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 as its own unit.
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.
[Note: The broad activity below is an extremely general overview of the two most critical modules in my Dissertation-to-Book Boot camp.]
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 (BLOs)
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 3 main book learning objectives (BLOs). Ask yourself: “If my reader can only take 3 things from my book, what would I want them to get out of it?” Or, if you prefer, you can frame your BLOs as 3 main book-level questions the book asks and answers.
Your 3 BLOs should be the main takeaways that develop at the book level, not a collection of 3 chapter-level ones. In other words, each chapter will engage each BLO, not add one BLO to the list.
When articulating your BLOs, be as precise as possible. All of your book’s key words should be represented in your BLOs, and they should clearly announce your book’s field, corpus, scope, and methodology.
Note: authors must typically revise their BLOs at least four times paying attention to vocabulary, relationships between key ideas, actors and actions, sentence structure, and directionality before they get them to a solid enough state.
[Want more examples, drafting exercises, revising exercises, and checklists to ensure you’re on the right track? You’ll find tons of them in the boot camp curriculum used in both the self-paced and facilitated formats].
Articulating Chapter-Level Learning Objectives
Next, you will ensure chapter contributes meaningfully to your book’s main intellectual work. Choose one chapter. For each book-level learning objective, write one corresponding chapter-level learning objective (CLO). In other words, articulate how this chapter adds something to move that narrative thread forward.
Note: the CLOs exercise is the most challenging piece of working ON your book because it will force you to align your chapters’ claims to your book’s. Often, problems like clashing directionality, inconsistent terminology, or fuzzy logic will reveal themselves through the CLOs.
Want to learn how to identify and solve these problems? I show you how to do just that with targeted examples (like this one) in my boot camp curriculum.
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 and content are interdependent. 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?
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, and the process I developed was not nearly as in-depth as the boot camp curriculum I have developed since then.
It now regularly takes participants about 48 hours on average, working at their own pace, to distill their book’s main priorities, ensure their structure best serves their overall book-level claims, lay out what each of the chapters tangibly contributes to the project, and refine its narrative arc.
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 my dissertation-to-book boot camp.
[Psst! The broad activities above represent only parts of the extremely comprehensive five-module boot camp curriculum. The others help you assess your book on its own terms, evaluate how the individual chapters serve the book, and produce your overarching book narrative. Check out the comprehensive curriculum].
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.