Roundtable on How NOT To Write Your Second Book: Paul Erickson on Fellowship Applications

Continuing our roundtable on “How NOT To Write Your Second Book,” we are pleased to have Paul Erickson, the Program Director for The Humanities, Arts, and Culture; and American Institutions, Society, and the Public Good at the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, talk about Fellowship Applications.

How Not To Write Your Second Book LOGO

When I was asked to participate in a roundtable on how not to write your second book, I felt like a bit of an outlier, since my CV makes it clear that the best way to not write a second book is to never have written a first book. So instead of giving advice on how to write (or how not to write) a second book, I will share some thoughts on how to ask (or how not to ask) for fellowship support to write a second book, based on 9 years I spent as Director of Academic Programs at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester. I hope that these suggestions will be useful to anybody thinking about applying for fellowships, but will be directed at Junto readers who are contemplating how (and when) to apply for fellowship support for second book projects.

For most scholars in the humanities, the first book proceeds from a dissertation that was created within the structure of a doctoral program, shaped by the timing of the academic calendar—a certain number of chapters per semester or per year, with a completion date scheduled around funding expirations or job markets. The second book, however, starts with a truly blank page, and is governed by a different schedule. Many scholars want their second book to be bolder, to make larger claims than did their first book. This different set of hopes and constraints presents different challenges in applying for fellowships to support second book projects. These remarks will primarily focus on applying for long-term fellowships designed to support the writing of second books projects, since there are not many meaningful differences in how to go about applying for short-term research fellowships for first or second books. But some of what is offered here about applying for long-term fellowships can apply to short-term applications as well.

The most important guidance that I can give to people who are applying for a long-term fellowship (particularly a residential fellowship at a library or humanities center) to support a second book project is this: don’t let the selection committee assume anything. Many people at the second-book stage of their career may not have served on a fellowship selection committee, so I’ll just briefly describe how it works. Selection committees for long-term fellowships at independent research libraries are typically made up of 4-6 people who have been asked to read what is sometimes an intimidatingly large number of applications for no money and then meet as a group to make award decisions (most selection committee members get paid nothing, or very little). You will typically be writing for an interdisciplinary audience of people external to the institution, although in some cases there may be members of a library’s staff on the committee. There’s no way to know who will be on a selection committee from year to year, or what the disciplinary or institutional mix will be, so you should assume that most of the people reading your application will not be from your discipline. It is always a good idea to ask colleagues from other fields to read your proposal to make sure that there isn’t any language that is inscrutable or off-putting. What is a perfectly normal way to talk about an art history project could well drive literary scholars crazy, and vice versa.

But back to not letting the committee assume anything. All the members of the committee will be scholars, most of whom will have written their own books, and will have dealt with their own tenure processes. But that doesn’t mean that they know all the details about your situation, so explain it. In an application for a fellowship to work on a second book, applicants need to clearly explain a range of things that committees will often make assumptions about:

  • How far along you are with the first book, if it’s not out already. If you are asking for a fellowship for the fall semester of 2018, and your first book is scheduled to be published in Fall 2019, committee members may well be concerned that you would spend the fellowship period completing your index or finding images or checking citations on your first book instead of actually working on the second book. Committees are aware that they have scarce resources at their disposal, and don’t want to make a bad investment.
  • What are your institution’s tenure expectations? Committees want to make awards that will help people get tenure, so be clear about when you expect to go up for tenure, whether your institution requires “clear progress towards a second book,” and what leave (if any) your institution awards, since fellowship committees like to award fellowships that can be combined with leave time.
  • Do you have a contract for the second book? Does the press that published your first book have right of first refusal? If not, have you had conversations with editors at other presses? Whatever your situation is, describe it. Committees like to see evidence of a plan.
  • How much research for the second book is done already? Does it grow out of your first project in a way that allows you to draw on some research you’ve done earlier, and is it situated in a similar historiographic field? Or are you really starting from scratch, learning an entirely new body of literature? If so, how far along are you? It is often easier to make a clear case for fellowship support at the very beginning or the very end of a book project.
  • Are you proposing a second book project that is more ambitious in scope or style than your first book? Are you hoping to write a narrative history, or are you aiming to reach a crossover audience? If so, explain how your method of writing this second book is different from the one you used to write your first book. Writing the same sort of argument-driven outline is not likely to result in a lively narrative history just because you include more colorful anecdotes. If you’re hoping that the final product will be different, show how your process is going to be different.
  • Writing a second book often takes place in the context of teaching and service obligations, family commitments, and other things that happen in one’s 30s and 40s. What is your schedule for getting the second book done around all those other things? There are certain things that are none of a selection committee’s business, of course, so it’s up to you to decide how much of your personal situation you want to discuss in a proposal. But committee members will know the difference between getting writing done while teaching a 2-2 load vs. a 4-4 load. Be realistic about your writing schedule. Committee members know what is possible and what isn’t.

Selection committees (and institutions) like above all to award fellowships to support projects that are going to get DONE. Supporting a book that never appears is a waste of money, and committees take that very seriously. So in writing your proposal, what you want most not to do is leave a committee with any questions about your preparation for the project, or its timing, or whether or not you’re likely to finish. The fewer questions they have about these logistical questions, the more time they can spend discussing its merits. This won’t guarantee that you’ll receive a fellowship, but it will increase the odds that your proposal will make it to the small pool that’s left at the end of the committee’s deliberations out of which final award decisions are made.

One response

  1. This article offers some really very good tips on how not to write a book. I as an author truly learnt a lot from this article and I will definitely keep in mind all the points that you have shared in this article. It was truly a pleasure to read this article. Thank you.


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: