Writing a book

There are, in Geography, some people who seem able to churn out books. Then there are others who never manage to, for whatever reason. Although I edited, with significant help from some of our postgraduate students, the two-volume Anniversary Essays (available to download for free on this site), I’ve just recently managed to publish my first book  as a solo author (go on, splash out: buy the hardcover version!). I’d say that, if your academic writing energies have focused on getting 6-8,000 word articles published, it should be quite a daunting experience to try putting together about 65,000 words for a book. This is, I think, especially the case when none of the chapters are based on your previous articles, as in my book: every word appears on your screen for the first time; you only have a plan to guide you; a reasonable sense of where you’re ideas might be able to take you – no previously-published articles to turn to and copy/paste/edit. So yeah, it’s daunting, although I am certain that it must still be hard for those who are substantially drawing on their published work. Either way, sitting down to write a book (or a thesis or dissertation, of course) means you must manage to deal with that feeling of ‘oops-what-have-I-got-myself-into?’ Might there be some ways to negotiate that sort of feeling? I think so. I’ll highlight five ideas that have helped me.

  1. Staying organised. Completing a big writing assignment (thesis, dissertation, book, whatever) requires practising quite astute organisational skills. There is, to begin with, the flow of ideas through the whole piece; the plan guiding you; the coded worlds of diverse software programs throwing you curve balls (crashes, hour-long Windows updates etc); the need to file, find, and annotate PDFs, book chapters, or archival documents; the data you might draw upon and represent; and then of course the collection of references you’ve used. Finding a way to keep on top of this is something any academic author needs to consider. For example, if I could start again, I’d re-think all of my practices in this regard and I’d probably construct for myself some sort of a guide, which I’d post on a notice board next to where I’m writing. It’d scream things like: ‘back-up your work, you idiot’ or ‘oi, Mr Lazy, complete your references at the end of each writing session.’ Maybe the point is better put like this: what disasters do you want to avoid and how can you organise yourself so they don’t happen to you?
  1. Disconnect from the world while you write. This isn’t an original point but it’s one that just needs to be made and re-made in today’s world of tweets and streams (and, well, hornet’s nests) of emails. Get offline, if you can. Sure, go back online to look for that PDF of an article you don’t have stored locally, but don’t also check your email, see who has favourited your latest tweet, or check to see what’s happened to your sports team. Rather, get back into that Word document: get back into that paragraph you’re writing, finish that last sentence, check how it’s connecting with what you’re moving towards, or at least read back a few paragraphs and make a few good edits. In short, stay on-point. Work. Don’t check your phone. Make dinner later. Try to finish the session you started without getting distracted.
  1. Stop writing. Based on a few informal chats with some incredibly productive writers over the last few years, I’ve learned to write in short bursts and then stop. Again, far from an original point; but I know it took me a long time to realise this. Many say exercising in that down-time is best. Others say chilling out, watching some comedy, or a nap is what works best. Whatever the strategy, the point is that three separate 45-minute sessions in front of the screen will most likely get you a lot further than a three or four hour session with only a toilet or cigarette break in between. Stopping is necessary to give the brain a chance to re-charge. It’s still working away: it’s thinking over that sentence, which just didn’t feel right; pondering whether another citation might be needed in that final paragraph; and firing signals around the brain that should be helping you connect your overall plan to whatever it is you’re trying to do in the last, and then the next, writing session. Writing isn’t just about the physical practice of typing and committing to the words you’ve plonked onto the screen.
  1. Stick with your voice. Now, sure, I don’t exactly speak as I might write, although I think I can if needs be (in a conference, say, or while lecturing). But what I do know for absolute certain is that I cannot write in a way I don’t actually speak. To be more precise, I can’t write in what I’ve been implicitly encouraged to believe is a more polished, sophisticated, classically-intellectual voice (BBC Radio 4 was often playing in the background in my house when I grew up and I can still hear the clipped polished English of the presenters and the experts they spoke with: I ain’t them). Also, sure, I’m like any other person who writes insofar as I read and therefore will often come across amazing writing, with sweet turns of phrase and expansive vocabularies. And I’ll regularly get that ‘damn-it-they-put-that-together-so-well’ sense of envy. Knowing my own limits with the English language, though, I think it’s pointless trying to do something that won’t work. And so I’ve learned that I must try to write in my voice (blogging, by the way – God bless blogging – has been good for me and I’d certainly recommend that any would-be writer starts up a blog and uses it to blab away). And so, related to this point, is a suggestion: go find an author in your discipline who you think writes in a similar voice to yours. I’ve found this can be a useful way of finding inspiration, especially in those moments when you just can’t get started or get beyond where you left off. Go read that author: see how they connect paragraphs; how they wrap things up; how they deal with contrasting ideas; how they might ensure there’s a nice flow through a piece of text. Take inspiration, open your Word document, and bash away at the keyboard.
  1. Get real. I’ve kept this for last but in a sense it is the most important lesson I’ve learned in writing my wee book. I can’t be perfect. Others can. But, alas, I’m flawed. I can only do so much. I must draw a line: I’ll engage with this slice of the material, with this much, not everything. My book won’t be a best-seller. I can hope it’ll connect with my intended audience – mostly, in my case, senior undergraduate students or postgraduates looking to expand their knowledge of the subject – but I know it won’t re-define the discipline. I can, and certainly should, hope to do something better next time around. But I must be realistic. And I think that should go for most other writers, especially the majority of writers beginning a thesis or dissertation, but probably also for many authors getting started on their first book. Get a grip, be realistic, don’t shoot yourself in the foot, do what you can: finish the bloody thing.

So I’ve finished this. And I’m itching to go check my email.

Alistair Fraser

ps. It’d be cool to see some discussion in the comments section about what’s helped you write.

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5 comments

  1. Aine Rickard · · Reply

    Great post Alistair, and a nice shot of motivation for my PhD writing! I still remember the advice you once gave me about finding an author I like and noting down some of their nice phrases – I still do it now and its reassuring to fall back on when inspiration runs out. Best of luck with the book.

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  2. […] the Maynooth Geography blog, Alistair Fraser reflects on ‘Writing a book‘. He’s just published Global Foodscapes: Oppression and resistance in the life of […]

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  3. All great advice Alistair. My own experience is that having a support group really helps – a sort of book club of fellow writers. Also, having a trusted and diligent editor to read your drafts and keep you focused and self-critical. – Gerry

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  4. Great post Alistair, thanks for passing on your hard won advice. Steve

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  5. Book club is a great idea, Gerry.

    And yes, an editor or a reader or two is definitey something to throw into the mix.

    Alistair

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