Hi writers! Hope things are off to a good start for you this week.
So, now that I’m a few years into writing coaching, I work with a wide variety of scholars of different ranks and disciplinary backgrounds.
My current clients include art historians, biologists, classicists, astrophysicists, historians, legal scholars, literary scholars, education specialists, religion scholars, political scientists, social workers and sociologists.
And I’m probably missing some in there!
A lot of the authors I work with are junior scholars very early on in their careers, and their book will be the primary stepping stone to their dream job or to achieving tenure.
Others are quite established scholars, some of whom already have tenure and who have spent the majority of their careers focused on publishing journal articles.
They’ve become really good at article writing but, for various reasons, have decided they want to take on the challenge of writing a book.
Today’s episode will be addressing the needs of this second group.
For established scholars in article fields, the decision to write a book is often motivated by more personal reasons.
These include things like solidifying their legacy.
Some people want to write a book that synthesizes their entire body of research, which then can be made accessible to a much wider audience than articles that are hidden behind paywalls.
Some are just tired of the rigidity of academic writing and want to express themselves more fully and authentically.
Especially for the scientists I work with, writing a book may not help them professionally AT ALL, so it really is a labor of love.
But regardless of the reasons people want to do it, making the shift from writing articles to a much lengthier, wider-ranging book doesn’t come naturally to most.
So on today’s episode I’m going to talk about the top 5 challenges that article writers face when it comes to book writing, along with some strategies for resolving them.
The Biggest Challenges of Shifting from Article to Book Writing
How many people do you know that have said that they want to write a book?
Probably most do at one point or another, and we all do have an interesting story to tell.
However, it’s definitely not enough to just want to write a book when you also want it to be published with a scholarly press (as opposed to self-published), at least these days when publishing has become such a competitive world.
You really need to think through what the purpose of the book will be, who it’s for, and how it’s different from anything else that’s already out there.
All of this is with the caveat that it still needs to be similar enough to other books to convince presses that there’s an audience for it.
You also need to think through whether you need to do additional research for it and factor in how long it will take for you to analyze the data before you even start writing.
Of course, there’s times with any book that you need to do some amount of research to fully flesh out the story.
But, for the most part I recommend that authors do themselves a favor and try to get the vast majority of it done beforehand.
In fact, I won’t work with people who haven’t collected and analyzed most of their data because the entire writing process is slowed down so much.
Finally, you need to have an extremely good plan for getting it done or else—and I can guarantee this with certainty—it won’t!
So here are the top 5 challenges I’ve seen journal article authors face when it comes to writing a book:
Let me list them all out first, and then I’ll tackle them one-by-one.
First is the challenge of getting started.
Second is wanting to approach book writing in a linear way.
Third is not knowing exactly who you’re writing for.
Fourth is figuring out how to expand the scope and narrative of your work.
Fifth is staying motivated and maintaining external accountability.
#1: Getting Started
So let’s start with the first one, which is both about figuring out WHEN to write your book and WHAT to do once you’ve decided to move forward.
Especially when you’ve spent your career writing journal articles, you are likely still actively publishing them and book writing becomes an ADDITIONAL thing to add to your schedule.
The thing to really think through is whether it is actually the right time for you to write a book.
Some people will say that, similar to having kids, there will never be a good time, so you might as well start now.
I disagree with this, depending on your unique circumstances and deeper reasons for wanting to do so.
I recently had a consult with an amazing scholar with a wealth of experience and ideas that are going to change the way we think about modern medicine.
I was so excited to work with her on her book…
UNTIL she told me that she is currently “130% committed” to the existing research and writing projects on her plate for at least another year!
We had to have an honest conversation about the difference between wanting to write a book because you have something important to say and the actual commitment of writing it.
I told her it probably wouldn’t make sense to work with me until she can commit at least 5-8 solid hours per week to her book.
This is because book writing is like running a marathon.
You wouldn’t run a marathon without committing to training consistently for months in advance.
Through such a long process, it’s natural to put your book to the side for a couple of weeks or even a couple months at a time because life happens.
But when that becomes the norm, you need to honestly assess your ability to commit to the project.
This is not a judgment. It’s just that there are better and worse times to take on something of this magnitude.
So until you can create solid blocks of writing time and treat it as non-negotiable, it likely won’t happen (or at least progress will be VERY slow.)
Like one of my science authors said, “for my field, book writing is tangential to one’s career advancement so finding time to do so is the hardest part. I just have to actively block out time and treat it as part of my research writing if I want to get anything done.”
But, if you have concluded that this is the right time for you to add book writing to your agenda, here’s an approach you can take:
If you’re at the very beginning of your book journey, make a master outline of your book.
The easiest way to do this is to come up with a preliminary table of contents and start to fill it in before you do any actual writing.
List the working title of your book, and under that, write down the main take-home point of the entire book.
Then go chapter by chapter, listing preliminary titles and the main take-home point of each chapter.
You should constantly be checking that the individual chapters each support the overall take-home point, which will likely become your argument.
After you are confident in your table of contents, you can start fleshing out the outlines for each separate chapter and decide on a writing schedule.
And since you’ll likely be juggling book writing along with other projects, be sure to listen to podcast episode #15 that gives you specific tips on how to balance it all.
#2: Approaching writing in a linear way
The second major challenge I’ve observed article writers face is wanting to approach book writing in a linear way.
By this I mean trying to write it from beginning to end, as you would an article.
This just does not work, and I’ll tell you why in a moment.
If you’ve ever written a journal article, it was undoubtedly a steep learning curve but it’s also a fairly linear and structured process.
You can easily follow other examples and mimic things like format, writing style, and overall length.
At a certain point, writing articles start to become rote.
You know you will be expected to include an intro with some kind of theoretical framing, a literature review, a methods section, a findings section, and a conclusion.
I mean, a lot of people manage to use the same data set to publish five or six different articles because they are able to come up with a new framing!
What I’m trying to say is that there are fairly standard expectations of what needs to go into journal articles.
Almost all of this gets thrown out the window when you’re writing a book!
Why? Because now you’re in the business of telling a STORY that doesn’t necessarily have strict parameters.
You’re also not going to have a bulky theory or lit review in each of your chapters, whose purpose is to shine light on a different facet of the story you’re trying to tell and further the point the whole book is trying to make.
Sometimes this story gets built out only by working on pieces of different chapters rather than finishing one and moving on.
This means that you will likely NOT write the intro of your book until mid-way through when you absolutely know what you’re trying to say.
Many authors don’t even touch the intro until they’ve written a draft of everything else besides the conclusion, and this is perfectly normal.
I like to say that writing a book is like knitting a quilt (which is not something I’ve ever done before, but this metaphor works in my mind).
You are creating different pieces at the same time that you will eventually knit together into one beautiful creation.
But that cohesion may not exist until the end.
This means that keeping a more flexible approach and mindset throughout your writing journey is critical.
Here’s an approach you can take:
If you get stuck on one area of the book, don’t just keep hammering away at it for weeks on end.
Put it away for awhile and work on a different part of the manuscript.
It’s all about moving the ENTIRE project forward piece by piece, not about the order you do it in.
#3: Not knowing exactly who you’re writing for
Moving on, the third major challenge article writers face is not knowing exactly who they’re writing for.
When it comes to journal articles, you know exactly who your audience is: other experts in your sub-field!
Especially because the outlet you choose caters to a narrow band of scholars with specific interests.
When writing journal articles, people usually spend huge amounts of time fact-checking every tiny thing so as not to offend any critics.
Everyone jokes about the harshness of Reviewer #2 because it’s based in reality.
There truly are people out there who seem to revel in making other scholars feel bad about themselves through their blinded reviews.
Articles are not places where you can take risks with writing.
Using monotonous and dry language is the norm, as well as including endless lists of in-text citations that break up any kind of flow.
For the most part, they are not fun to read!
However, when you’re writing a book, you’re widening the conversation and ideally opening it up to non-experts who are interested in learning something new.
This means that you have to provide more stories and more context to get people up-to-speed.
It also means that you GET to drop certain standard conventions of academic writing.
A lot of times, my clients will say that they want to write more accessibly but then they give me pieces to read that are jargony and convoluted.
This tells me that they are writing for their critics and not for their ideal audience, who I define as any person you would really like to read your book and be transformed by it in some way.
So here’s a quick exercise: make a list of all the academic writing conventions you would actually like to drop.
How would you write if it was for someone who supports your work, is fascinated by it, but does not necessarily know that much about it?
Keep that list in front of you as you’re writing your book and continually ask yourself if you are adhering to your own standards.
And if you need more info on identifying your ideal audience, listen to Podcast #4 on this topic!
#4: Expanding the scope and narrative of your work
The fourth major challenge journal article writers face is expanding the scope and narrative of your work.
Writing a book requires a much broader scope than an article, and it can be hard to expand the research and ideas in a way that is both comprehensive and engaging.
Another one of my scientist authors told me that the hardest part of transitioning to book writing was figuring out the complete story she wanted to tell in a way that made the most sense and was the most comprehensible to a lay audience.
She said, “I normally write a separate scientific article for each new discovery we make in the lab. Now I have to string these discoveries all together, and add the discoveries of others as well, to create a larger narrative.”
So here are some tips you can follow if you want to take what you’ve published in articles and expand them into a book.
First, identify the gaps in your journal articles. What questions or areas of research were left unexplored or lacked enough depth or breadth that your book could expand on?
Second, you can develop a broader framework by developing an overarching theme or argument that ties together the different chapters of your book.
To do this, you will need to do a third thing, which is to expand your research question or questions.
Consider how your research can contribute to a broader understanding of the topic for a non-expert audience.
And finally, delve into the most current literature on your topic. Read newly published books, articles, and primary sources that can help to broaden your understanding.
This will also help you figure out what the market is for your book and to make sure that what you have to say hasn’t already been said in the exact same way by someone else!
#5: Staying motivated and maintaining external accountability
And last, but not least, the fifth major challenge article writers face when working on a book is staying motivated and maintaining external accountability.
This point is applicable to everyone, but I would say it’s particularly true for article writers.
This is because with articles, there’s a quicker writing process (hopefully), which leads to a quicker turnaround time when it comes to reviews (again, hopefully).
On a side note, I’ve heard that journals are having a much harder time finding article reviewers due to the massive amount of unpaid labor they entail.
I personally believe that for-profit journals should pay reviewers as they rake in massive profits, but I digress.
It’s actually easier to get books reviewed, because presses generally pay reviewers at least a small honorarium for their time.
But getting back to the point, when it comes to a book that will take many months or even years to write, you have to build in accountability.
Some ideas on how to manage this include co-writing with others, hiring a developmental editor or coach to help you clarify and maintain focus on your goals, and committing to conferences or talks where you are essentially forced to write something and then can workshop your ideas with others.
Summing It All Up
I’ve listed the main challenges article writers face when they shift to writing a book.
And of course, there’s even more!
But for people from article fields, if you don’t have enough external reasons, deadlines, and expectations for your book, it’s very easy to not do it at all or to keep putting it on the backburner.
Therefore, you need to figure out the right balance of internal AND external motivations.
Beyond that, having a detailed plan and ways to maintain accountability will help ensure your ability to become a published book author.
And of course, if you need help with any of this, reach out to me and schedule a free consult on the Work with Leslie page of my website!
I’ll talk to you next time.