December 2019

When I enrolled in a sociology PhD program, I told a friend, “I just want time and space to develop as a writer.” Clearly, I had no understanding what I was getting myself into. PhD programs are good for a lot of things — discovering mind-expanding ideas, making new friends, sharpening your ability to intuit what mid-afternoon events will have the best free sandwiches. Developing as a writer, not so much. Sure, we write. And write a lot. But few doctoral programs devote curricular attention to writing. Writing is treated instrumentally, as a way to transmit your research.

For those masochists who stay with it, we emerge, battered and bruised, holding onto PhDs and the secret shame that we did our dissertations completely wrong. Each of us is certain our process was the worst process in the long history of poorly conceived and executed dissertations. And now, with no training in writing and our ego in tatters, we are expected to produce a book, under the minor pressure to land or keep a job. After getting my book and then myself out, I have spent the last year working as an editor and coach with authors at various stages of first book projects — from dissertations untouched for years to manuscripts under contract going through final revisions. As we prepare for the annual holiday tradition of building up grand and unreasonable expectations about everything we can get done over winter break, I want to offer some of the lessons about writing a first book I am learning alongside my clients.

You are no longer a graduate student. Your book is trying to prove something; you are not. It is time to leave behind your adviser’s pet obsessions and the demands of your discipline’s gatekeepers. Certainly your book should be in conversation with ongoing academic debates. But you enter into that prepared and credentialed. Unbury your argument from the one thousand citations and very long quotations behind which it’s hiding. Don’t let existing literature crowd out your contributions. If you are working off your dissertation, your lit review is going to be condensed beyond recognition, into a brief summation of only what’s necessary to serve the argument of your book. When editing a chapter of a first book, I often find at the bottom of page thirty-five the brilliant, sparkling gem I was searching for all along. Give it to us sooner; that’s why the reader is here — to encounter your insights and engage your argument. Don’t wait to get to your own point. Screenwriters call this “moving the plot to the left.” Novelists talk about starting a scene at the last possible moment. Bring your ideas forward. All those brilliant scholars who led you to this moment now get to take a supporting role and step to the background. You are no longer a graduate student. This is your book.

Your book needs one big idea. Just as you need to have a strong sense of self (you are no longer a graduate student), your book needs one, too. Most of us didn’t really know what our dissertations were about until we defended. Writing the diss was a learning process reflected in a jumble of important and interesting ideas among which none really takes precedence. A book will have many ideas, but it needs one: a big idea that organizes all the smaller ones, sets up how you answer your central question, and pulls the chapters together. You don’t necessarily need to know this big idea in precise terms when you are writing the first draft of your book; it’s great if you do, just remain flexible and open to it changing. As you write you should be searching for this one big idea. This is your through-line, the spine of your book. Articulating the through-line is a process of excavation in the writing, but it should not be in the reading. Tell us your big idea bluntly and then show us why it matters.

Commit to your book. You must make your book a real priority. If you only get to your book after everything else, you will never get to it. Making time for your book is making time for yourself. This is a way of valuing yourself and recognizing that your own pursuits are as important as your family, your students, your friends, your comrades, your colleagues. You will likely discover that you cannot keep up with all your other commitments, at least not at the scale you have been. That’s okay — everyone will still be there when your book is done, and they can’t wait to read it.

In practical terms, what does this commitment look like? While every writer must discover their own writing process, there is only one way to write a book: write it. Across diverse genres of writing, you find the same advice again and again. You have to commit to showing up on a strict and regular basis. Writing a book is not easy, but making writing habitual will make it easier. I have wasted so many hours trying to decide where to write. Take some of the decisions out of play. Have a regular time and place. This can vary, in terms of your other commitments, and variety is good stimulation. But make Monday your library day, Wednesday and Thursday your coffeeshop days. Show up on time. End on time. Stay off email and off your phone, except for scheduled breaks. It is surprising how much we can get done when we actually do it. In his lovely book On Writing, Stephen King says you shouldn’t take more than one day off in a row. Because I’m an anti-capitalist and like my leisure activities, I think two is okay — but maybe not at first, not until you are in a groove. More than two days off from a project, and you will spend your first day back just trying to remember what the hell you were writing about.

Break the project into pieces and your time into chunks. Nobody sits down and writes a book. We write a sentence, a page, a section, a chapter. Likewise, we don’t experience time in five-year intervals; it’s too much for our brains to hold. (While I am not a real scientist, I am pretty sure this is true.) We can think in terms of a few days, a few weeks, one month. So work with this. Make very specific goals with specific and constrained timelines. Think of this work plan as a just slightly overbearing hug holding you in place.

A technique for putting this into action: Set your book goal for the semester. Be reasonable. A draft of a new chapter. Now calendar out the semester, making a schedule of assignments and deadlines. (Hey, it’s what we ask of our students.) Two weeks for reading background texts, two weeks to revisit archives, a week to outline. Two weeks for a first draft. A week off. A week to read through the first draft and make notes about what it needs. Two weeks filling in research gaps. A week to incorporate in new material. Two weeks to revise and get to a second draft ready to share with friendly readers. Rotating tasks (between writing, reading, and researching) introduces dynamism and surprise to the work mix and is good for the brain. (Again, not a scientist.) But be cautious of using these other tasks to avoid writing; they should support the writing, not eclipse it. When in doubt, return to the above — the only way to write a book is to write it. Archives and other people’s books can’t write it for you. You can avoid this trap by setting those deadlines and sticking with them. When you reach your first draft deadline — pencils down, you’re done. Move to the next task. Luckily, you already built in your weeks for revision. This lowers the stakes when you’re starting out; you do not have to write the chapter; you only have to write this first, imperfect draft.

You and your book are in a reciprocal relationship. Like any relationship, you will have good days and bad days. At the end of a good day, you’ll be kicking your heels, buzzing and elated, eager to reunite. After a bad day, you will want time apart — take it. Spend an afternoon reconnecting with your friends and enjoying something you used to do. And you and your book will have very bad days. You’ll threaten to break up. You’ll meet a new idea and want to run off and write it. (Seriously, guys, I’ve never felt like this before. This idea — it’s the one!) But remember, this relationship is reciprocal, and whatever you give to the book, the book will give back. Relish that. What do you want to learn? What are trying to say but feeling scared of? What ideas are you attached to that aren’t working and that the book is asking you to let go? Allow your book to lead you back to the excitement of being a student, exploring and testing out ideas. Listen to your book — it knows some things it wants to tell you.

A good exercise to bring some spark back to this relationship: When you’re feeling stuck and under-motivated and the siren call of Netflix is luring you further and further from your book, try this: write out, quickly, without thinking, ten reasons this book is important. (Bonus challenge: close this browser window and do it right now; but don’t forget to come back, I have more to say.) These ten reasons are a map of what brought you to this project, what motivated you to ask questions that take years to answer. This list is why your book matters; these ten reasons are why you must write it. Commit to honoring this list, and next time you get stuck, read through it. Or better yet (taking a cue from Julia Cameron), don’t wait to get stuck; read this list daily as part of your writing practice. (And feel free to edit and rewrite this list as new clarity about the project arises; writing is revision!)

Finally, this book is for you. It’s not for your former adviser, it’s not for your tenure committee, it’s not for that jerk at the conference who showed up late to your panel and then dismissed your entire project. Yes, it is for your readers, but don’t they deserve a book that you love and believe in? I know a book captivates me most when I can palpably feel the author’s urgency and enthusiasm rippling across its pages.

Give this book to yourself first, and then to your readers. Let yourself enjoy this experience, even the tough parts, which are just a sign that you’ve committed. This may or may not be the only book you ever write. But it is the only time you will write this book. So ask yourself: if I could write any book, what would I write?

Now, write that book.

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