Reflections On Writing Blog: Thoughts, Tips, and Suggestions

Listening to Yourself

Recently, I saw a motivational quotation on the order of “Do what you love and it isn’t work.” It struck me as unrealistic and unhelpful. It fails to capture the difficult and intimate interplay between love and work—whatever kind of love we may be talking about.  Love calls on us to do things that are difficult, even unpleasant or painful. Often we surmount difficulties and minor discomforts for our proudest achievements and best experiences. But it’s possible to face too much difficulty, and too much pain, and then love can be destructive.  To have a healthy relationship with the things we love—whether people or activities or otherwise—it helps to be able to listen to ourselves and make good judgements about how much difficulty is the right amount of difficulty.

Passion often lies where there is great difficulty. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi argues that the best moments in people’s lives occur in activities that present significant challenges—the “Flow” state that Csikszentmihalyi has researched occurs in difficult activities, not easy ones. The activities that he describes as flow activities are ones where there is a danger of failure and a possibility for growth.

Shortly after seeing that motivational quotation, I was out for a run. (I’m not sure I go fast enough to call what I do “running” anymore, but I’ll call it running.) While running, I was thinking about the practice of listening to myself and the value of self-knowledge, and thinking about that in the context of writing and developing a writing practice, as well as the context of going running.

Going running is difficult and it is also something that I love.  When running well, I feel better than I do at any other time.  But I’m liable to aches and pains.  Tendonitis is a frequent issue, as is tightness or cramping.  Understanding these pains and being able to self-diagnose—listening to myself—helps me decide when to run harder and when to stop and engage in some treatment (like stretching).  You don’t want to keep running if running is going to cause more damage or prevent damage from healing; you do want to keep running if the exercise will help resolve the problem. Being able to listen to yourself helps you make a good judgement.

This ability to listen to oneself is valuable in all cases where love leads us to a difficulty: do we continue to follow our passion, or do we pull back because our passion is causing damage? 

To develop a successful writing practice, it’s important to listen to oneself, and to understand which difficulties are a sign to stop and tend to yourself, and which are just difficulty and discomfort to work through.  

This is true at both the physical and emotional levels. Physically, to write, and to work on writing has real dangers—I have known more than one researcher whose work was brought to a near standstill by repetitive stress injuries.  RSIs are better understood now than when I was in graduate school, so fewer people are crippled by them—partly because we better understand the danger and the danger signs (as well as appropriate responses).

Danger of overwork also exists on the emotional level, I believe. It is possible to turn a work practice into something so unpleasant that it becomes hard to work.  The idea that obstacles to writing stem from psychological issues is hardly a new or inventive one. Two sources where I have seen this idea are Neil Fiore’s The Now Habit and Keith Hjortshoj’s book on writing blocks, both of which discuss different psychological issues that inhibit writing.

Whether the pain is physical or emotional, being able to listen to yourself and correctly diagnose the severity of various discomforts can help you develop a more effective writing practice.  And that understanding can help your realize a project that is important to you and also difficult—a project of the sort that is often called a “labor of love.”

A labor of love requires a positive and beneficial practice that provides sufficient rewards to justify the difficulties involved, and part of that requires the ability to listen to yourself in order to understand what the costs are relative to the benefits.

The “do what you love and it isn’t work” trope fails to explain or understand the idea of a labor of love, and so cannot support such a work. If you think that doing what you love means that you don’t have to work, then you will almost certainly interpret all difficulties as a sign of something wrong—perhaps, even that you don’t love what you’re dong enough.  A more realistic view of what constitutes a good relationship recognizes that significant difficulties are part of the best things in life.

For me, the difficulty and frustration of not knowing what to write, of feeling that my ideas are weak or of limited interest, of not knowing how to make a coherent argument, of feeling that my hoped-for and intended argument has totally fallen apart, all of these are real pains. There is real difficulty and distress related to these things.  But is it suffering that will cause long-term damage? Knowing yourself and listening to yourself helps prevent engagement from becoming unhealthy.  

Doing what you love takes work. It involves real frustrations and difficulties. That work and those frustrations and difficulties are not necessarily signs that you’re doing something wrong or that you don’t love enough.  That’s where listening to yourself is about: by listening to yourself, you get information about your processes and you can use that information to develop better, healthier practices.

In this post, I have focused on listening to yourself with respect to managing a writing practice, but as a final note, I want to point out that for a writer being able to listen to yourself—hearing your own voice, and trusting your own judgments—is crucial not only in managing the practice of writing, but in finding material to write.  To write original work, there is no other source than your own voice—but that’s a subject for a different post.

Trusting the Process in Writing

For some writers, there comes a point where it can seem like there’s nothing to write about, or at least nothing worth writing about.  At that point, one option is to simply stop writing.  But, of course, that might not be a good option.  Another option is to skip the big picture and reduce the process to a matter of small steps and to trust that a process of engagement will help you open some paths of development.

Trusting a process is difficult, especially when a deadline looms.  It can be hard to accept that you might benefit from engaging in some apparently trivial task, especially if you feel a lack of basic ideas worth writing about.  But again, if the issue is a choice between being blocked—stuck feeling that there is nothing that you can write or that you want to write about—and trusting the process, then trust the process!

You won’t find something worth writing about by avoiding your project.  And you won’t find much satisfaction in just stopping.  Just stopping leads to the certainty that your project will not be accepted.  Trying to get published? You need a manuscript. Trying to get a degree? You need a manuscript.

Trusting a process can be annoying.  You might ask, “If I can’t find a big issue to write about, what’s the point in engaging with some small tangential task?”  Or you might say “that suggestion is so trivial, it won’t help.”  Such complaints have some validity. There is no question that there is better efficiency found in working on something when you have a clear vision of what you’re going to do.  But, again, the context needs emphasis: saying that it would be better to have a clear vision of your goal doesn’t help if you have no obvious route to gain such a vision. If you are feeling stuck, and feeling lost, trusting the process may be the only alternative that leads to productive activity.

There are usually a large number of minor tasks that a writer can pick up to start engaging with the process.  There is always value in trying to make a one-sentence statement of purpose for a project.  A writer who has lost a sense of direction can particularly benefit from taking the step of writing a one-sentence statement of purpose, and even better if that task is engaged repeatedly: write that one-sentence statement. And then write another one-sentence statement. And another.

A similar task is to write an outline for the work you want to write—this is, in a way, an inversion of the previous task: writing a one-sentence statement of purpose focuses on the over-arching structure.  Writing an outline focuses on the pieces that make up the structure.  It’s certainly possible to write an outline without having a clear sense of what your final argument will be—perhaps you have a few examples that you want to discuss, or a few issues—even if you don’t know exactly how they are related, you can put them into some outline.

If tasks like doing a statement of purpose or an outline seem intimidating, there are also tasks that are more granular.  Pick one sentence from an old draft and focus on that one sentence. What is good about it? What is bad about it? What could you do differently? Pick one idea from an old draft and write about what you hoped for with that idea and what problems you have faced. 

Or pick some publication in your field to which you can contrast your own work. Why is it like yours? To what extent are you interested in the same issues? And where do your interests differ? If you don’t know what you want to write about, you might find some subject of interest by looking at what others have written and thinking about how you want your work to compare.

Or, if you have empirical data that you have gathered, go back to that data and ask yourself again what the data shows. If you have empirical data, you should be focused on writing what is there in the data.

I’m a big fan of having a clear vision of where you want to go—an overarching sense of purpose and sense of direction are powerful guides for a writer.  But it’s possible to lose sight of those goals in the midst of a project. If you are wandering around the conceptual landscape wondering where to situate your writing, don’t scorn taking small steps. Small steps may seem meaningless or worthless—there’s little clear direction in writing about an idea you’ve rejected, or about an author whose work you don’t think you can use—but the process of engaging them earnestly can at least give you more information to figure out where you stand in the conceptual landscape, and where you might want to go.

Taking small steps that seem pointless may involve taking steps that are almost no help whatsoever. Maybe some of the small steps you take lead directly to dead-ends.  Those steps don’t directly contribute to the draft you’re trying to create.  But such steps do contribute to the process—they may not help a draft directly, but a series of such small steps helps delineate the project: every step you take that leads to a dead-end also helps set limits of the project, and seeing limits on the project can be useful in understanding what is and is not part of the project.  And the more such small steps you take, the more likely it is that you will hit upon some idea that is valuable and interesting.

Engaging in a process of taking small steps can be frustrating, but if you’re paralyzed or confused, it’s a very useful process for getting out of paralysis and at least limiting confusion.  Stuff is complex, so I’m not going to claim that you will ever be able to eliminate confusion. But the more that you engage, the greater the chance that you will find something that you do feel confident about.

Of course, you need to engage with some energy. It’s not enough to look at an article or passage from an old draft and just say to yourself that you don’t want to use it—you won’t learn much that way. You have to try to explicate in writing why you don’t want to use it.

If you’re feeling lost or paralyzed and you have stopped working, don’t put pressure on yourself to find the big answer. Big answers are really, really hard to find.  Instead, try to take tiny steps: work over old material and ask whether you like it and how to adapt it. Pick something to read and to write about. Make a quick, simple outline. Write one sentence about something.  Trust the process of working on your project because a process can help guide your actions in moments when you are having trouble seeing a larger sense of purpose.

Use what you have, even if you have doubts

The process of writing often raises doubts. For example, I often write a sentence and then ask myself “how do I explain/support/defend this statement?” or, more negatively, “isn’t that obvious or unimportant or both?”  Such questions are often coupled with the disconcerting sense that what I have written is not good enough, and can’t possibly be good enough without adding material.

The sense that what I have written isn’t good enough—perhaps that I can’t defend it or that no one will care about my bland blather—can bring the writing process to a halt.  If my critical view of my own work leads me to think that that what I have is uninteresting, it slows or stops my writing, because, after all, who wants to write something that will be dull?

Sometimes it’s no problem to write something boring: I write as a practice and don’t expect things to always come out well.  Part of the practice is to keep writing when material isn’t working so that the material can be improved. Writing a draft that gets deleted isn’t a big deal. But sometimes, it’s not enough to just practice. Sometimes it’s important to have something to share with others. Today, for example, I want to produce a blog post, and there’s no blog post without something written.  I could blow off posting—it’s not as if I’ve never missed posting before.  In other situations, it’s not useful to simply blow off creating a work.  In some cases, there are serious repercussions from a failure to submit work. Currently, for example, I am contractually obligated to submit a full manuscript to my publisher by July 15; failure to submit violates the contract and would, at the very least, damage my chances of getting my book published. Or, for example, a student seeking a degree might have a deadline to submit a thesis, with, at least, the danger of having to enroll for an additional term, if not the greater danger of losing a place in the program.

In such cases, letting a project fall by the wayside, isn’t really an effective solution. Sometimes, it’s necessary to produce something, even if the something seems weak.

It is very frustrating to work on a piece of writing that seems like it will be uninteresting and unimportant. The attempt to produce good work from an idea that currently seems uninteresting and unimportant is one of the most difficult tasks a writer can face, because working on a project that you don’t believe is important is a good way to feel bad about yourself.

But if a significant deadline looms, it’s valuable to keep writing through the frustration and fears.  For myself, and most other writers, I think, the thought of getting a bad response is at the forefront of their attention. Certainly a writer worrying that work isn’t interesting enough or important enough is focused on how people will respond, because ideas like “interesting” and “important” are only really meaningful with respect to people (or other thinking creatures): for something to be interesting, there must be someone interested.  I don’t want to discount the danger of writing something that your readers deem uninteresting or unimportant, because that’s a difficult outcome to work past.  But that focus actually obscures a potentially greater danger: that of not submitting anything at all.

I have seen this dynamic and lived it myself: being self-critical, I see weaknesses in my work, and fearing the response of others, I then put that work away, letting it die, rather than taking a chance with it.  Many students I’ve worked with worry so much about the negative feedback they have received from their professors that they stop writing at all, fearing more negative feedback.  But holding back work may allow you to avoid negative critiques of your work, it also guarantees that you will not receive any positive credit.  For me, with my contractual obligation, and for students with their academic requirements, the failure to produce any work at all is far the worse outcome. Getting your work roundly criticized is difficult. Failing to meet a deadline, however, can lead to even more difficulty, including dismissal from a graduate program.

This is, I think, a variety of the well-known trope that bad publicity is better than no publicity at all. There may be times when it’s better to avoid notice entirely, but if you want to meet your obligations as a student or writer, it’s better to risk the negative feedback from a weak work than face the certain consequences of submitting nothing.

The greater the significance of the deadline, the greater the value in focusing on what you do have and on working to improve that. It may not be the most interesting thing ever (in the eyes of your viewer), but using what you do have to meet a deadline is a valuable practice.

Beyond the simple benefit of fulfilling an obligation, working through that frustration can be very valuable, because if you can get through the emotional difficulty related to fearing feedback and thinking your work is weak, you can often come out the other side with a greater conviction in the value of your work.  One thing about ideas that seem uninteresting as you write about them is that they weren’t always uninteresting to you.  I never arrive at a point where I’m writing something I think uninteresting without there having been some earlier moment when I thought it would be interesting.  There was something that I thought interesting that got me started, even if I have lost sight of that original interest.  Recovering that interest is often possible, and can help me get back on track. Of course, sometimes, I can’t recover that original interest, but I still need to produce something. In such cases, it is important to do the best I can with what I do have on the basic principle that writing something is better than writing nothing.

Reflections on seeking a publisher 5: On giving sole consideration

Here’s the final post from my series on seeking a publisher, reposted from the TAAOnline Blog.

Some publishers ask for sole consideration of your proposal. In my process, I have mostly given sole consideration to the publishers to whom I have been proposing. This has been largely a product of my approach: as discussed in previous posts, I feel that it’s best to write a distinct proposal for each publisher, to better match their list. Because that’s a pretty big effort, I don’t send out a lot of proposals at once. In August, I sent out one proposal that never earned any response, so I suppose that I wasn’t quite offering sole consideration on the two proposals I sent after that. Because it takes time to move from one proposal version to the next, and because the responses I did receive were generally quick (on 3 out of 5, I received a response within a day or two), I was basically offering sole consideration: as soon as I got a positive response, I focused my energies on responding to that one publisher, and not one making a proposal for another.

But I do feel like giving sole consideration puts me in a much weaker position with respect to any future negotiations. This spring, an author I’ve worked with was negotiating his book with his publisher, and he had proposed to several publishers, and had offers from (at least) two. Thus, when his chosen publisher tried to get him to change his title and other aspects of the book, he had some firm ground from which to push back. There were plenty of changes that he was obliged to make that he didn’t love making (and that, in my opinion, did not improve the book—but, of course, having worked on it, I am biased), but he had some position of strength with respect to negotiations. If I were to be offered a contract, I would have little strength from which to negotiate: basically, the publisher could tell me to take it or leave it, and my options would be to either do what they wanted or to go back to the proposal stage. Now, I could go back to the proposal stage, and getting offered a contract would certainly strengthen my confidence that my book is good enough to get a contract, but that would certainly add even more delay to this process that has already gone on for a long time.

Abstractly, I would recommend proposing to several publishers at once. But I’m not sure that I would follow that recommendation myself, just based on my own personal energy available to manage the anxiety of the proposal process. Your mileage will vary, of course: If you find self-promotion easy, then multiple submissions is definitely the way to go because you can have the added benefit of better leverage in negotiations.

Pragmatically, however, when I next need to propose a book, I think I will return to the tactic of sending brief query letters, as I did with some success—in this process, both of my query letters received a rapid response, while only one of three full proposals received a response. The query letter skirts the issue of sole consideration by being less than a full proposal—if a full proposal is requested, then I can address the issue of sole consideration. Such a letter might put you in the position of needing to write a full proposal quickly to keep up the interest of the editor who sent you a response, but if you’re under pressure because someone showed interest in your query, that’s a pretty good problem to have.

Reflections on seeking a publisher 4: On writing proposals

Here’s another re-post in the series of posts I wrote about seeking a publisher…a little dated now that I have a contract!

In my experience, proposals are more difficult and nerve-wracking than writing the book. When I work on my book, I think about the strengths and about what I can offer to people through my writing. When I work on a proposal, it’s hard not to think about the possibility of acceptance and rejection, which is rather more stressful.

In writing, I find it crucial to hold on to my ideas as a foundation and focus first, before considering other people’s interests. But for a proposal, especially, I have to speak to someone else’s interests. It’s all well and good for me to believe that I have great ideas and that everyone could benefit from reading my book, but, realistically, the editor at a publishing house doesn’t much care about me; they care about their job and about finding books that will sell, and who knows what else?  If I want that editor to do something—like read my proposal, or offer me a contract—it’s important to know what they want, because that knowledge gives me a better chance of writing something that will suit that editor.

A proposal is an attempt to get someone to go along with an idea. It’s not just a description of the idea, it’s an offer of a bargain. A book proposal is a request for an exchange: the publisher gives an author the resources to turn a manuscript into a book that can be sold and their promotional and distributional recourses and abilities, and the author gives them a manuscript that can become a book. For both the publisher and the author, the hope is that the collaboration will lead to a something that sells enough to justify the effort. From a published book, an author immediately receives the prestige of having published, and may also receive some financial reward and exposure to a wider audience (I won’t go so far as to say “fame”, but certainly reputation). The publisher is unlikely to gain much prestige or fame for publishing most books (they are, of course, hoping to find those few rare big sellers, of course); their main hope is to make a profit.

Thinking about the proposal in this light focuses attention on the person who is going to receive the proposal: how are they going to benefit from engaging with the proposal’s author? That’s what the proposal is doing: beyond saying “my book is great!”, it says to an editor: “here’s how you/your company will benefit.”

If this seems obvious to you, I think you’re ahead of the game. My experience of helping other people with proposals for books and grants (and even research), is that people talk about what they are doing or who they are themselves without attempting to address the interests of the person to whom the proposal is ostensibly addressed.

Different Proposals for Each Publisher?

For me, this focus on the proposal’s intended audience makes me pay close attention to the details of how each proposal template frames its questions, as well as to considerations of what other factors I know about the specific publisher.

For me, the focus on the specific recipient strongly leads toward writing a separate distinct proposal for each different publisher. Even though I have, at times, engaged proposal writing with the intention of writing a general proposal that I could send to many publishers at once, every time I look at the specific proposal questions for a specific publisher, I want to revise my general proposal to meet the specific context provided by that publisher.

One such difference that influenced me in my recent process which related books that specific publisher had published. For the publisher with no direct competitor, I wrote about there being a market niche worth entering; for the publisher with several direct competitors, I wrote about why my book is different from the ones they already have.

Perhaps the biggest issue that forces the most revision from publisher to publisher is the order of material and how I present it. The opening of the proposal has to grab the attention of the reader, and so it’s a place where sensitivity to the reader’s interests is most crucial.  And everything that follows the introduction is shaped by that beginning and by my desire to avoid repetition.  For one publisher, I might start with a comparison to a specific book, but that would mean not discussing that book later. Or perhaps I open with a specific way of pitching my book that suits one publisher but not another. For a textbook publisher I might propose it in terms of its potential use in classes; for a more general publisher, I might propose it as more of a self-help book, and thus alter the order in which I discuss these two aspects. The differences play out through the whole proposal in terms of which points I mention first and which I mention later. Thus, even if I generally retain the same information, each proposal can be significantly different in order of presentation.

Whether or not this level of care is worth it in terms of the overall efficiency of finding a publisher is uncertain: perhaps it’s better to write one proposal and send it to many publishers. For a given period of time, do I increase my chance of getting accepted more by writing fewer proposals detailed to specific publishers, or do increase my chance more by sending out many proposals that may each have less chance of being accepted because they are not tailored to the audience, but increase my overall chance because I have more opportunities to get accepted? (I have a better chance of winning one coin toss than I do trying to roll a 1 on a normal six-sided die; but if I get to roll the six-sided die enough times, I have a better chance of getting a 1 than I do if only try to win only one coin flip.)

My sense of the importance of writing each proposal specifically for each publisher strongly influences my decision with respect to the question that I address in my next post: whether to give publishers sole consideration of your work.

My book has a publisher!

I just finished signing (e-signing) my contract with Routledge: My book has a publisher!

The book got its start years ago when I was still working on my first book, Getting the Best of Your Dissertation, which I self-published and released in August, 2015.  Between then and the beginning of last year, my main efforts were directed toward the book that just got a contract.  For most of the last year, my efforts have been focused on finding a publisher, and now that I have one, I have to get back to the book–or at least will soon, once the reviews of the full manuscript come back.

Some good hard work lies ahead: responding to the reviewers’ concerns, reviewing the copy-editor’s work, reading the page proofs, and writing an index. But a release date in 2020 doesn’t seem all that far away right now.

One task that remains is to settle on a title. My working title had been Getting the Best of What You Read: Practical Philosophy for Effective Use of Academic Literature.  That was trying to work with the title of my previous, obviously, which made better sense when I was thinking of self-publishing as a companion to my dissertation book. Routledge suggested a change, and I’m not thrilled with their suggestion, so I’m working on coming up with a new title that will suit the various people at Routledge, and me, too.

The book, as suggested by the title, is about the use of academic literature in  the process of research, and it is specifically aimed at graduate students who are developing their first independent research project (which is usually the dissertation).

Reflections on seeking a publisher 3: Write the proposal before the book?

This is reposted from the TAAOnline Blog.

Before I started the proposal process for my book, I had written a complete draft (as well as two almost-complete early drafts), and also hired an editor to check that draft. I had, in short, a pretty mature draft. But the questions publishers ask about the completeness of the draft, led me to wonder whether that was the best plan for seeking publication.

Common proposal questions ask: “When do you plan to finish the book?”, and “When can you deliver the manuscript?”, which seem primarily relevant for proposals written by people who have not yet completed their book.
Given the length of the process of proposing (at least as I have gone about it), and given the desire of publishers to shape books to suit their publishing list, I wonder whether I might have been better off proposing the book before I wrote it.

Intellectually, I have been aware that one can propose a book before one writes it, and, indeed, that most projects are proposed before they are carried out, but this has never before felt like a real consideration to me; it feels wrong to propose a book before it’s written. That could reflect a lack of self-confidence, or maybe it reflects uncertainty caused by the exploratory nature of writing: I learn a lot as I write, and there is usually a pretty big difference between successive drafts, especially early ones. Or maybe it reflects my fear of committing to a large writing project, because writing under a deadline (which would occur if I had a contract but no book) is an added emotional burden.

In terms of writing productively, it’s valuable to know how different choices affect the process, including the emotional dimension. But it’s also hard to predict how all the factors will play out. In this case, perhaps the emotional difficulties associated with writing the proposal first would balance out the emotional difficulties related to the length of time the process takes. As I discussed in the previous post, my proposal process has taken over 9 months. If I had proposed the book at an earlier point, I might have saved time with respect to any ultimate publication date.

Aside from the question of saving time in the overall process, one idea that has occurred to me in these considerations is about the value of writing a proposal in helping guide a successful writing project. Thinking of my book through the publisher’s perspective provides additional ideas about how to write a good book. For me at least, although I generally make a point of thinking about the audience, when writing a proposal, the focus is much more explicitly directed towards considering my audience, and particularly towards the big concern of most publishers: who will buy the work? This forces forces me to be much more explicit about who that audience is and what their needs and interests are, and that can help me write a book that will serve my intended audience and also please a publisher.

Additionally, the proposal forces consideration of the books that compete with mine, and to be able to explain why mine is different (and better!). I do, of course, want my book to be delivering something that is original, so, in a very strict sense, there may be no direct competitor, but even so, there are many books in the general area. While no one may be writing quite the book that I am, there are plenty of books written for graduate students to support them in the general process of developing research. The process of comparing my book to potential competitors helps me refine what makes my message special, and thus helps me write my book better in terms of expressing my strengths.

Looking to the future, I suppose that I will spend more time writing book proposals as part of the larger process of writing books. Indeed, at present, I have shifted efforts from writing a draft of my next book, to writing a proposal for that book. As I already have a substantial draft (about 25,000 words), I can’t write a proposal before writing any draft, but I can write a proposal before I try to write the next draft.


Reflections on seeking a publisher 2: A lengthy process

This is reposted from the TAAOnline Blog.

The process of proposing and publishing takes a long time, so patience is important. I started the proposal process nine months ago, and there’s a chance I may be working on a new proposal soon. There are ways that I could have saved time in the process, but even if I had been maximally efficient, I would still have been looking at a process of several months.

In February, I sent my first proposal to an agent who specifically requested sole consideration, which was fine with me, given that part of why I was trying an agent was to avoid doing multiple proposals. (I will discuss the question of giving publisher sole consideration in a future post.) The agent’s website said if I hadn’t gotten a response within six weeks that I should assume that my proposal was rejected, so I waited (and avoided the difficult task of preparing another proposal).  When I hadn’t heard within five weeks, I started to work again, thinking about to whom to send my next proposal.

At that point, I decided to try sending query letters to gauge interest, rather than a full-blown proposal. I figured that a brief query letter would require less effort than a full proposal, and being only a brief query about possible interest, not a full proposal, it skirted the issue of sole consideration.

At the beginning of the seventh week after sending out my first proposal (early April), I sent out my first query letter. My plan was to send out one every day until I got some interest. I chose to do only one a day because I wanted to write a letter that was specific to each publisher, and writing a good cover letter can take a few hours.

The fortunate circumstance of receiving a positive same-day response to my very first query derailed my one-a-day-to-several-publishers plan. The quick response was thrilling, of course, but it meant I had to do a full proposal, which took me away from writing another query letter. It was a few days of work and then a week to hear back. All of this felt like things were moving quickly and couldn’t be better—the first publisher to whom I wrote, and one of the top publishers on my list! The editor expressed interest in sending the proposal to reviewers (again, great!), but suggested some revisions to the proposal first. That took me a week, but by early May I had submitted a revised proposal. The editor confirmed receipt, warning me that she was going to a conference and then on holiday and wouldn’t be able to get back to me for a week or two. And that was really the end of it. Over the next couple of months, I received first a few promises to get to my proposal right away, and then later no response to my emails.

I procrastinated, hoping that the editor would follow up, so it was not until early August that I sent out a new proposal (yes, a whole proposal, not just a query letter—my strategy was not entirely consistent). It got no immediate response (and none since), and ten days later, I sent out another proposal.  This one got a next-day response—a rejection. It was as positive and friendly a rejection as could be imagined—the editor encouraged my proposing to other publishers, and even took time to answer some follow-up questions I asked in response to his rejection—but a rejection all the same. It was, by this time, late August.

For my next step, I returned to the plan of sending multiple query letters. And again, my first query letter received a quick response: the editor to whom I had written was forwarding my query to a colleague. The next day I received an email from an editor (the third in the chain) who  identified herself as the editor of one of the books my query mentioned as a competitor, and who invited me to send my proposal. That took me a few days, but my delay was basically irrelevant, as she was about to leave for a conference and then holiday.

Two weeks later—end of the first week of September—she decided to send my proposal out to reviewers.  That would take about eight weeks, she warned—an accurate estimate, as the reviews were returned in late October. The reviews were positive enough that, pending my response to the reviewer’s concerns, she was interested in taking it to a publisher’s meeting with the intention of offering me a contract. My response only took a day, but it was Friday, and the editor is in the UK, so she didn’t get to it until the beginning of the next week, and, as the weekly publication meeting is held on Tuesdays, she didn’t have sufficient time to prepare the book for that week’s meeting, which brings the process up to date at the moment I write, over nine months since I started.

Maybe I could have cut a few months out of that process by acting more swiftly and aggressively, but even if we disregard my proposals that were rejected, by the time the publication meeting has been held, it will have been nearly three months just with one publisher, and everything moving relatively quickly (my editor warned that reviews don’t always come in in a timely fashion, for example, but mine did).

Publication is a long process, even when everything moves quickly. Finding a publisher takes a significant chunk of time.  It is one reason for writing a proposal before you finish your book, which is the subject of my next post.

Keep things as simple as you can; Complexity will arise

A writer recently expressed to me the concern about her work being too simple, a concern triggered by, among other things, being told that her work was pedestrian (which I discussed n my previous post). But for the great majority of scholarly work, if done carefully, complexity is almost unavoidable. The real world is not simple, and a scholar trying to document the real world is not documenting something simple.  Analyzing data gathered in the process of documenting the real world is not simple, either.

My experience of writing blog posts often goes something like this: an idea formulates into a basic message and plan for what I will say; I start writing; I think of an example to use; I start to describe the example, and in so doing, I find complexity where I thought was simplicity. No matter the clarity of my plan, once I start writing, I discover complexity.

It’s easy to find complexity if you are being careful and trying to focus on details. All you need do is be curious and careful.

Suppose, for example, you try to describe a simple household process like getting a glass of water.  That’s simple, right? You get a glass; you hold the glass beneath the faucet; you turn on the water and the glass fills. But complexity lurks. Where do you get the glass, for example? In your own home, you know where the glasses are, but if you’re visiting somewhere, finding a glass may require extra steps, such as opening many cabinets or asking your host. Getting into details might lead to asking what criteria are used for choosing a glass: do you take the one closest to your hand? To which hand? Do you prefer a large glass or small? Do you look to make sure that there is no visible smudge or dirt on the glass? Do you prefer one material over another (glass vs. plastic, for example)? If a glass has a colored material or an image printed, does that matter?  Beyond these practical questions of how to get a glass (we haven’t even started talking about locating or operating a faucet yet), if our aim is to describe the process, we might choose to try to define what we mean by “glass”—does, for example, a mug get included? A mug is not a glass, but it will be effective for drinking a “glass of water” if we interpret the phrase loosely? In many contexts, such an interpretation suffices: imagine asking a friend for a glass of water and them giving you a mug filled with water. Would you complain that they had failed because your water was served in a mug not a glass? And beyond these questions relevant to getting a glass of water in practice, if we are describing the process of getting a glass of water, we might examine how or where the glasses (or mugs) were procured, and how they were made. Although they are not questions for the practical situation, for someone documenting or describing a process, those questions directly follow (even if we might decide that they are not sufficiently relevant to include in a description of getting a glass of water). So trying to describe something simple, quickly leads to complexity if you just ask questions.

Another way that complexity can arise for a writer is by trying to define terms. Suppose you want to write about [term/concept].  It’s good form as a scholar to define the crucial term to your audience, so you try to define [term/concept]. You may turn to a dictionary, where you find multiple different meanings of [term/concept]. You look at the literature in your field, and you find several different authors have all defined [term/concept] in their paper, and they have all done it differently. If the observed complexity of the use of the term hasn’t stymied you, you might sit down to try to write your own definition of the term. In that process you use [term2/concept2], and that leads to the question of whether you need to define [term2/concept2].  Defining terms is a rabbit hole of complexity, as every definition requires using terms that could themselves require definition.  In his beautiful essay “Avatars of the Tortoise,” Jorge Luis Borges describes this as an infinite regression first identified by a Greek Philosopher (whose name escapes me, and I don’t have the Borges text at hand). Defining terms/concepts is not simple, and scholarly writing requires definition.

Complexity arises in the process of argumentation/justification, and there is a similar regression of questions. Suppose, for example, I want to explain why I have chosen a specific research method—methodX.  Every statement I make in favor of methodX can be questioned. If I say I have chosen methodX because it’s appropriate to my research question, the natural question that follows is why (or whether) it is appropriate to the question. If I then offer two arguments—argument1 and argument2—for why the method is appropriate to the question, I have two new arguments that each require some defense. Logically speaking, any argument can be questioned, and each answer offers new arguments that can be questioned.  

It is exactly this kind of logical path from one question to the next that leads many writers down discursive rabbit holes that can inhibit the writing process. And it is one reason that citation is so valuable for the scholarly writer: you can end the string of questions by saying “because FamousAuthor said so.”  It’s not a logically perfect foundation, but what the heck…we all need to find a foundation, and even the greats rely on the foundation of the scholars who have come before—Newton said “If I have seen farther, it was by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

If you want to describe something, and you are careful about it, complexity will arise.  If you are a scholar, you’re supposed to be careful, and, in my experience, that leads to what most might consider a surprising result: good scholars almost almost always have too much to say. I’ve known lots of writers who worried that they had nothing to say, and I’ve known lots of writers who wrote very little for fear that they have nothing to say. But I can’t remember any writer who, once writing, wasn’t able to say enough. The far more common (and more difficult) problem for writers is to have to cut material to get their article or book down to a word limit. (Because of the difficulty of cutting down a draft, I strongly recommend writing first drafts that are short!)

So, don’t worry that your ideas are too simple, embrace that simplicity. Try to capture that simplicity in writing. If you’re careful and attentive to detail, complexity will arise. Indeed, so much complexity arises that there is great danger in getting lost in it, and the writer needs to learn to say “here’s where I stop asking questions.”

On non-constructive feedback

Writers benefit from getting good feedback and can be severely hindered by bad feedback—issues that I have covered in previous blog posts, as well as in my book.

Recently I was speaking with a graduate student who once received feedback that the work was “pedestrian.”  Not surprisingly, the student did not find this feedback helpful—indeed the feedback has been a positive deterrent. 

My response to this feedback is to say, basically, “f—k that.” It’s lousy feedback, at least if your expectation is that a professor would give feedback from which the student can learn something.  A pet peeve of mine is when professors waste their time (and their students’) by fixing grammar when they should be focusing on more important issues, like the content,  But to call a work “pedestrian” is worse. It’s worse than useless—what possible guidance could a researcher gain from being told that their work is pedestrian? Complaining about grammar at least gives the writer something to work on (even if it’s wasted effort).

But saying that a work is “pedestrian”? What guidance can you get from that? Does it imply that they should just start over and find some different project because their current project is “pedestrian”? It almost doesn’t even matter if that professor gave other more constructive feedback because that overall assessment of being “pedestrian” discounts not only the value of the work already done, but strongly suggests that future work on the project is unlikely to lead to anything worthwhile. Seriously, I can hardly think of a response to that particular comment that doesn’t require profanity.

That comment is bad guidance for an alleged ‘teacher’ to give a graduate student writing a dissertation, especially if that student has been struggling. It’s a fail because it’s not realistic about what real scholars (including graduate students) do, and it’s a fail because it does not provide any guidance. 

Firstly, it’s not realistic about the bulk of published work in research—most published research is pedestrian in the sense that it does not shake the earth—it’s what Thomas Kuhn might call “normal science”—the research that is done within a paradigm. Look at the best journals, even in those, there is work that may be interesting but isn’t earth shaking. Looking at less prestigious but highly respectable journals shows work of even less general interest. Every published work is supposed to be original, but published originality often includes small developments of previous work. This lack of a realistic view of the great bulk of research done by scholars is exaggerated when turned on a dissertation writer, because, realistically, for most scholars, the dissertation will be the weakest work of their career: how many scholars do their best work as graduate students and how many do their best work after graduate school?  Part of the point of having students do dissertations is to help them learn to negotiate the research process, and setting the expectation that the only work worth publishing is rock-star quality is a lousy guide to how to proceed in a research practice.

Saying a work is pedestrian is just gilding the lily on saying “it sucks.”  Using a four syllable word does not mean that it’s well thought-out feedback.  If a reviewer considering a work for publication, wants to reject a work because it’s “pedestrian,” that’s fine: the reviewer considering a work for publication is responsible to the publication/publisher and has to allocate his/her effort accordingly; the reviewer does not have a responsibility to help the authors, and writing good feedback that gives useful guidance is hard.  But a teacher? A professor working with a dissertation writer? A teacher does have a responsibility to the student—a responsibility to give the student guidance along the way (that’s what a teacher does!).

Can we turn “pedestrian” into something that can provide specific guidance? As far as I can see, not without additional detail. Suppose the professor means “not original enough”? Well, how do you assess originality. If the professor sees some similarity to a specific work or specific set of works, then it would be more useful feedback to explicitly mention the works that they see as similar.  Does it mean “not ambitious enough”? Well, that complaint could certainly be delivered in a more constructive sense by suggesting the value of expanding the project. Does it mean “not interesting enough”? That’s a wasted complaint, especially in academia, where so much of the product of academia is writing that is only interesting to a very limited audience. If you’re a teacher and your only critique to your student is that you don’t find their work interesting, you’re not helping.

If you’re a teacher, then your job is to give constructive feedback so that students can learn. Saying that work is “pedestrian” offers no guidance on moving forward, while also insulting the student and deterring them from continuing to develop their project.  If you’re a student, you have a reasonable expectation that your professors will give you usable guidance. If your professor tells you your work is pedestrian…well don’t say “f—k that” to their face, but…if your professor insults your work ask: “can you clarify ways that I could change my work so that it’s less pedestrian [or other insult]?”

(On a personal level, my response to that critique is not scholarly, but general: what the hell is wrong with being a pedestrian? I’m often a pedestrian, and I don’t think that makes me less—indeed the choice to walk rather than take some common alternative forms of conveyance is socially responsible. The idea that a “pedestrian” is lesser is classist, elitist bullshit based on conspicuous consumption. I choose to walk for several reasons, including the low carbon footprint (as opposed to driving, or even taking public transport). As far as I’m concerned, the world could use more pedestrians and fewer drivers right now. But that’s not really a response to the critique that a work of scholarship is “pedestrian.”)