Are you *not* writing a book? Maybe it’s your “thesis book”. Maybe it’s something else. You might have a contract for it. You might not have started it, but think you should have by now. You might have a lot of research and drafts of some sections, or even a proposal.
Whatever that book you are not writing looks like, it’s on your mind. It’s having an impact on how you feel about yourself as a scholar. It may be having an impact on other writing-in-progress. It might be having an impact on your career. It might be one of the things preventing you from taking real holidays and weekends, and getting the rest you need.
You are not behind!
Part of your guilt is a specific case of the very common anxiety that you are behind.
In “You are not behind” I wrote,
You may be behind where you expected to be. That’s not the same thing as being behind. You have control over your expectations. You can change your expectations. The quickest way to do that is to catch yourself thinking you are behind and remind yourself that you are not behind. You are where you are. You no longer have any control over how you got here. The next part of your journey starts here.
If the book you are not writing is your “thesis book”, you might start by reframing how you think about it. This is why I use scare quotes. You’ve already written the thesis. This is a different project, even if it has a lot of the same content. If it’s been a while since you finished the PhD, or if you are substantially revising or updating the content for the book, it really is a different project. Just calling it something different in your head will probably make a difference to how you feel about it.
If you are thinking about your book as “the book I need to get tenure”, or your next promotion, or a job, you might want to address that too. While publishing this book might make a significant difference, the connection between the two things is not at all straightforward. Let the book be just the book. (see also “Communication vs Validation: Why are you publishing?”)
Your book is not your research. It is one output of your research. (Your PhD thesis was also *one* output of your research.) You can talk about your research in ways that don’t make it all about the book.
- What is the main focus of your research?
- What are the big questions you are interested in?
- What questions are you exploring in a specific project?
- How are you approaching those questions in a specific project?
You can refer to your doctoral research as your “earlier research”, in relation to anything you are doing right now or plan to do in future.
You are not behind. The question is, where do you want to go from here?
Do you actually want to write this book?
This is a serious question. You have a choice. It doesn’t always seem like that, and sometimes part of the issue is that you haven’t thought about what publishing a book really means. Even if you started this project by submitting a book proposal and securing a contract with a publisher, you still have choices. They are limited but not as much as you think they are.
Just for a moment, set aside the expectation to write a monograph and publish it with a high prestige academic publisher. Set aside any career goals that might be dependent on publishing it. Just think about the research or research questions that are central to this book you are not writing.
Do you want to write a book? At all. Any kind of book. Notice how you feel when you read that question. If you can’t name the emotion, make note of physical sensations. Make actual notes. You don’t have to show them to anyone.
What book do you most want to write? Write down the answer, even if your gremlins are telling you it’s ridiculous or impossible. Is it like something else you’ve read? In what way? Who are the readers? What do you want to tell them? Why do you think they might be interested?
If the book you are not writing is your “thesis book”, do you want to write anything based on the research you did for your PhD? Notice how you feel when you read that question. In particular, consider whether there are findings or arguments in your PhD that you would like other researchers in the field to engage with in their work. Also consider whether you feel like the PhD research led you to something new that you are more excited about.
Next steps if you have a contract
Make sure you really do have a contract and not an expression of interest in seeing the manuscript or a proposal. If it hasn’t been out for peer review, chances are you don’t have a contract. Skip to the next section.
If you have a contract with a publisher, you are probably wondering…
- …if you can make changes to the book at this stage, or
- …if you can change the due date for submitting the manuscript
You will need to discuss things with the acquisitions editor (an employee of the publisher) and possibly the series editor (an academic who is in charge of commissioning a series on a specific topic), but it is extremely likely that you can do both of those things. Find your contract and actually read it so see what you’ve agreed to first.
If you don’t want to write a book, you need to cancel the contract. Since academic publishers don’t generally pay advances, this is probably possible. The acquisitions editor will appreciate knowing you are never going to deliver this book. I withdrew from a contract back in 2002 and my editor thanked me for letting her know. Apparently, she had a filing cabinet full of proposals she didn’t know whether she’d ever receive. If you were contracted to contribute to a series, the series editor will want to know so they can commission something else.
If you want to write the book you originally proposed, or something pretty close to it, but your timelines are all off, that’s pretty simple. You need to contact the editor, make sure they are still interested in publishing it, and agree on a new timeline. It’s probably best to do some thinking about what is required first so you can propose something. Clear communication as you make decisions, and revise your plans, is always a good idea. Maybe let them know you are going to need to change the delivery date and will be back in touch soon with a proposal.
If you want to write a book but not the book you originally proposed, you probably can make significant changes to the plan. If it’s the same topic but a really different approach and/or readership, the editor will be able to tell you whether they are still interested in publishing it.
The main limitation of the contract is you cannot offer something substantially like the book under contract to another publisher. In other words, if you want to write a book that is pretty close to what you’ve got a contract for, you are stuck with this publisher.
You’ll need to have a clearer idea of what the book you do want to publish looks like so the acquisitions editor and/or series editor can decide. They will probably help you refine the new proposal but they can’t do anything with vague statements about not being happy with the current plan.
Before you talk to them, compare your answers to the questions I asked with what you wrote in the proposal however many years ago. Decide whether this is the same book, a similar book, or nothing like the book you have the contract for. Contact your editor to discuss & make a new plan.
If they decide to cancel the contract at this point, that doesn’t mean you can’t still write it. Make sure you know whether they want first refusal on it when it does happen (and whether they can even legally demand that if they cancelled the contract). Carry on as if you don’t have a contract.
If you don’t have a contract
This gives you more flexibility. You don’t actually have to decide whether this is a book right away. You can also decide what parts of your research would be best communicated in a book, how many books might come out of this program of research, and what other things you might publish from this research. This is particularly important if you have been thinking that you can’t publish your dissertation as a book without adding something substantial to it, or if you’ve been putting off writing articles because you are worried they would make it harder for you to get a contract for a book.
You don’t have to start the project by getting a contract. You can allow yourself to work on this project a bit before you commit yourself to one. I say more about the timing of getting a contract in Scholarly Publishing (A Short Guide).
Take your idea for the book you want to write and flesh it out a bit.
- Who is the reader you most want to communicate with? Who would like to read your book?
- Do you want to write a book that will be considered legitimate by your scholarly peers? Is that your primary motivation or just a nice-to-have? How does this relate to your career goals?
- If so, which scholarly peers? The important people in the discipline as a whole? Peers in your sub-field? Scholars in related disciplines or interdisciplinary fields?
- Do you think you should be writing for particular scholarly peers? Which ones? Are they the scholars you want to communicate with about your work? You do not have to engage with your harshest critics.
- Do you want your book to be read by people who are not professional scholars? Is this your primary audience, or just a nice-to-have? Who are these readers? What do you know about them? Do you already engage with them? What else do they read?
- As you are thinking about readers, also think about the material you want to write about and what you want to say. What is the material? What are the questions? What can you say?
You may need to allow yourself to start writing “the book” at this point even though you are still unclear about what the book will eventually be. This part of the process is for you. You are writing to figure out the answers to these questions.
The value of a quick and dirty first draft
As I wrote in The Scholarly Writing Process (A Short Guide) writing is a process through which you figure out what you want to say. If calling it “book writing” at this stage feels wrong, then just make time to write about your findings, or about things you’ve read, or whatever. Write as a way of organizing your thoughts and figuring out what you might be able to say in this book (or whatever it ends up being).
Your goal is to build confidence you have a claim.
- Don’t worry about pretty words or coherence.
- Do worry about the details in your sources/data.
- Do grapple with what claims you might be able to make.
- Do leave yourself lots of notes about what more you’d need to do.
If you already have drafts and notes, start by collecting them altogether in one folder. (This might be a good time to figure out if Scrivener would be a good tool for you to use.) Also collect up all your primary sources, interviews, data, or whatever research material you have that might be relevant.
Then write. I strongly encourage you to write about your research materials first. If you are going to write about the debate to which you are contributing, don’t worry too much about whether you’ve got it right. Write what you think you know and how you think you want to contribute. Put your doubts and questions in the draft and keep going. Quick and dirty.
Your goal is to get clearer on what you want to say and what you can say. That means discovering what you can’t say (even if you want to). It means working out where you really need to do more research or reading to be confident.
As you do this you will also get clearer on which readers you most want to engage with. Who needs to hear this? What details would they need to know? What do they already know? Knowing who you are writing for will help you decide which questions you need to answer for this book, and which you can set aside for the moment.
Tressie McMillan Cottom has written about the way clarity about the reader helps you clarify the content in relation to her first book, which was based on her dissertation research but was definitely not a “thesis book”.
In retrospect, I wrote this book with Ken Wissoker’s [editor at Duke University Press] advice in mind: nobody wants to read your dissertation. People want to make sense of something rather than investigate it with you. But the sensemaking can only occur after you investigate. My biggest challenge was finding a voice that balanced those two processes.
— Tressie McMillan Cottom, How I Write (2017)
Writing is an iterative process.
Writing a full draft with lots of holes and notes to self, no intro or conclusion, and several tangents will be helpful.
Do it quickly. You are aiming for confidence that you have a book and that you can do a creditable job of writing it.
Revisions are where the bulk of the work of writing happens. It feels different to know you have a whole book and know what it needs.
Using the quick & dirty draft to make a plan
When you have a clear answer to what the book is about and who the reader is, you can make a plan. Your plan probably looks like a book proposal.
It will have a clear sense of who the book is for, what kind of a book it is (perhaps in comparison to other books), and what the book is about. It will include a brief synopsis of the main argument of the book as a whole. It will also set out the structure, with synopses of each chapter indicating what they are doing and how they contribute to the larger argument.
You aren’t trying to figure out how to get all the interesting tangents into one book. You are narrowing down what the book is doing. The interesting tangents might be published elsewhere. You can have a publication strategy that includes a book proposal, for example, alongside some ideas of what else you might want to publish from this project.
You do not have to submit this proposal to a publisher yet. Writing a book proposal will help you write the book. It will help you figure out what further research you really need to do. It will help you estimate how much time, and what kind of time, you need to do the revisions.
At this point, you may want to check in with the very helpful questions Sunny Singh, Professor of Creative Writing at London Metropolitan University and author of both fiction and scholarly work, has shared on Twitter (click through to read the full thread and her example of how she uses them). They are good questions no matter what you are writing about. They help you clarify what it is you are really trying to do. And they will guide you as you revise your draft.
— Sunny Singh (@ProfSunnySingh) August 18, 2021
At this stage, make sure there is no fundamental flaw in your claim, your ability to make that claim based on the research, and your position in relation to the research subjects & readers. If you’ve got a feasible project, you have lots of time to do it well.
Use your plan to make decisions, and a workplan for revisions. Although you will have something that looks like a book proposal at this stage, you are not obliged to send that to a publisher and get a contract right away. The timing of getting a contract depends a lot on how you respond to the pressure of a due date and how confident you are about how much work you have to do and your ability to find and protect the time to do it.
If you already have a contract with a publisher, this plan will inform discussions you have with them about revising the proposal or the timelines or both.
Resources you might find helpful:
My Short Guides series helps with some of this:
Especially, Scholarly Publishing (A Short Guide) which includes a whole chapter on writing books and teases out the relationship between the book you want to write and the ways in which your book will be used in evaluation processes.
If, having found your motivation to work on this book, your main issue is finding and protecting the time to actually work on it, consider joining the Academic Writing Studio and attending A Meeting With Your Writing regularly.
Janet Salmons and Helen Kara have published a workshop-style book to help you make decisions about publishing from your PhD. Publishing from your Doctoral Research: Create and use a publication strategy (Routledge, 2020) It is probably also helpful for making any kind of publication strategy.
Laura Portwood-Stacer is a developmental editor who focuses on book proposals. She has a book (The Book Proposal Book, Princeton University Press) and a couple of programs. Her programs sell out fast (like on the day she opens registration). More information at ManuscriptWorks.com. Follow her on Twitter @lportwoodstacer.
Jane Jones is a developmental editor who helps minoritized authors write their books. You can find out more about her program, Elevate, at UpInConsulting.com – or follow her on Twitter @janejoann (no “e” on the end).
Communication vs validation: why are you publishing sets out the general principles that underpin most of my advice about publishing.
The relationship between writing for scholarly audiences and for wider audiences may be helpful if you don’t really want to write that scholarly monograph for a prestigious press book but you do want to write some other kind of book.
Publishing from your dissertation is a related post written with those finishing up a PhD in mind.
Applying for promotion: research trajectory may help you figure out how to talk about your research as something bigger than a specific book or even the specific project you are working on right now.
This article is a revised version of a Twitter thread I wrote on 25 August 2021. It has been substantially revised and audio has been added for accessibility.