Are you struggling to get a handle on your first scholarly book? To see clearly not just what you have, but where it’s ultimately going? Do you feel stuck in revisions–like you’re adding and changing text in your chapters, but there’s no end in sight?
The problem might be how you’re revising. Specifically, continuing to revise your chapters without a clear plan for the book as a whole can cause your revisions to stall.
Here’s how you can spare yourself time and stress: work ON your book before continuing to work IN it.
The Difference between Working IN Your Book and Working ON Your Book
Working ON your book means working at the level of your book as one object. When you work ON your book, you clarify its structure, narrative arc, and how you prove your argument from the outside in.
When you work ON your book, you are not revising or generating prose in any one piece of the book.
Working IN the book is what you are likely doing right now. It means generating new text in your chapters and revising what’s there.
When to Work ON Your Book instead of IN It
In my experience, working ON your book is useful at a very specific time: after you have been revising for a minimum of 4 months. You should be fairly sure of where your book is headed and have at least 80% of the material drafted. The main goal of working ON your book is to get a handle on what’s there and imagine the book it will become.
You should definitely work ON your book before your prepare or submit your book proposal.
Before working ON your book, you will think you know what your book does.
But working ON your book will force you to clarify many decisions you’ve made without realizing it. Consequently, not only might your book’s structure and scope change significantly after doing this work, but your understanding of what your chapters do in service of your larger book might also shift as well.
How to Work ON Your Book
For first-time book authors, the trickiest part about humanities books is that they are more than the sum of their chapters. Your main argument will have several interconnected threads running through your book and keeping a handle on them all is practically impossible if you only ever work IN your books’ individual chapters.
You likely know what your book’s main argument and interventions are but might never have fully articulated the other main narrative threads connecting its chapters.
So, I teach first time book authors to begin working ON your book by imagining it as a course and its chapters as units. (Doing this also helps ensure you follow academic book publishing expert Rachel Toor’s critical advice: “Write [your book] the way you teach.”)
Articulating and Evaluating Book-Level Learning Objectives
Good courses have a set of clear, well-articulated learning objectives that the course as a whole builds toward.
So, do the same for your book-as-course: articulate 4-5 main learning objectives for your book. Ask yourself: “If my reader can only take 4-5 things from my book, what would I want them to get out of it?”
These should be book-level learning objectives, not a series of 4-5 chapter-level ones. Or, if you prefer, you can frame these as 4-5 main book-level questions you ask.
Before proceeding, evaluate your book-level learning objectives: are you trying to do too much in the space of one book? Are some of the learning objectives secondary?
Articulating Chapter-Level Learning Objectives
Next, you will ensure each chapter’s threads align with the book’s. Choose one chapter. For each book-level learning objective, write one corresponding chapter-level learning objective. In other words, articulate how this chapter adds something to move that narrative thread forward.
Evaluating The Whole Thing & Choosing One Path
Finally, now that you have your whole book’s structure on paper, evaluate it. Does the sum of your chapters add up to your book-level learning objectives? Do the chapters all engage your book-level learning objectives in similar ways? (Are they parallel with each other?) Is this the best order for your chapters? Do some chapters do similar things (and therefore can be combined or eliminated)? Does each chapter add a new dimension to your book-level objectives?
Revise your book and chapter learning objectives until you have a structure that works.
I make this sound easy, but it’s incredibly difficult. You should expect to spend a significant portion of your time on articulating and evaluating these book- and chapter-level objectives.
This process shows you that there are actually 2,383 different paths you could take through the same material. Now, your job is committing to one that does the best service to their book’s overall threads. Committing to this one path necessarily, then, means foreclosing certain options, which is always painful.
Think that keeping your options is a good thing? Learn why you should change your mind in my post on the “commit fully, pause, revise” model. I also teach you how what sneaky thoughts keep you from committing fully in my post on monitoring and reframing the thought “I don’t know.”
Once your path is set, you can narrativize this plan, describing how your book’s major threads evolve from chapter to chapter. You’ll likely find that you can use this writing in your book’s and chapters’ introductions as well as in your proposal and communication with editors.
But for now, you will use it as your map to guide your chapter revisions.
What You Will Realize When You Work ON Your Book
Here are a few things you will likely learn in this process:
- because you had never forced yourself to explicitly articulate logical connections between the book and its chapters (or between different chapters), you will likely discover many implicit logical connections that don’t necessarily hold up under further scrutiny.
- your terminology might not remain 100% consistent over the course of the book. You might now need to clarify your terms.
- your book’s structure works in service of your argument. Changing chapter order or scope will bring different elements of your argument to the fore. You might have understood this intellectually before, but now deliberately evaluating and revising your book’s structure will make this concrete for you.
What Makes Working ON Your Book Feel Harder than Working IN It
As I described above, working ON your book involves deliberately clarifying the book- and chapter-level structure and organization with an eye to the main threads you will be weaving throughout your book.
In my experience, and as I describe more in-depth below, at about the 4-6 month period, you must work ON before you continue to work IN your book. But many first-time book authors struggle to do so.
There are two main reasons.
First, the work you do when you work ON your book is invisible and intangible. Unlike working IN your book, you are producing a structure, not necessarily words you will use in your final chapters (though, as I outline above, you will likely use some of this writing in your book’s and chapters’ introductions).
Second, clarifying the logic that holds your book together and then significantly revising your book can make you feel like you’re going backwards because it’s revealing the distance between what you have now and what you want to have by the end.
Here’s what you can imagine your book looks like before you work ON it.
And here’s what you produce when you work ON your book: a clear plan.
But then there’s the final step: remapping where you’re going onto what you have.
Just looking at this picture can make you overwhelmed.
Yet without this work, your book might continue to resemble an amoeba. The rest of your revising time (stage 2 in my 7 stages model) will be spent getting your chapters to match your plan, section by section.
Why You Need to Work ON Your Book before Continuing to Work IN It
Once you reach the 4-6 month revision point, you know where your book is going and what it has to contribute, working ON your book is critical, for a few main reasons.
First, consider this image of your book before you work ON it again. Do you think continuing to add material will straighten it out?
No. Continuing to add material to the chapters is not going to make your book less of an amoeba. In fact, doing so might make it worse! Until you have your clear path laid out, continuing to revise means you risk making tangible progress on something that does not ultimately belong in your book.
Conversely, working ON your book before you continue to revise IN your book means that you will ensure all the time you spend revising is ultimately useful.
Additionally, this process of making and justifying the 2,383 decisions that make up your book–if only to yourself–will make you more confident about your book as a whole. This confidence will come across in your prose, proposal, and conversations with editors.
Finally, solidifying and narrativizing your book’s structure will help you write a clearer book introduction and strong chapter introductions. You can also use this writing in your proposal and conversations with editors.
How Long Working ON Your Book Will Take
The process took me about 60 hours, spread over eight weeks. But, this time included figuring out the process as I went.
It regularly takes my boot camp participants 12-20 hours to complete this same task, and it typically takes my self-study students about 20-30 hours.
Ready to Work ON Your Book?
Knowing you need to work ON your book is one thing; doing it is another. My students often find that working ON their book initially raises more questions than it answers. It helps to talk through your potential decisions with someone who’s been there and can give you feedback and keep you on track.
That’s why I created by dissertation-to-book virtual boot camp: a 4-day synchronous working group where we work together ON our books. It’s everything I learned from this part of revising my own dissertation distilled down to save you time and stress.
Can’t make the boot camp, but still want to have a more hand held experience? Sign up below and you’ll be the first to know when my self-paced Dissertation to Book course opens this fall.
Humanities First Book Author Inner Circle
Writing your first academic book in a humanities or qualitative social science discipline? Wondering how to manage such a large project? You don't have to struggle alone! Sign up, and I'll send you resources and advice to help you get a handle on your manuscript, find the best publisher, and develop productivity habits to get the book done.