How not to write your first book

I read our roundtable on second book projects while filing away information for the future. As I made those mental files, I also found myself making a list of some of the more mechanical issues I encountered while turning my dissertation into my first book. That book isn’t done—it’s back in the press’s and readers’ hands for the moment, so I’m sure I might have some additional ideas down the line—but today I’d like to offer a preliminary list of stuff I wish I’d known. I also hope that other Juntoists will chime in with their experiences; several of us have published books now, or will very shortly do so. This isn’t the first time I’ve written about the dissertation-to-book process, but I think of some of the things I’ve written before as general advice for scholars in different fields. Today I wanted to offer some more general advice, and to also delineate some thoughts that are pretty specific to historians.

General stuff

First off, track your changes when you edit. I wrote a dissertation about food and a book about hunger, and although those two topics are related, there’s a lot that changed and a lot that got cut. I started cutting and changing without keeping track of what I was keeping and retaining. There are old drafts of chapters, of course, but I didn’t have a systematic method for remembering what I’d done, and when. When it came time to add back in a sentence that I wrote in 2011 and deleted in 2014, it took some digging to find it. Things got easier when I started to make use of the “Track Changes” option in Word, which I now turn on every time I update a draft. I write with the “No Markup” option turned on because I find the red lines of tracked changes too distracting onscreen. When I’m happy with that chapter, I save a final, clean version of it with all changes accepted. With this method, the most recent version of that deleted text still comes up when I search my computer for cut sentences, and I can be more systematic about my edits.

Embrace peripheral thinking. I vacillated between being sick of the dissertation, and unready to consider my second book project in depth. I found it helpful to let myself think about side projects when I couldn’t stand to think about the first book. It turned out that I wanted to think about side projects because they pursued themes I hadn’t written about before, but also that those themes featured in my first book and I just hadn’t realized it. This ability to embrace side projects will probably vary depending on where you are—because I’m working under a system with the REF, I just needed to keep in mind what sort of format those side projects would take.

Keep track of your acknowledgements. I didn’t keep a running list of all the people I need to thank, and man oh man, I wish I had. The acknowledgements section is not the spot in your book where you save words in your word count. So to avoid stressing out over leaving someone out by accident, write names down as you go.

Historian-specific stuff

For the love of god, don’t nest your footnotes—and make them as specific as possible. When I was writing the dissertation I thought it looked so clean to have just one note per paragraph, and I spent a bit of time combining my references into block notes. I did a terrible job of specifying which books and documents corresponded to which parts of the sentence. For example, here’s a sentence (with accompanying footnote) from an early draft of the dissertation:

So much changes between dissertation and book that I think it’s worth spending extra words in the dissertation and the book edits to be crystal clear about what each source is doing. Here’s how an adjacent part of that chapter looks now:

What I’ve done is to try to be clear about who I’m citing for what, and, if there’s a sentence that quotes multiple sources, to say in the note (as concisely as possible) what relates to what.

Ban “although” from your introduction. The introduction was a real bear to write. No matter how many times I told myself that the book was not a dissertation, I couldn’t seem to stop framing my contribution in relationship to other historians’ work. “Although some historians have considered single-commodity histories, the relationship between food and race, and the ability of food exchange to broker diplomatic ties, this project’s focus on hunger . . . ” is a dissertation sentence. “This is a book about hunger” is a book sentence. There’s very little explicit reference to historiography in the intro at all now—though it’s still there in the (sigh) endnotes. But I also undermined myself by using “although” in other ways. “Although this book uses military sources, it is not a military history.” Nope. Nopeity nope nope. “This book uses military sources to tell the history of hunger during and after the Revolutionary War.” Yes, done.

Like I said, I’m still thinking through some of the things I wish I’d known before turning the dissertation into a book. I’d love to hear your thoughts about what worked (or didn’t) for you.


4 comments on “How not to write your first book

  1. Tom Cutterham says:

    They’re both definitely good pieces of advice, but are “don’t lump footnotes together” and “don’t bury your argument in historiography” really historian-specific?

    One thing I’ve sometimes had an argument about with colleagues, is to what extent and in what ways should the dissertation itself be written “as a book.” I’m very much in the “yes” camp there. But there are decent arguments on the other side too. Before too long it reaches quite a high level of abstraction, like, what are books really actually for anyway? Maybe I’ll write a post on this, since I don’t think it’s something that can be explored properly in the comments.

    • Thanks Tom. Fair enough that the argument bit is probably not historian-specific. I do think historians care about our notes more than most other disciplines, though perhaps not all of them.

      And YES, do write a post about that argument–I’m sure it will be slightly different from the UK perspective, too, where the time to write a dissertation is necessarily shorter. Other posts I want to write: things I wish US colleagues understood about teaching in the UK

  2. I second the acknowledgements and footnote recommendations. Not combining citations during the writing phase makes it easier to pull apart paragraphs and move/cut sentences.

    • Tom Cutterham says:

      Oh, also, small thing to add which I can’t believe took me so long to learn, and applies to article drafting to: just never use “ibid” or any of those things, because as soon as you start moving stuff around everything gets really really confusing.


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