Roundtable on How NOT To Write Your Second Book: Kathleen DuVal, “Treating Your Second Book as a Job”

We continue our roundtable on “How NOT To Write Your Second Book” with a post by Kathleen DuVal, Gray Distinguished Term Professor at the University of North Carolina and author of Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution.

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If you are reading this, you probably have a goal for yourself that in a certain number of years from now—say ten—you won’t be saying to yourself or others, “I don’t feel any closer to finishing my second book than I was ten years ago.” But you probably also don’t want to be saying, “All I have done for most of my adult life is to try to work on a book every spare minute, or feel guilty about not working on a book.”

In hopes of keeping either of those from happening, I suggest thinking of the second book as a job. I mean that in two ways. First, (if you really do want to write a second book) researching and writing it should feel like work that is part of your job, work that you have to do. But second, this book should feel like part of your job in that your job is just part of your life, alongside the other important pieces of your particular life.

If you’ve gotten far enough to be embarking on a second book (that is, you have written a first book), I suspect your dissertation and first book took over your life. Maybe you were organized enough that it didn’t. Maybe you had so many other obligations that it couldn’t. But for most of us, it sort of did, and it probably sort of had to (and it’s too late for us that change the past anyway).

Whatever percentage of your life that first book took up, for whatever number of years, this book probably will take up a smaller percentage of the hours in the week for the years you are researching and writing it. Our lives and jobs differ greatly from one another, of course, but there is at least one commonality: each of us was younger and less advanced in our careers when we wrote the first book than the second.

In the post-first-book period we are more likely to have greater teaching and service responsibilities at work. We are more likely to have exciting opportunities for other kinds of scholarly writing (book reviews, invited essays and book chapters, tenure evaluations, roundtables like this one). If we have children, their neediest years are likely to come in our thirties, and their needs and delights won’t stop when they’re out of diapers. These are years where our parents’ health, the health of other loved ones, or our own health are more likely than in the past suddenly to become our highest concern. For work or personal reasons, we are less likely in these years to be able to take long research trips than in graduate school and in later phases of our careers and retirement. In many history departments, senior colleagues may have written only one book and be less supportive of further publishing ambitions, perhaps suspicious that they indicate lack of full commitment to other institutional responsibilities. And, frankly, I think it’s kind of now or never on the decision of whether you’re going to have your evenings and weekends free from work.

So, the second book is a job in that it isn’t your whole life, but it should also be a job in that it deserves its own reserved time amid everything else competing for your time.

Of course the job that actually pays you affects the structure of your time. If you work 40 hours a week at a museum, your second book should take more years than if you have a 2-2 teaching load.

But whether it’s your summers or your Fridays or your mornings from 7-9, carve out a regular part of your worklife for your book. And try to make that time often enough so that, say, if you are sitting in a meeting that isn’t using your whole brain, or sitting behind the research desk at the library, or going on a jog, some puzzle you are working on for your book is rattling around in your mind or written on scraps of paper for you to work through. (I might choose, for example, a chapter structure that is giving me trouble.) You may work out some big ideas that way, and at least when you have the time to get back to heavy research and writing, it’s fresh on your mind.

Reserving book time within your job also requires trying to make the other parts of your work life stay within the bounds they are supposed to (and trying again when you fail). Resist other people’s exciting ideas for edited collections, co-teaching, etc. (Some of the best advice I ever got was from Nancy Shoemaker: “Just because you are the perfect person for something, doesn’t mean you should do it.”) Assume you are going to have a long career, and space out service if you can—someday you might be department chair or on an important AHA committee, but maybe not while you are an associate professor. Remember that every new class you prep and every new reading or writing assignment you add takes time from your research and writing. You can be a great teacher who assigns short papers!

When your time gets beyond your control and you think, “I’m never going to write this book,” take drastic measures. Recreate some of what helped in grad school: make a writing group (or quit the one you are in that isn’t working), go on a writing retreat, make a pseudo-dissertation director out of an editor or a colleague near or far. Cut one of the unwritten proposed chapters from your book outline. Do a less-than-perfect job on a few other things at work.

Of course it’s easier to give advice than live it, but I hope that thinking of the second book as a job can take mitigate some of the guilt and doubt around the second book while also making it something that you make progress on over these years as you do all the other important things in this life. After all, you have to go to work.

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