Roundtable on “How NOT To Write Your Second Book”: Introduction by Emily Conroy-Krutz and Jessica Lepler

This week we are privileged to feature a roundtable that was organized by Emily Conroy-Krutz and Jessica Lepler and presented at SHEAR’s 2017 conference. It was such a wonderful discuss that it deserved a broader audience. We are grateful that they all agreed to share their remarks in blog-form. Today we feature Emily and Jessica’s introduction, with individual contributions posted each day between now and the weekend.

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How do you start a new book that’s on a wildly different topic from your last book? Or written in a different style? And how do you write a book while teaching new preps and serving on committees? What if you’re also raising kids and caring for aging family members? If a book could be articles, should it be articles? In a packed conference room on a hot Saturday in July, five incredibly generous, funny, and thoughtful scholars shared their tips and tricks for “How Not to Write Your Second Book,” and the laughter and nods around the room suggested that the comments, questions, and conversation spoke to concerns that are widely shared among mid-career scholars and that had sparked the creation of the SHEAR Second-Book Writers’ Workshop (2BWW).

Our idea for 2BWW came in a conversation at SHEAR’s 2016 annual meeting. We had both recently published our first books, and we chatted about the progress we were making in starting on our second book projects. We talked about the difficulty of selecting a topic. We compared notes on how we were finding time to research and write in the midst of teaching, service, and family obligations. We asked if the other had any ideas for fellowship opportunities, especially those that did not require a change in residence. And we wondered why there wasn’t an institutional space for talking about all of these things with all the other people in our career stage, or for supporting each other on the journey through the writing of the second book. We left our chat motivated and found support throughout SHEAR for creating a structural solution to our second-book problem.

One year later, SHEAR created a space for supporting second books. The roundtable helped to launch the first annual meeting of the SHEAR 2BWW, which included four mentors and thirty-two participants from four countries, three continents, nineteen states, and Washington, D.C. (Here’s a link to the call for applications. Keep an eye out for the call for next year’s workshop!) We asked these particular panelists to join the roundtable because we knew they had been there: they had advised and supported authors through the process of researching and writing second books or they had written amazing second books, sometimes in entirely new subfields. We knew that they were wise and witty and would generously share their ideas and experiences with the gathered crowd of eager listeners. We are grateful to the Junto for hosting a digital version of the roundtable to allow an even wider audience access to these discussions.

Kathleen DuVal spoke about how to think of writing your second book as a job: both because you have to do it, and because a job is just part of your life. Paul Erickson talked us through the hows and whens of applying for fellowship support. Timothy Mennel encouraged us (as only a good editor can) to do some self-examination when thinking about the new book. Tamara Thornton went through the pros and cons of shifting topics versus going deeper into the subfield of your first project. Catherine Kelly shared her advice for how to accomplish your larger career goals by framing your time-consuming but hard-to-document work on your second book in terms university administrators, department chairs, and fellowship committees will understand.

The panelists’ remarks inspired a lively Q&A. Here are a few of our favorite tips:

Read widely! Look for models of what you want to do and what you don’t want to do. Think about yourself not only as a historian, but also as a writer. Go into the archives thinking about the different kinds of details you might need to write in a more narrative style. What was playing at the theater down the street? Who else was in the room? Was it raining?

Work on chapter organization and outlines in little bits of found time (perhaps during meetings that do not require your full attention) and try outlining in multiple ways. How would a thematic organization look different from a chronological structure? Think about story-boarding instead of outlining.

Consider the balance between institutional needs and personal needs. Think about promotional requirements, and be smart about how you describe the work that you are doing to the people who will evaluate you for promotion.

The panel ended on a powerful note as Cathy reminded us of the importance of finding joy in our work, and as Tamara called on us all to remember: if your major professional concern is how to write your second book, chances are that you are one of the lucky ones in a tenured position. She smiled, “Never stop pinching yourself. What’s the worst that can happen? You don’t get to full? Big f-ing deal.” Words of wisdom for us all.

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