thesis.

Morozov’s commentary on topical events as they happened helped shape and make me rethink my arguments as I wrote about the democratic potential of the Internet.

His personal brand as a thinker who runs counter to certain dominant ideas that the Internet is a panacea to the woes of the world was established and clear, so I understood it and engaged.

(The Net Delusion – how not to liberate the world by Evgeny Morozov).

Is it clear what you stand for as an academic/scholar?

I like to tell people that my Twitter followers wrote my thesis with me.

Part of my personal branding road map was being vocal about my research work online, and inviting commentary from others.

This was effective in that people understood what my research was about (I also blogged about it), so I got mentioned on Twitter threads (conversations), which often ended up as great illustrations in my thesis or talking points at conferences.

Your personal brand is vital for career progression

Selling ourselves as academics may run counter to certain long held ideals about the rarefied world of academia – mostly unwritten or unspoken – but adhered to all the same.

As an aside, another of those ideals I challenge through my platform, Stylish Academic, is that academics are not meant to be stylish or pay any attention whatsoever to physical appearance and so on.

In fact, the shabbier you look, the more likely you are to be perceived as working hard in your field – and vice versa. It’s as if this “is our way of telling the world we’re too focused on matters of the mind to care about what we put on our bodies.”

There are many more ideas like these, firmly rooted in age-old academic culture.

Hence, on personal branding, unlike our counterparts in the corporate world, we may tend to keep our head down, eyes peeled to the screen, and fingers glued to the keyboard – let the lines fall where they may.

It’s a new season. And like this Times Higher Ed article says in the title, being brilliant doesn’t cut it anymore.

I love how the author, John Tregoning puts it, “we have two things to sell, our ideas and ourselves…the main product we sell is ourselves. This product is defined by our CV: where we have worked, on what and with whom. But these strands need to be pulled together into a single memorable “personal brand”… This brand comes into play when meeting potential collaborators, conference organisers and funders.”

I find this so persuasive.

Handling your personal brand is vital for career progression – in and outside academia.

There is so much more I have to say about personal branding as an academic.

If you’d like to engage with me on the subject of intentional branding for academics and/or practical steps to follow, or you have any questions at all, please feel free to contact me here.

Thank you for reading.

And for readers who would like to know more, Tee Ola has kindly provided some useful online resources:

Navigating your digital profile – YouTube

Use brand thinking to build a stronger you – Vitae

A Twitter thread on social media tips for Early Career Researchers – Prof Nathan C Hall