Reflections On Writing Blog: Thoughts, Tips, and Suggestions

Why Are You Doing It?

Recently, I had a writer tell me (1) they didn’t want to write, and (2) they became overwhelmed when trying to explicate their purpose.  Because humans are complex, both of these statements were true, and both were also false.

This writer desperately wants to write.  A crucial deadline approaches and they desperately want to produce work to successfully meet the deadline. But, because of their difficult relationship with writing, and the discomfort they feel in the process, they quite understandably want to avoid writing.

A large part of their discomfort comes from feeling overwhelmed with all there is to be done, particularly when trying to explicate purpose. It can be very difficult to eloquently describe the purposes that motivate work for many of the reasons that writing is difficult especially concern for how others will respond, and the fact that simple things become complex when closely examined. At the same time, this writer was able to confidently state a purpose that was simple and direct. “We need X,” they said. It was clear, simple, and confident.  It was immediately followed by “I would have trouble defending that,” which reveals a shift to thinking about the complexities and difficulties of presenting ideas to other people and risking feedback, and away from the point of simple confidence.

That simple point of confidence is crucial.  Whether or not you believe in some real value in your work has a vast impact on your motivation and your ability t work.  If you lose that sense of purpose, it becomes easy to fall prey to the mental difficulties associated with the loss of a sense of meaning—where the reasons to work are purely external—to avoid punishment, to gain a reward.

Writing is hard. It forces writers to confront weaknesses their arguments and forces them to consider potential objections to their work, both of which sap the confidence needed to persevere. If a sense of purpose is lost, it’s harder to work through these other difficulties.

One of the critiques of academics is that they are in the “ivory tower” separate from the rest of the world and its concerns. But that’s not a good description of most academic research. Most people doing work in academia are interested in real-world action, whether in education, clinical work, policy, or future research for some cause.  Examining social dynamics and social issues may involve use of wildly obscure academic language and jargon, but still aims at changing how people see the world, and thus how they do things. Judith Butler, for example, who is notorious for her difficult writing, is still interested in real world behaviors. “Performativity” may be post-modernist jargon, but it’s a concept concerned with real social dynamics and with influencing those social dynamics. Lots of research is focused on learning how to do stuff better.

If you’re getting stuck, and not feeling a good sense of purpose, it may be worth a good think to get back in touch with the really fundamental ideas and motivations that got you to where you are at present.  A simple sense of conviction is valuable in trying to get past the complications and difficulties that will meet you on the road to your goal.

The greater your confidence in the value of your work, the easier it is to write. In my case, I am often assailed by doubts—by the fact that my own writing is not always clear, by the fact that when I read other experts, I disagree so often while also being impressed by the strength of their arguments—but I keep going because I hope to help people.  My sense of purpose—my desire to help writers, and the one struggling writer mentioned above in particular—overrides my doubts about whether I can actually provide help. 

Similarly, if you’re feeling stuck, understanding why—why are you doing your work? What’s the large purpose behind it?  That’s a foundation on which to build. Many difficult decisions are required to proceed with writing and research, a good foundation can support you past many.

Why bother? Why do the work?  The better you understand what motivates you, the better your energy to keep moving.

Taking Small but Useful Steps.

Some writers get stuck by anxiety about what to do next or anxiety about how to do their work. Recently I was working with a writer who does fine, once working, but who gets stuck by anxiety.

We were talking about analyzing some qualitative observations. Our discussion was focused on analytical and theoretical concerns, so we didn’t discuss the practical point I’m suggesting in this post.

If you are struggling with writer’s block of some sort, or you feel stuck when you are trying to write, especially if anxiety is an issue, it can be useful to focus on taking the smallest steps that you can that also make progress.

The writer and I were talking about analyzing statements made by people, and our discussion was concerned with dealing with the bridge between the statements and the analyses. And so what we didn’t talk about the specific practical difference between (1) trying to develop and present an analysis based on a whole corpus or even a sizeable chunk of a corpus, such as an entire paragraph, and (2), trying to develop an analysis based on a single sentence or even a single word.

Often, by focusing on the smallest possible unit, you can define a piece of work that is small enough that it doesn’t seem intimidating.  Focusing on one sentence or one word and trying to explain why it is significant to your work can be much easier than trying to explain a whole paragraph.

Not all words or sentences will be good choices for such focused attention, but if you’re struggling to deal with a larger mass of text—a whole paragraph or more—then one way to approach that text is to simply focus on one feature of interest–one word or phrase or sentence—and explain why that feature seems significant to you.

This is one possible suggestion as an alternative to trying to engage a larger text en masse. It’s a way to get moving and to engage with a project when anxiety might be problematic. In the long run, the whole corpus must be analyzed and discussed, but in the immediate moment, every individual step matters, and if you’re concerned about your progress and struggling with anxiety, taking a single small step can feel like making progress and that can reduce anxiety. And reducing anxiety is often the real key in starting to write.

Reflections on negotiating a contract 4: Royalties

Reposted from the TAAOnline Blog

My previous posts have been concerned with the large number of different issues in my contract as well as the general question of what ability I had to negotiate/renegotiate with my publisher who has a ton of leverage compared to me, a relative unknown. This post follows that basic theme, but looks specifically at the question of royalties.

One of the first things I’ll mention is the variety of different royalty clauses. To start, there were the basic book formats: hardback, paperback, and e-book. Following these were another dozen or so clauses, split into “rights and royalties” and “subsidiary rights and royalties,” which included things like international rights, audio and video rights, book club uses, use of excerpts and more. The list of different clauses was so long that I felt overwhelmed and did not research industry standards compared to the rates they were offering for the rest of these (perhaps a naive move—it was definitely not doing due diligence). I mostly focused on the three familiar formats—hardback, paperback, and e-book—even though it’s certainly possible that some other rights would have been worth the effort of negotiation—partial use of the work in course materials might be an area that matters to a book like mine. (Here’s hoping my book is successful enough for these other rights to amount to anything, even if I didn’t negotiate these clauses well!).

The first, obvious point of comparison for this contract was my previous Routledge contract from 2009, which, for the most part offered the same numbers. There were reductions to the hardback and paperback royalties and the rest was all the same. I interpret the reductions as a product of both my negotiating power (or lack thereof, as compared with the leverage held by the first author of my previous Routledge book, who was well known and a full professor), and as a reflection of the general health of the publishing industry. The reductions motived me to try to gather more information on the current state of publishing contracts (including watching the recent TAA on demand presentation “Anatomy of a Textbook Contract,”).

My next step was to ask a few people—two authors with recent publication experience and a publisher—about their knowledge with respect to royalties, at least with respect to the three basic ones (hardback, paperback, e-book; I didn’t ask for the complete detail of all the different types of rights and royalties).
First, I heard back from the publisher, who runs a small imprint that is subsidiary to a larger university press. The publisher suggested that I was getting lower rates on the e-book than industry standard (I was getting the same royalty rate for e-books I had received on my earlier contract). Because of that suggestion, I asked my editor about the e-book rates, and she responded that what I had was the standard Routledge contract, and they wouldn’t change that clause.

Next I heard back from the author of a scholarly book whom I had helped with his book proposal. Like me, this author has little prestige or leverage. He has the advantage of a university teaching position, and the disadvantage of writing a scholarly book with a very specific audience that would likely sell fewer copies than my more general textbook even if it did well for a book in its class. This author had submitted his book proposal at the same time as I had submitted mine, and he was offered a contract about one week before I was. His response to my query stunned me: he had been offered a flat fee for his book, no royalty percentages at all! And given the size of the flat fee, I felt a touch of anger for him. He told me that he was happy just to have received a contract and what was most important for him was getting published and the book helping his chance of moving into a tenure-track position, so I tried not to let it bother me. It certainly provided context that gave me greater appreciation for the offer I had received! If my book doesn’t sell, he’ll end up doing better than I, but if my book can sell more than about 500 copies, I’ll do better. (I haven’t explicitly asked my editor how many sales Routledge would consider a success, but one indication of Routledge’s expectations might be found in my contract’s paperback clause, which offered one rate for the first 2,000 copies and a higher rate for copies after that. If they’re willing to offer more after selling 2k copies, that’s a sign of their relative satisfaction with its performance.)

After exchanging e-mails with me, this author queried his editor/publisher, and he was told that his book would not be published individually, but rather would be published only as part of a larger electronic portfolio that his publisher sold as a package and that for this reason, they did not offer individual royalties. To what extent this is now an industry standard for specialized scholarly books, I don’t know, but it is somewhat disheartening, I think. I would certainly rather gamble that my book will sell a reasonable number of copies than settle for the flat fee that my acquaintance received.

Last, I heard from the third author, who will be publishing with Harvard University Press (American Sutraby Duncan Ryūken Williams, for which I provided some editing and the index), and who suggested that I ask for a higher rate on the hardback after reaching a certain number of sales. My paperback royalty clause already had such a limit: X% for the first 2,000 copies, and X+2% for all additional copies.  I asked my editor for a similar clause in my hardback royalties, and she responded that it was basically pointless, as they expected hardback sales to be, “very minimal – probably less than 100 copies.”
Although she did reject my request for a change in the hardback royalty, my editor and the publisher offered an improvement in the paperback royalty clause: they reduced the number of paperback copies I have to sell to get the improved rate from 2,000 to 1,000, meaning I’ll get an extra 2% on 1,000 copies (provided those copies sell). How much that change was motivated solely by my asking, and how much by my offering to make an accommodation by accepting the clause giving Routledge right of first refusal (which I mentioned in a previous post), I’m not sure, but I feel more empowered to ask, next time, even if I think I have little leverage.

To conclude this series of posts of my novice reflections, the process of reading, understanding, and negotiating my contract was moderately difficult, included lots and lots of details, and as far as I can tell, I got a basic industry standard contract. Even though I didn’t feel like I was in a very strong negotiating position, I went through the contract carefully, asked lots of questions (which my editor seemed happy to answer), and I think got some adjustments to the contract in my favor as a result. But, as I have said, I’m something of a novice at this, so my reflections may seem naive to those with more publication experience.

Fear and Confidence in Writing

Once, a writer told me about a book she really liked called something like The Writer’s Book of Fear. I got a copy and got about as far as the author saying that fear is the defining element of all writing.  I don’t remember exactly what he wrote, but it felt alien to my experience of writing.  This is not to say that I know no fear in writing; I experience many different fears when writing. But fear is not the only thing I feel when writing, by any means. I would say, in fact, that it’s not even close to my dominant emotion when writing.  In my opinion, actually, writing will best grow out of a cautious confidence that you have something to say that is worth saying—and this is a confidence I believe many fearful writers have. Many people believe that they have an important message to communicate, but if asked to write it down, the fear of writing poorly can take over.

Confidence plays a huge role in how writing develops, and for struggling writers, it is often a major cause of writing blocks. Over-confidence can lead to imprudent action and can blind a writer to problems, but on the whole, I would think these are far better problems for a writer than to be paralyzed by doubt. Practically speaking, it’s almost always better for a writer to take the risk of getting rejected than to leave the page blank. 

Here’s a rough self-diagnostic: do you have a history of thinking your work is great and then getting rejected? If so, you might be over-confident, and you might benefit from reviewing your own work a bit more critically in an effort to improve it. But if that’s not your history, and if, indeed, you have a history of thinking your work is poor, even after it has been accepted/approved/graded, then you would likely benefit from having more confidence in your work, or at least writing with a willingness to be wrong—writing to try out ideas and ways of expressing ideas. 

Believing in yourself is crucial, especially if you are self-critical. When I am struggling with doubt about the strength of my work—especially when contrasting my work to other writing I have seen on the same topics—I often try to soothe myself by remembering the wide variety of opinions that any one work will face, which pretty much guarantees that someone will disagree, but also means that there is likely someone who will agree. For many, it’s easier to sink into focusing on the people who will reject the work and the different ways in which it might be rejected than it is to focus on those who will like the work and the different ways it will be accepted. But it’s worth the effort to focus on the  people who will likely be supportive.  Keeping your eyes on the people who will like your work is a good long-term strategy for a writer, because they’re the ones who will support your efforts, so it makes sense to think about how to work with those people.

I don’t want to over-simplify here.  A person who is generally supportive can also be harshly critical. I just got feedback on my book manuscript that basically said “I really like this project, but it needs to be but by 30%.” Along with the general comment the reviewer provided a long list of problems and weaknesses. The bulk of the communication was “cut this,” and “cut that.” With that kind of feedback, it can be pretty easy to lose sight of the crucial “I really like this project” part. If you are looking for support and someone makes a harsh criticism, it can cause emotional distress. In such situations, it’s important to keep an eye on the general motivation for the criticism, and a brief comment of overall support should cast direct criticisms in a different light.  It’s hugely different to receive feedback that says, “This is junk. Look at all the problems:…” than feedback that says “This is great. But look at all these problems:…” The list of problems might be identical, but it’s those crucial three opening words that matter. It takes confidence to hear feedback, but it can also build confidence if you focus on the positive aspects of the feedback.

And, if you have confidence enough to listen to criticism, you can really improve your work by presenting it to others and learning from their feedback. Fear, meanwhile, will make it harder to work on criticism.

Too much doubt is typically the problem for all the writers who have gotten stuck somewhere in the process without finishing a work. Writer’s block—the failure to write—can have roots in many different fears: that you don’t know enough, that you might be wrong, that you don’t write well enough, that other people will disagree, that others will laugh, that you will be rejected, and all the related flavors of doubt.  I don’t think I’ve ever met a writer who struggled with a writing block due to over-confidence.

One of the reasons I find it so valuable to develop and maintain a regular writing practice is that it can reduce some anxieties and fears the come up in the process.  If you practice writing and experiment with putting words on the page, you reduce many anxieties in the process. One big hope is that the regular practice helps you feel less concerned about any single sentence or paragraph: the more sentences you write, the easier it is to focus on the ones you like and ignore the ones you don’t. And each additional sentence you do write, can contribute to your sense that you can produce writing (even if you want to edit it). Other possible benefits of a practice that can help ease the process of writing are that a regular practice in writing will lead  to greater familiarity with your word-processing software, possibly reducing some anxieties there, and, practicing might help you feel more comfortable with punctuation and grammar (not necessarily comfortable, but at least less uncomfortable).  Writing practice can help you find your own voice and that can help you feel more confident, too.

We can’t necessarily control our emotions, but we can develop a writing practice that might give confidence at least in the process, even if doubts about what to write remain.

Reflections on negotiating a contract 2: Myriad details

This is reposted from the TAAOnline Blog

In this, the second of my posts on the contract and negotiation process, I consider the wide variety of issues that came up as I read my contract. Not being a lawyer, contracts always seem long and intimidating to me.

As I said in my previous post, my contract was some 13 pages long, and like most legal documents, very detailed. It was not something I would like to handle from a place of ignorance, but it was also not something that I thought required hiring a lawyer to help me. Some research was needed. Because I can get overwhelmed with too much information, I didn’t scour the Internet for all possible information about the variety of industry-standard book contracts for a textbook. I did watch one TAA on demand presentation about contracts: “Anatomy of a Textbook Contract,”which was very helpful in covering many of the general issues that my contract covered.  I also had my previous contract with Routledge from 2009 as a point of comparison, which was quite similar to my new contract in most of the details.

In this post, I’m going to touch on a sort of grab-bag of different clauses to give a sense of the detail involved in a contract. Perhaps all of us should have seen enough contracts, generally speaking—terms of service on websites, for example—to know that contracts are never simple. Logically, speaking, I was aware that contracts are detailed, and that Routledge’s contracts were surely overseen by lawyers, and therefore, complicated, like all contracts—for that matter, I had already signed a contract with Routledge. But still, the detail was a bit overwhelming.

Many clauses state basic details that obviously need to be stated, but such obvious things can get taken for granted. The contract naturally states who is going to sign it, along with relevant addresses for communication. The contract also includes information about the book that is under consideration—its title, content, length, scope and such. There is a clause that states when I have to deliver the book to them, and the format in which I must deliver it. There are clauses stating Routledge’s responsibilities in the process, too. The list of my responsibilities was long.

Some of the basic clauses were the outdated remnants of the era of print manuscripts that were hard to duplicate and easy to lose or damage. For example, the clause concerning my submitting the manuscript stated “the author shall retain a duplicate of the work,” and a later clause about publisher’s responsibility stated, “the Publisher is not responsible for loss or damage to the work while it is in their possession.” These are certainly wise contractual precautions in an era of typescripts—physical copies that can be destroyed—but it’s not significant in an era where the submission is in electronic form and duplication is easy. I commented on these to the editor, but neither she nor I were significantly motivated to change the boilerplate language—they certainly don’t seem to be likely to be at issue.

The clause concerning the copyright had six subsections. The first stated that I retain the copyright, then some stated Routledge’s rights and responsibilities with respect to use of the work. A couple were regarding a point of UK/EU law—about the “moral right” to assert ownership of the work, which I don’t really understand, beyond recognizing that such clauses are negotiating the difficult logical/legal terrain of intellectual property. One final copyright clause limited my ability to re-use the work.

After the copyright, there were clauses that stated my claim to be author of the work, and indemnified Routledge from damages due to problems in the text. For example, the contract assigns me responsibility that the book is not libelous or obscene or unlawful, and that it does not negligently suggest actions that will lead to harm.

There were several clauses related to royalty accounting, and to my rights to inspect their accounts. I didn’t investigate these closely—I read them, but realistically, I can’t imagine using those clauses. I’m just going to take it for granted that Routledge is going to be honest until I’m faced with strong evidence suggesting otherwise. And, in that unpleasant eventuality, I will hope that the contract will provide sufficient protection for my interests.

One interesting clause was written in strikethrough text, so that it was a part of the contract text that I could read, but would not have been an active part of the contract. That clause gave Routledge right of first refusal on my next book, obligating me to offer it to Routledge before any other publisher. The right of first refusal clause was one I specifically remembered from my previous Routledge contract. In that contract, it had been included and I had specifically asked for it to be removed because it seemed like a big restriction with respect to the book I was writing at the time (my self-published book). This time, as I said, it was written in strikethrough text, and when I asked about it, my editor told me that most authors wanted that clause removed. This time around, I’m perfectly happy to give Routledge my next proposal first. I’m not enthusiastically looking forward to a new round of book proposals for my next book, and unless problems crop up in the process of publishing this book, I would just as soon continue to work with Routledge and the editor who took a chance on me. Indeed, as a result of this line of thinking, I offered to have this contract included as an incentive for Routledge to improve other clauses in my favor—which I will discuss in later posts.

This post is already about as long as I will go, and I’ve not even talked through all the variety of clauses. The many considerations of the contract were a bit overwhelming, especially trying to figure out the ones that weren’t clear. In this post, I’ve talked about some of the easier clauses to deal with. The next two posts consider issues that were more difficult because of the emotional reaction to the stakes—these include the royalty clauses (the subject of my final post) as well as a number of other clauses dealing with uncertain possibilities, such as, for example, future editions of my book, which I discuss in the next post,  “Reflections on Negotiating a Contract 3: Emotionally Loaded Details”.

 

Being a Beginner

It’s difficult being a beginner and trying to identify and negotiate the unfamiliar issues of unfamiliar work. It’s frustrating being unable to act effectively. Especially if there are other areas where you are used to acting effectively. As a result of years of practice as writer and editor, I have developed some facility with words and with writing. Although writing is often difficult in the sense that it demands effort and concentration, I can generally work quickly and effectively.  And that efficacy makes writing feel extremely easy compared to unfamiliar tasks, even though writing is still difficult.

When I write, because of my experience, I can sense the potential of a plan to create a coherent piece of work. I can make decisions about scope and focus, and I am not troubled about the possibility of making those decisions wrong.  I am confident that I can always write another draft (indeed, I will probably write another draft of something tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that, and so on…), and this confidence in the process is a powerful emotional shield against the frustrations of the process. If I decide to throw a draft away, it’s not a problem, it’s just part of the process.

Recently, I have been working on making videos (and diagrams/images to supplement visual presentation of ideas) to expand the range of media in which I work.  I have experimented with basic videos in the past, posting several quickly made dissertation-related videos during the early months of 2018. The quality was unsatisfactory and I dropped the project to focus on finding a publisher for my book. Having found a publisher, I see my publisher suggesting I make some videos to help promote my book.  “Make a simple video,” the material suggests, “It doesn’t have to be fancy.” That framing of it—a simple video, doesn’t have to be fancy—is kind of inspiring or at least reassuring. But then I start work.

This is a field in which I am mostly a beginner.  My experience as a writer helps me with writing a script. Beyond that, I’m largely lost and kind of overwhelmed. The tools of the process are unfamiliar to me. Visual imagery? Soundtracks? I’m a rank amateur. But here I am, making a stab at it because it sounds like a good idea.  And because I’m a rank amateur, every step is frustrating. Mistakes abound. Doubts multiply. Every step is uncertain, uncomfortable.  Even trying to write scripts/outlines/storyboards…I mean I don’t even know how to apply words here. My instincts about how much to say in written form fail me when I contemplate the temporal structure of video presentation: I know how word counts relate to desired reading time, but I don’t know how word counts relate to speaking/listening time.  I’ll learn this, and other things with practice, as long as I practice. 

And images. I don’t work in visual media; I don’t really rely on images or diagrams when I think about the processes of writing and research. So I’m trying to imagine images that might help me convey ideas, which is hard, and then, when I get an idea, I’m trying to use unfamiliar tools to capture what I imagined (I’m mostly working on the computer, which is difficult, but produces better results than I do drawing by hand). And what I do create doesn’t look all that good to me.

Being a novice is difficult emotionally. Doubts about how to precede receive no emotional support from past successes in the same area of experience. Because of the doubt, the work is more tiring and more frustrating. I procrastinate—indeed, I’m writing a blog post instead of working on a video right now, even though my video still needs to be made. I try to focus on making a video, and my attention goes to other projects that are related. In response, I try to keep refocusing on the practice—the repeated attempt to make something connected with a video. Not on the weaknesses of the specific piece that I’m working on, but just on the process. On taking one step after another. On exploring. On making mistakes so that I can learn from them. On making drafts that I throw away, so that I can experiment with things to see what seems to work (very little, so far!) and what doesn’t.

Being a beginner is frustrating. But when the goal seems worthy, if you can step into a practice where you experiment, make mistakes and keep practicing, you will improve your ability and then, whatever abilities you have will be amplified by your practice-based skills.

Work on one thing at a time until finished

As number one on his list of 1932-1933 “Commandments”, Henry Miller wrote “Work on one thing at a time until finished.”

It’s an extremely valuable dictum, despite the difficulties I have putting it into practice.  There are two elements to it that I really, really like, and one element that is really hard or imprctical.

The first element that I like is the idea of working on one thing at a time.  At a very immediate, moment-to-moment scale, working on one thing at a time is the only way to go.  Over very short time frames—a few minutes, perhaps—the only real options for working are: 1. to work on/write about one thing with focus, or 2. try to decide what to work on/write about.  There is good value in spending time trying to decide what to do, but at some point it’s necessary to stop thinking about what to write, and to start writing.  When you do start writing, you want to focus on writing one sentence at a time—there is a larger goal, but it’s built up of the small steps.

The second element that I like is the “until finished” part, which is also the part I don’t like.  What I like about the “until finished” idea is the focus on finishing.  There is a place in this world for journal writers and free writers to write for the sake of writing or for the self-discovery involved, but if you want to get a degree or get published, you have to finish things in a timely fashion. When your focus is on the question of finishing a project, you’re less likely to get stuck with a project that is too large to complete, and less likely get stuck endlessly revising. Focusing on completion doesn’t guarantee finishing, but it does shift the approach somewhat from “what is the best work possible?” to “what is the best work I can accomplish in a reasonable time?”  Perfectionism is less likely to lead to paralysis if one of the criteria for perfection is “completed !” or even “completed on schedule!”  

The “until finished” aspect, however, has two problems: 1. it can be hard to know what “finished” is, and 2. it’s often impractical to focus exclusively on one project over longer periods of time. The first of these points is related to the question of not knowing enough. People looking for answers may feel that a work is unfinished if it leaves a lot of questions unanswered or raises more questions than it did answer, but answers always lead to new questions, so it’s possible to think a work is unfinished, even if outside reviewers might judge it as an interesting and valuable project. Secondly, the idea of working on one thing at a time is perhaps impossible (or impossible to define) in the context of a research career. What counts as “one thing” in a research career? Is a research career just a series of independent projects, each “one thing” taken one at a time, or is it a larger program that leads to a series of specific projects?  I think the second is more realistic for most scholars and grad students: They are driven by a larger question, but one specific research project only speaks to some of their questions of interest. (Whether seeking a professional or academic career, the researcher needs to consider the specific research project in the larger context of the career.) Miller, whose “commandment” inspired this post, wrote fiction, and perhaps it is easier to segment a career in fiction.

The “until finished” idea can be impractical, too, because finishing a work often includes delays when you can’t work on the project. For someone seeking an academic career, it’s valuable to be able to start working on a new project before an old one is complete because of the many delays that go into executing many projects. Publication, for example, is loaded with delays during which a work is not necessarily “finished” but you can’t work on it. During those times, it’s good to have some different project to work on, but then what do you do when it’s time to go back to the work in publication? Having multiple projects at different stages of development can help a scholar use time more efficiently.

But when you have multiple projects and demands on your time, it’s much easier to get overwhelmed. It’s much easier to spend time wondering what to work on next, instead of just working on one thing. And it’s easy to lose time switching between projects instead of focusing.  That’s why, in terms of developing a regular practice, it’s good to work on one thing at a time until finished. Miller called that a commandment. For me, it’s more a goal or a principle for which I strive, but with deference to practical concerns. For me, it’s a particularly useful goal that helps me focus on my writing when it is time to write, and helps me prioritize and act, rather than get stuck debating what to work on and overwhelmed by the many things that I could or should do.

Reflections on negotiating a contract 1: Leverage and the power to negotiate

Reposted from the TAAOnline Blog

When I wrote my last series of posts, I was waiting to hear whether a publisher would offer me a contract for my book for graduate students. The publisher—Routledge—did make an offer, marking the pleasant culmination of the 10+ month proposal process, and I could begin to look forward to publication, most likely in 2020 of my book titled Literature Review and Research Design: A Guide to Effective Research Practice. Getting the offer was a great milestone, but it didn’t put an end to the larger process of getting published. The next phase began with the question of whether to accept the offered contract and whether and how to negotiate for changes. As with my previous series of posts, I offer the reflections of a relative novice, not the advice of an expert.

With the offer came the question of contractual terms and negotiating a contract. The initial offer came with basic terms—royalty rates and some other points. A few days later, it was followed by the formal contract which brought a large number of additional issues into play. The excitement of getting the contract offer was significant, but not so exciting that I would just accept any contract, either. Getting an offer increases my confidence in my book. Although I don’t want to look for a new publisher to make an offer, nor do I want to self-publish again, they’re real options rather than taking what I perceive to be a bad contract. Unfortunately, I’m not entirely sure what makes a good or bad contract.

Once before, I was involved in negotiating a publication contract, also with Routledge, when they published the scholarly book of which I was second author. With one contract already under my belt, I had  slightly more experience than none at all. I knew what a Routledge contract looked like ten years ago, and not much more. For that previous contract, I had simply followed the lead of my first author, and he wasn’t particularly concerned with details, so we basically accepted the contract they offered. But this time, I had no first author to follow; this time, I was in charge, with the corresponding privileges and responsibilities, and the anxieties, too. Being a careful and cautious person, dealing with the myriad specific issues covered in a contract was/is quite intimidating.

The contract I received was about 13 pages long, with about 25 main clauses, many of which had several subclauses. I read through it all carefully. Some of it was obvious, some less so. Some of it seemed totally reasonable, some less so. Not surprisingly, I suppose, it was not all exactly as I would have best liked it. But to what extent could I negotiate changes? Did I have any power to negotiate, or was I simply at the mercy of the publisher’s offer? I decided I had enough power to at least negotiate a little but not very aggressively.

Although I was not desperate to sign, I really didn’t want to get back into the process of sending out proposals. This was a strong incentive to accept their terms. The fact that I would prefer to work with Routledge (a preference that might be naive) was also incentive. Furthermore, I did not perceive myself has having a great deal of leverage: I am not already famous; I do not have any prestige stemming from institutional affiliation. These considerations weighed in favor of just accepting their terms without negotiation for fear of losing the contract.

Balanced against that was my confidence in the quality of my work, and in my ability to either find another publisher or self-publish. Essentially, as I saw it, I had only the leverage of the book itself, plus, perhaps, a little added because the editor had invested her effort in it. It is a strong book, I believe, and good enough that the editor had invested her time and budget to look at it, get reviews, and promote it for a contract—for that matter, she used the time of the publishers, too, when she presented it as a possible project. So, whatever general weakness in position I suffered as an unknown, I did have the book going for me. I focused on this bit of negotiating leverage for emotional support because it was better than having nothing.

For a large number of clauses, I had questions or concerns, including those that covered royalties, copyright infringement, right to future editions, permissions, and the book title. Many of these seemed to me like they favored the publisher more than I felt appropriate, but it seems to me that most contracts I sign or agree to are filled with unavoidable unpleasantness, and can’t be changed. (For example, the Terms of Service contracts that I accept on myriad websites don’t leave any room for negotiation, must be accepted to use the service, and contain all sorts of unpleasant clauses). For this contract, I felt like I did have the opportunity to negotiate because it was a contract written specifically for me. And so, I asked my editor lots of questions as a way of approaching possible negotiation.

If there is an overall theme to this series of posts, it would be that it doesn’t hurt to ask. I asked a lot of questions and in response, Routledge made a few changes in my favor.

Because of my appreciation of the value of the contract and the desire to avoid alienating Routledge, I asked with courtesy and without contention. Realistically, I was mostly ready to accept what they had offered, and didn’t expect that they would make changes in my favor. But, to protect my own interests, I asked. And it was a contract that I could actually negotiate. In this case, I did have the chance to negotiate; I decided I ought to use it.

On the general point of having negotiating leverage, it is worth keeping in mind that even if you have no leverage beyond that of your book, you do have that. You didn’t get a contract offer unless the publisher had some hopes it could sell; they may be willing to make some concessions to keep the rights.

In my second post in this series, “Reflections on Negotiating a Contract 2: Myriad Details”, I will consider the wide variety of issues that came up as I read my contract.

American Sutra

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which gave the military legal authority to designate areas, “from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion.” It’s a sweeping power—“any or all persons…in his discretion”—allowing the military to select who was free and who was not, with none of the due process guaranteed by the US Constitution.

The power was used to target Japanese Americans, to force them from their homes and into concentration camps—camps surrounded by barbed wire, guarded by the military, in desolate locations, where they were forced into hastily built barracks. Most of the 110,000 thus incarcerated were American citizens. Many of those who were not, were long-time US residents who had been legally denied the right to apply for citizenship due to their race/national heritage. It is a great stain on the American promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

For the Japanese American community, today, February 19, is the Day of Remembrance, the annual recognition of the anniversary of Executive Order 9066.

For the rest of the American community, it is a bit of history that would be well to learn, lest we repeat it, or perhaps because we are currently repeating it.  In 1942, the Axis military forces presented a real emergency, but targeting innocent people was no worthy use of resources in that war.  Today, the president has declared that there is a national emergency (when there is none), and is using that emergency to put people in concentration camps (the recent spending deal, to which Democrats agreed, included money for 50,000+ ICE detention beds), as well as to build a wall whose only real use is symbolic.

Over the last several years, the history of the Japanese American community has been brought to life for me by the work of Duncan Ryūken Williams, whose book American Sutra, is officially released today.  The book is based on historical research started almost 20 years ago, when Professor Williams, a student of Buddhism and Buddhist history, and a Buddhist priest, discovered an original manuscript journal written by a Buddhist priest during his incarceration at Manzanar, including extensive notes for sermons.  Those notes led to his hearing the oral history of a girl, then age 10, who returned to her home from school one afternoon in December, 1941, to find her father being beaten by the FBI, while her mother sat watching with a gun held to her head by another FBI agent. And these stories led to others. Professor Williams interviewed those who had lived through the camps; he gathered journals written by camp residents; he examined the extensive literature already published on the Japanese American incarceration; and he studied governmental and military records. Professor Williams, given his background, was naturally concerned with the religious aspect, and it happens that in all the extensive literature on the Japanese American incarceration, little was interested in Buddhism and the role Buddhism played in this history.  Williams’s history tells the story of how the US government and US public  discriminated against Buddhists on the basis of religion, the story of how Buddhist organizations and traditions were shaped in these events, and the story of the many who found strength in their Buddhist faith.  The book gives a sense of the broad scope of events, and, through the many first-hand accounts that it includes, a feel for the experiences of those who were there.

In 2011, I began working as an editor for Professor Williams, starting with reviewing a chapter on the experiences of early Japanese immigrants to the Americas, then intended as a short preliminary chapter to the book on Buddhism in the Japanese incarceration.  That chapter has since been entirely eliminated, with its material now planned for a separate book.  Over the years, I have seen all sorts of excellent material that made up Williams’s research but that had to be excluded simply because there was too much good material if the book was going to get published. The book that Harvard published is an excellent book—the best work I’ve ever helped create—but I’m not sure that it couldn’t have been better to have been about 50% longer. As an editor and writer, my general tendency is to think that the best way to improve writing is to make it shorter.  American Sutra is a happy exception to that rule; the material on which it was built was so strong that it could have been better for being longer.

Multiple Drafts and Writer’s Block

Writer’s block typically arises from a complex of issues. In this post, I discuss one factor that can contribute to writer’s block and how writing multiple drafts and thinking about the different roles of those drafts can help deal with that one difficulty. The idea of writing multiple drafts of a single work is hardly a novel one, but I have not seen this particular take on multiple drafts in relations to writer’s block (and now that I typed that, I’m definitely not going to go look to see if any one else written something similar! I wouldn’t actually be surprised).

One problem that can contribute to writer’s block is the conflict between writing to learn and writing to communicate/writing for presentation.  When writing early drafts of a work, writers are often seeking their argument and their focus, and in such cases, the concern for learning about the work can conflict with concerns for presentation. This can occur in a number of different ways: concern for grammar, spelling and punctuation distract attention from finding an argument. Worries about how readers will respond the work—fear of rejection or memories of previous difficult feedback—can create emotional stress that distracts attention.  One such conflict that can cause problems, which I’ve seen several times with academic writers, is the conflict created using a theorist that you don’t want to cite.  In one case in my experience, a writer who was interested in some ideas from Freud had a professor who hated Freud. Because his professor would respond poorly to works citing Freud, he quite reasonably wanted to avoid citing Freud. At the same time, however, he relied on Freud as an intellectual landmark.  He associated many of the ideas he used with Freud, and so when seeking to understand his own arguments, he turned to Freud. And this created a block: in trying to work through ideas, he would think of Freud, but then he would get stuck because he didn’t want to write about Freud, so his process of intellectual exploration was interrupted by his concern about how his work would be received.

Thinking about the different (and potentially competing) roles of drafts, can, perhaps, help reduce this specific conflict of interests.  If the specific role of your present draft is to learn and explore (and will be mostly private), then maybe you can set aside concerns for presentation and just explore.  Ask yourself: do you have a good sense of your argument—do you need to write to learn?—or do you already have a good focus and now need to think about communicating with your audience—do you need to write for presentation?  

Generally, in early drafts, the purpose is to learn—to learn what you really care about and what is most important for the project. Later, once you’ve committed to a sufficiently tight focus, then you start thinking about how to present ideas and communicate with your audience.  This is something of a simplification: you may never stop learning and changing what you think most important (thus stories of people frantically rewriting at the last minute), even as you try to complete a mature project; and you can gain some benefit from thinking about how to communicate (or at least with whom to communicate) even early in the process of research design.  

As a matter of process, this scenario with the writer trying to write around Freud displays how the two concerns—of learning and of presentation—are in conflict for a writer who is not certain of the precise content, focus and argument of the work.  By specifying the role of a draft as exploratory (and private), then he can go ahead and write about Freud as a point of reference that helps him learn about the shape and scope of his own argument.  Because that first draft is only for learning, there is no need to avoid Freud, who can thus play an important role as an intellectual landmark in the exploration of ideas that is occurring during the writing of the early draft. Putting aside the concern for presentation allows greater freedom in the exploration of ideas, which is crucial in the process of finding one’s own voice and in developing original research.

Once the argument comes into better focus, the writer can switch her/his efforts from learning and intellectual exploration to the question of presentation.  If a draft has already been completed, and the scope of the argument has already been set while using Freud as a point of reference, then the writer then has a much better position from which to work on the question of how best to present his/her own argument.

Basically, if you are not yet sure what you want to say, you benefit from exploring that first.  If you are not sure of what you want to say, it is crucial to explore those ideas with freedom before getting bogged down in presentational details.  If you think of some scholar—Dr.X—when trying to explain your work, explore that connection, explore that relationship. Why is Dr.X important to you? What aspects of Dr.X’s theory are like or unlike yours? What is it about Dr.X’s work that makes it a useful point of reference?  Write these things out to learn about the intellectual terrain on which your work is situated.  Use the landmark of Dr.X help you see the whole landscape of ideas, and thus help you understand your own position better, and also identify other scholars whose work provides useful intellectual landmarks for use in later drafts that get written once your argument has clarified. [This post is about writer’s block and using separate drafts with distinct roles, so I’m not going to get into the question of whether a scholar who “hides” a source by using alternative sources for citations is committing some ethical breach.]

The process of writing about a Dr.X in an early draft can help clarify a sense of purpose and a sense of argument.  Once you have a better sense of direction and focus, then you can turn your attention to crafting an effective presentation that doesn’t rely on Dr.X, ideally by citing alternative scholars who have expressed similar ideas with less problematic context, for example, as might be done by replacing Freud citations with citations from more modern psychodynamic theorists.

I recently wrote about trusting the process in writing. This is, I think, one issue where it’s necessary (1) to recognize that there is an ongoing process, and (2) to give that process space and time to work.  If you don’t see your process as including both drafts for learning and drafts to refine presentation, then you’re forcing yourself into a situation in which your concerns for presentation will work against the necessary process of exploration, and that can contribute to a larger writing block.

If you’re stuck and having trouble finding your voice, put aside your concerns for presentation. First, write to learn, then, later, write for presentation.