A book is a big project. Depending where you mark the beginning, book writing can take years. Not only is it hard to protect the time, given all your other commitments, but it can be hard to sustain momentum.
Some of that is practical.
For example, identifying milestones along the way helps give you some of that “finished” energy regularly. Developing a practice of regularly reviewing what you’ve done and how that’s moved the project forward helps you feel less like you are working really hard and going nowhere.
But there are deeper issues, too.
- You will frequently doubt whether you will ever finish.
- You will doubt whether you are cut out for this career.
- You will wonder if it’s even worth it.
- Will anyone read it?
- Does anyone care about what you have to say?
You will spend so long with this material that all of your arguments will start to seem banal and obvious. You’ll lose perspective on what you are writing.
You may lose interest in what you are writing and be keen to get on to discovering new things. After all, you know this stuff now. (This particular issue may be more pronounced if you have ADHD.)
Why are you writing this book?
Those deeper issues all come down to one question: Why?
- Why did you decide to write it in the first place?
- Why do you still think this is a good idea?
You aren’t going to stick with it and get it done unless it is meaningful to you in some way.
It will be helpful to clarify what, specifically, makes your book project meaningful to you. It will also be helpful to reflect on that periodically. Not too often, but definitely if you are struggling to work on it. And maybe about once a year anyway.
Things change. And you are allowed to change your mind. The time you’ve already spent will not have been wasted if you never publish this book. Or if you publish a very different book than you initially imagined.
Publishing to communicate.
The main reason to publish anything is because you have something to say and you need to communicate it to the people who need to hear it.
I wrote Scholarly Publishing (A Short Guide) to say that and explain what that means for your scholarly publication strategy.
In the Short Guide, I have a whole section about books that expands on why you might write and publish a book, specifically, and the different types of books you might publish.
I’m not going to repeat all that here. I do want to remind you that it exists. And that communication really is the primary reason to publish.
This communicative goal is essential to your motivation. It also helps you make decisions about the book that enable you to actually finish it.
It is not, however, the only reason you’ve decided to write a book…
Publishing for external validation.
You might also be writing a book because it will help you get a job, get tenure (or whatever the local equivalent/approximation of that is) or get a promotion. In the Short Guide I refer to this kind of motivation as “validation”.
The relative importance of publishing a book to get any of those things will vary by discipline, but if you are a historian or a literary scholar, you probably do need a book at some point.
Some kinds of books won’t count. The book you need for this purpose will likely be a monograph, published by a respected publisher of scholarly books.
In other disciplines, book publishing may be optional but valued. I note that the most recent iteration of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), in the UK, attempts to define a book as roughly equivalent to publishing 2 articles.
Anecdotally, there is some evidence that there may be an expectation that you would publish a book for a full professor promotion, even if there does not seem to be an obligation to publish books at other stages of career.
Beware of magical thinking. While publishing a (particular kind of) scholarly book may be an official or unofficial criterion for a particular career goal, it does not guarantee you will also achieve the career goal. As we sociologists like to say, it may be a necessary condition, but it is not a sufficient condition.
Your awareness of this fact, even subconsciously, can affect your motivation by making it seem pointless or worthless.
The book project needs to be meaningful (i.e. worthwhile) even if you don’t get the job or promotion.
The origin of the requirement to publish for promotion, tenure, and the like is strongly related to the communicative purpose of publishing. I have written in more detail about the relationship between your communicative goals and these validation processes in the Short Guide.
Understanding this relationship can help you trust that your communicative motivation is going to meet the validation goals. Or, at the very least, help you make good decisions about which of your communicative goals align best with the institutional requirements.
After all, you are more likely to be able to meet your own goals if you have a relatively secure job. The prestige of a promotion may also help you reach certain kinds of non-academic readers.
Belonging in a discipline that values books
In one sense, being hired or promoted is recognition of your belonging in the discipline and of the quality of your contribution to particular scholarly conversations. There are lots of other things that will make you feel like you belong.
This is especially important given the state of the academic labour market. If you don’t secure an academic position, or if you decide to change career later on, your book (along with other publications and accomplishments) may be an important marker of your identity as a particular kind of scholar and your belonging in a particular scholarly community.
Even if you do secure an academic job, a book may be important to your own sense of belonging. There are people who secure a job in a book discipline, and even get promoted, without having published a book. Some of them are members of the Studio. The salary, title, and access to resources might not feel like enough to make you a real member of this particular scholarly community. Your gremlins can be very convincing.
You also might want to belong to another kind of community for whom publishing a book is important. This might not be the same kind of book needed for validation within academic evaluation processes. It’s important to be specific about the community you want to belong to.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to write a book to feel like you belong. Recognizing that this is part of your motivation may help you understand some of your struggles and also help you clarify what is important to you about the content, form, and audience for your book.
Wanting to write is the best motivation
Your reasons for writing this book will be some combination of all of those things. And writing a book might not be the only way you can communicate your knowledge, secure the job or promotion you want, and feel like you belong in this community.
However, knowing why you are writing makes a huge difference to your ability to protect the time you need to do it, and to make progress when you do sit down to write.
It can help to be part of a community of writers. In addition to regular co-writing sessions, A Meeting With Your Writing, I hold quarterly writing clinics for book writers as part of the Academic Writing Studio. This is an opportunity to get to know the people you see in these co-working sessions each week, share struggles and strategies, and get coaching support from me.
This post was sent to the General Newsletter on 13 October 2023. It has been lightly edited.