Diary of writing a book to manuscript completion

Today I have submitted my monograph (solo-authored book) manuscript to my publisher. No this is not an April fool’s joke!

Book writing is quite a drawn out process. I’m sure it looks different for each author, but I thought it might be useful for other authors and aspiring book writers to see a timeline to manuscript completion and submission. Below I outline the dates and steps that have gotten me to this moment.

January 2018: My husband and I are chatting on the long drive home from a family holiday, talking about our goals for the year ahead. I say that writing a monograph is something I would love to have a go at in 2018. As we talk I start to formulate the book’s purpose and structure.

When we get home, I paste up a little piece of cardboard on the bathroom mirror. It says: ‘don’t wait until you’re ready; start now’. I start.

I write a book proposal and send it to the publisher (with whom I have a previous relationship as co-editor of Flip the System Australia). The book proposal is sent out to reviewers.

February-May 2018: My book proposal floats in the review-stage ether. I wait for all of the reviews to come in. Luckily I am readying Flip the System Australia for publication as editor, so my spare time is put to good use.

June 2018: I (finally!) receive the reviews to my book proposal. I amend the proposal in response to reviews and resubmit it to the publisher.

July 2018: Negotiation of and signing of book contract happens. Wahoo! I have a date, a word limit and a mandate.

Let the writing begin.

I stick a word count timeline to my fridge. My kids begin to keep me accountable to it. “Mum, how many words have you written?” “You know you’re meant to have written X thousand by now?” “Can I cross this one off?”

August-December 2018: I write (in between working, parenting, living). I send a few chapters to peers around the world to get some early feedback.

In October I invite someone to write the foreword. They accept.

January 2019: The first draft of the book is complete. Little do I know how much work is still required in order to revise it properly.

I tweet a poll asking how an author knows their book is done.

Tweet Jan 2019

A number of people tell me I need to get some other people to read the whole thing. The whole thing? How can I ask anyone to read the whole thing?

I suck up the courage and ask some experts in the field for feedback and also for endorsements. I am delighted and surprised by people’s generosity.

I also send it out to my editor. I show my husband the introduction and he tells me it needs to be punchier and more interesting.

February 2019: Revising, revising, editing, editing. Repeat. Responding to feedback as it comes in.

March 2019: Proofing, proofing, proofing. Responding to any more feedback.

I take references out of the text to allow more space for my own words, voice and ideas. (I am a chronic over-referencer and need to remind myself: more me, less others! This is my book after all.)

I move the text from one big Word document into separate chapter documents. I finalise reference lists. I finalise the acknowledgements. I write chapter abstracts and complete the art log.

April 2019: On April Fool’s Day I wake up to the foreword in my email inbox. Hoorah! The final piece of the puzzle is here. And it is wonderful. I am super pleased.

I electronically submit my manuscript and ancillary documents to the publisher. This is not a drill.

I feel that weird feeling of wanting to keep tinkering, tinkering, tinkering. But I know that the book is as good as I can make it, in this instant. I wonder: Is done better than perfect? I assure myself that this process (unlike the PhD thesis) involves a copy editor. And that I will stand by my words in the future, even if they only capture my thinking at this moment in time.

While I know it will be exciting to hold the real book when it is eventually printed and released, the publishing reality is that by the time an actual work comes out, the author has often moved on in their thinking. My book is not yet finished, but this is a milestone worth celebrating.

I buy the same special champagne I bought in October 2015 when I submitted my PhD thesis: Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé. I haven’t opened it yet, but I will find a time to enjoy it, and a few people with whom to share it.

From here there will continue to be about 6 months of checks and communication as the book moves through the publisher’s copy editing and production process. This includes proofing by an independent copy editor, cover design, index writing and printing.

Some time this year I’ll get the actual book in my hands!

Writing: It’s more than words #AcWriMo2018

some of my writing spots

I’ve slowed my blog writing down this year, but I am writing. I am writing other texts. I am trying to use November—also known as Academic Writing Month or #AcWriMo—to move one writing project forwards.

During #AcWriMo writers often set word count goals, and words are—of course!—important. I have been working towards a word count and counting words in incremental amounts. I have a handwritten list and when I get to a word milestone, I put a satisfying line through it. But there is more to writing than words.

Reading

In order to write words, especially in academic writing, I read as I go. Papers, journal articles, freshly published books. This is so that I know the field within which my writing operates, and so that I can situate my work alongside other scholarship and amongst other writers. Writing-while-reading, going back and forth between the two, is slower than ‘just’ writing. Sometimes it is incredibly slow!

Contribution

I need to be careful that I don’t spend too much time reading and summarising the work of others. After all, my text is my contribution to the field. I need to make sure there’s enough me in my writing. What am I contributing? What do I have to say? What are the takeaways for my reader? I need to remember to put this up front. In one of Tara Brabazon’s recent vlogs, she said ‘don’t bury the lead’. My argument and unique contribution need to be front and centre, not buried in the middle or tacked onto the end. This is a challenge for an early career scholar who sometimes clings to the authoritative voices of others rather than foregrounding her own. As my supervisors said to me late in my PhD candidature: more me, less others!

Structure

I will also need to examine the structure of my writing. Does the text hold together effectively? Do the headings and sub-headings reflect the logical arc of my argument, and the journey through which I am taking the reader? Are all the bits relevant, and does each section of text have a clear purpose? I have been revising structure as I have gone along, but need to continue to be mindful of it. This means zooming out to a bird’s eye or balcony view from time to time.

Editing

Writing is more than churning out words. I can write a lot of words in a short time, but that doesn’t mean they will be good words. They might be edited out later on, or polished to an unrecognisable version of what they were when they flew from the keyboard. I will need to focus on editing, including printing the document and editing with a pen.

It is during the editing process that I am often taken back to a blog post by Pat Thomson, in which she writes …

It’s 7. 30 pm and Pat is in the lounge room reading. She is examining a thesis but finding it hard to stay awake.

I don’t want to be the writer sending Pat (or my imagined reader) to sleep. In her hypothetical example, Pat is reading a thesis for examination, but my reader will be reading out of choice, not obligation. How do I help them want to read on through my writing? I need for my writing to be enjoyable, accessible, and with effective personal voice. I need to signpost what I am doing and where the text is going, but not in a way that is laboured and mind-numbing. I need to iron out the clunky and clumsy bits. I need to work on flow and flair.

Onwards

So, I am writing this Academic Writing Month. But it’s not as simple as counting words and hitting quantitative targets. I will approach my writing from different angles and for different purposes. I will remain mindful of my end point and protect regular time to visit my manuscript and pay intentional attention to it.

Happy writing!

METAMORPHOSIS and emerging from the chrysalis: #oneword2018

taxidermy butterfly left to me by my scientist grandfather

It’s that time of year when we’re recovering from the holiday season and gearing up, or regenerating, for the new year. It’s a time, often, of reflecting on the year that’s been and planning for the year ahead. For the last few years I have used a ‘oneword’ to clarify my intent for my year. While I sometimes forget the oneword intentionality I have set, especially when life is at its busiest or most pear-shaped, mostly I find that choosing a single word allows me to bring a mindfulness to my year that is based on an essential focus to which it is easy to return across a year.

In 2015 it was CONQUER, as I worked at a ruthless pace to submit my PhD in between parenting my two young children and working 0.8 at my school.

In 2016 it was MOMENTUM, as I tried to capitalise on my PhD through lots of presenting (including at AERA) and writing from my thesis, still in the spaces between life and work.

In 2017 it was NOURISH, as I worked to clarify my work and life by focusing on that which nourished me.

On 2017 …

In 2017 my oneword embodied itself in multiple aspects of my life. As my youngest child entered full-time school, I returned to full-time work that has been nourishing in its focus. That is, I’ve been grateful to spend my time in areas of passion and purpose: teacher professional learning, building a research culture, focusing on staff development, and leading the Library, as well as teaching English.

In 2017 I have said ‘yes’ to projects because they are nourishing experiences for me, or because I have been burning to say something. My formal 2017 publications, for example, have been:

I have also joined the Board at my children’s school, and become a member of Evidence for Learning’s Research Use and Evaluation Committee. These commitments are about contribution, giving back, and making a difference; through them I receive the nourishment that comes from doing something worthwhile.

In 2017 I have spent nourishing time with my family, including a couple of lovely holidays. I have been seeing a new personal trainer whose strength and conditioning sessions have meant that my regular three-day-long headaches seem to have disappeared. Working with him has meant looking after my body, paying more attention to it, and getting stronger.

To 2018 …

2018 is around the corner and I’ve been considering what might be my fundamental intention for a year that already feels like an ending before it has begun. The end of 2018 will mark 10 years since I returned to Australia from the UK. That decade is a time in which I have had my two children, from pregnancy to babies to primary school students. It’s the decade in which I completed my PhD. The end of 2018 will mark a full decade of working at my current school (well and truly my longest ever period of employment). And at the end of next year I will have a zero birthday. The years from 2009-2018 feel like a chrysalis from which I will emerge at the end of next year. (I’m no doubt influenced here by the book I’ve just finished: Stephen and Owen King’s 715-page novel Sleeping Beauties in which women around the world are falling asleep indefinitely and being cocooned in mysterious chrysalides.) This seems a perfect time for looking back and looking forward.

On Twitter it was a close race ….

For 2018 I have considered the word CREATE because I have some projects I’m keen to progress. I have considered STRENGTH because I would benefit from focusing on the strength of my body as well as the strength of my advocacy for others and perhaps for myself. But I am going to tackle a more complex and messy word this year: METAMORPHOSIS.

It’s not that I think 2018 will be filled with transformation. In fact, it’s more likely to be about consolidation and simplification (think Marie Kondo’s KonMari method applied to life, or perhaps Sarah Knight’s life-changing magic of … ahem … figuring out what not to worry about). METAMORPHOSIS isn’t just about change. It isn’t that I think I’ll grow proverbial wings in the space of a year. But it is about development and moving on to another stage. For me that stage is mid-teaching-career, post baby-having, post-PhD stage. It’s time to figure out what ‘mid’ and ‘post’ look like when they are my ‘now’.

METAMORPHOSIS is also about letting go. It is about shedding old skins, old bodies, old habits, old values, old dreams. It is about considering what I want to take into my next decade, and what I’m willing to leave behind. After a few packed but fragmented years, full of simultaneous, competing, overlapping commitments (teaching! school leadership! PhD! academic writing! presenting at conferences! pregnancies! parenting! moving house! all at the same time!), it’s about re-assessing how I am spending my time and considering where it might be that all my endeavour is leading me.

The questions I will ask in 2018 in order to be mindful of METAMORPHOSIS in 2018 are:

  • What might flight, freedom, joy, and purpose look like and feel like for me?
  • How might I imagine the next decade and what might I need to do to get there?
  • What do I want to focus on doing and what can I stop doing, or do less of, in order to fulfil that focus?

The oasis of writing

Sometimes we need an immersion in a cooling, calming place of our choosing. That might involve turning off our devices, turning away from social media, turning towards what nourishes us. It might be sitting in silence, or playing music loud. It might be the catharsis of working with our hands, or the release of letting them rest. It might be solitude or connection, work or play, stillness or movement, mindful or mindless.

School is currently out in Western Australia, and while I am working, I have been taking time out across the break to bathe in oases of sorts. I’ve been on a brief holiday with my family, pottered around the house, seen friends and indulged in another haven of mine: academic writing.

Those of you who write for a living or are in the throes of a PhD (Oh, the unicorn-dancing-in-a-champagne-waterfall highs! Oh, the despairing bottom-of-the-dark-pit lows!) might roll your eyes or baulk at writing as an oasis. But after a term of working full-time in an exciting but challenging newly-formed role in a school, selling a house, buying a house, moving house, parenting my two lovely children, and trying to maintain relationships with family and friends, I was ready for a break from the relentlessness. From feeling like the mouse on the wheel, full of urgency and repetitive motion. Not only that, but both social media and real life have had their share of challenges lately. Academic writing has been a welcome and nurturing reprieve; simultaneously mental work and a mental break. Academic writing continues to be like my PhD, which I sometimes managed to think of as a holiday from all-the-other-things, or intellectual me-time, although without the weighty pressure or looming examination. Papers and chapters are more bite-size and more varied, and pleasingly always at different stages; just as one becomes difficult, another is coming together or being accepted.

Of course academic writing is not easy or necessarily enjoyable. With it comes challenge, struggle, sometimes brutal feedback. It helps that the acwri I’m doing at the moment is writing I want to do. I’m engaged, interested, motivated, intrigued. I’m learning, growing, pushing at the boundaries of what I know and can do. Academic writing allows me to extend myself in different ways to my school role.

Some of this writing is solo, but I’m also writing papers and chapters collaboratively, something still pretty new to me. Perhaps the collaboration is the coolest part because working with others takes me out of my usual groove, my usual ways of thinking and writing. It gets me engaging with others’ words and these spur my words on. Our words are like gifts from a science fiction world; they shapeshift and take on different lives as they are passed back and forth between authors.

This kind of writing and collaboration is somewhere for a writer to luxuriate. Nestle in. Be cocooned by the writing while at the same time deliciously confronted by it. I brace for feedback but at the same time allow myself to be vulnerable and to be shaped. To read unfamiliar theory, try alternate approaches, or to tinker with new ways of theorising, researching and writing. To have one or more other writers to generate and energise.

It’s cool. It’s fun. It’s a welcome distraction from the daily rush of work during term time and the barrage of angry educators slinging accusations at one another on Twitter (thank goodness for my arguing on EduTwitter bingo card!). This holiday break I’ve worked on a solo-authored journal paper and a collaborative chapter so far. I’ve got one more collaborative chapter to look at over the next few days. I’m looking forward to it. Like a cup of tea at the end of the day after the kids have gone to bed, for my pracademic self, straddling as I do the worlds of school and academia, academic writing can be a moment of ‘aaaaaahhhh’, of indulgence, of me-time.

Cartoons to communicate science? #scicomm

With the knowledge of science we can solve resource limitations, cure diseases, and make society work happily–but only if people can figure out what in the world scientists are talking about and why they should care. ~ Randy Olson, Don’t be such a scientist

In 2015 the Oxford Dictionary word of the year was the ‘face with tears of joy’ emoji. This year I have seen PhD researchers communicate their theses via emoji on Twitter. Today Emerald Publishing and the Journal of Professional Capital and Community released the following cartoon abstract of my peer-reviewed paper ‘Rethinking professional learning for teachers and school leaders’. The paper itself, which has so far been downloaded over 4000 times, is open access, and I have also blogged about it.

What do you think of the notion of a cartoon or graphical abstract of a research paper? Is this a way forward for science communication? Can we use visual language to make research more accessible and more widely read? Could you or would you be open to designing a cartoon strip or graphic-novel-style summary of your research?

designed by Emerald and posted here on JPCC website: http://jpccjournal.com/teacher.htm

designed by Emerald and posted on the JPCC website

The gift of failure

surf fail from redbull.com

couch surfing fail from redbull.com

This blog post is a bit of a sequel to last Friday’s blog about the influence my teachers have had on my educator self. It’s a continuation of the reflections about what kinds of life-wide experiences have shaped me professionally. Telling my own story is related to this paper in which I wrote that those things that affect our professional educator identities are collaborative and individual; occurring in life, school, and work; and requiring elements of support and challenge. Personal life experiences, as well as professional experiences, shape educators’ beliefs and practices.

I’ve alluded to some of my wobbly moments when I talked about embracing my discomfort zone, learning that I grow most in times of challenge. But I’m often not always up front about those times. I usually prefer to paint my own narrative with a rosy hue. I tend not to focus too much on failure, but rather on areas of celebration and of improvement. I don’t enjoy lingering too long on soul-crushing defeat, although I am comfortable learning from missteps. Below, however, I provide a glimpse into my long and ordinary history of failure and disappointment, and how that has shaped me.

My childhood of course consisted of experiences in which I was not successful.  The Mathematics classroom and the sporting field were arenas in which I learned what it felt like to be a failure. I distinctly remember a moment in primary school when I asked my mum to keep me home from school on Sports Carnival day so I could avoid having my lack of athleticism paraded for everyone to see. I was thinking of the events in which I would have to compete, against children at least a year older than me, and in which I would ultimately lose. I distinctly remember her answer, which has stuck with me: “You are good at school every day. You get to be the person who enjoys success in class and feels good about herself. Today is the day for other students to have success and feel good about themselves.” I’m pretty sure her response was along the lines of, “Today is the day you get to be crap at something; now go and be crap at it,” and the insinuation that this was somehow valuable for me. Of course my primary school self was mainly upset that I had to have a day of feeling sub-par and coming last, but even at that age it allowed me to feel grateful that I only had to feel that occasionally. What about the students who felt like failures every day in every lesson, for whom school was a place of constant embarrassment and not being good enough?

This experience shaped my teacher identity. I try to remember in my teaching (especially as my subject is a compulsory one), that many of my students may not be enthusiastic about the subject or good at the subject; they may come with preconceived negative emotions, reactions, and expectations. They may have been imprinted with years of feeling failure in English, feeling exposed when asked to read aloud or feeling alarmed and distressed by corrections on their written work. How, I ask myself, do I engage and ‘get’ those students for whom being in an English classroom is a challenge or makes them feel like a failure, an idiot or a fish out of water? How can I make the experience of my classroom a more positive one? How can I make them feel understood and confident?

Much later, I was shaped by my experiences of failure in my PhD. I have described before the pits of PhDespair. I remember the moment when one of my supervisors said to me about a draft chapter, “When I read your research proposal, I thought you were a really good writer (pause for effect) and then I read this.” My supervisors told me that I needed to make the argument of the chapter clearer. This advice bemused and frustrated me. As a teacher of English and Literature, and someone who has ghost-written, copy-written, and creative-written in various contexts, I felt like I was now the remedial student in class who could not comprehend what was expected of her, or what good (academic) writing looked like. At these meetings I would nod, and afterwards I would go home, still confused. (It felt a lot like when my dad would help me with my Maths homework; eventually I would nod and say I got it, but I remained confused about how to achieve success.) I repeatedly went between my notes from my meeting with my supervisors and my draft chapter, trying to find a way to action advice that I did not fully understand. What would it look like if I was a critical reader and a clear academic writer? Clearly not what it looked like at that point in time. The proverbial sweat and tears on those early pages was intense and immense. I struggled, grappled, tried, yearned to ‘do it right,’ to understand what doing it right looked like, and still felt as though I was poking around in the dark with a flaccid stick, blind and impotent.

This experience was uncomfortable, squirmy, and difficult.  And it was in that space in which I started to make incremental changes, small steps towards understanding, towards ‘doing good research’ and ‘doing good academic writing.’ It is that space in which I which I was growing, transforming and learning. 

Meanwhile, that same week I provided my English classes with exemplars of good answers and worked through what it looked like to have written a piece which clearly addressed the criteria. While providing models is a part of my normal teaching practice, it certainly came to the fore while I was searching for it for my own writing.

As time has gone on, I have found that place of struggle less dark and more invigorating, because I’ve grown to see it as a place of breakthrough, rather than a place of breakdown. Peer review continues to be a place of growth for me. As I said in this post, receiving reviews often feels like simultaneously receiving a high five and a punch in the face.

We all fail at some things, some times. Some of us fail more than others. We hear terms like ‘growth mindset’ (which has been almost decoupled from Dweck’s research in some  buzzword-happy arenas) and phrases like ‘FAIL = first attempt in learning’ and ‘fail fast, fail often.’ But failure is not a catchy slogan or a viral meme. It is a deeply felt experience that shapes us. 

The more I fail, the more I’m able to see failure as an opportunity, rather than a slight. Failure and disappointment are inescapable parts of being a human. From childhood we develop strategies to sit with the emotion (disappointment! despair! anger! anguish! incredulity! imposter syndrome!) before, hopefully, rationally moving past the emotional to a place where we can be logical and take positive action. We have choices in how we respond to success and failure. We can develop ways to approach those moments in our lives. Acknowledging failure as a part of our cycles of being, doing and feeling means that we can face it, sit with it, and see what gifts it might offer us.

There is no such thing as a problem without a gift for you in its hands. You seek problems because you need their gifts. ~ Richard Bach

How writing is like cake making. #acwri

this week's home-made asymmetrical Aussie Rule football cake

this week’s home-made Aussie Rules football cake

Why cake ? Because joy and deliciousness are nutrients in their own right. ~ Jude Blereau

I make about two cakes a year, one for each of my children’s birthdays. One year ago, baking and decorating my eldest son’s cake prompted a blog post in which I compared making a novelty birthday cake to doing a PhD. This year, baking his double-layer chocolate cake (decorated as an AFL football field) had me thinking: this cake making business is a lot like writing, particularly academic writing.

My boys are 4 and (just) 6, so on my one-cake-per-child’s-birthday / two-cakes-per-year average, I haven’t baked that many cakes. Yet this week’s cake (pictured above), is the first cake that has felt stress-free to make, and first one for which I haven’t made big mistakes in the making. In the past my cake and icing mixes have split and curdled. I have broken cakes trying to get them out of the pan. There have been times when I decorated cakes the day before serving and the colours from the candy bled into the icing. Once, a heavy cake topper figurine sunk into the cake overnight. Earlier this year, I got a knife caught in the beaters while making icing, which resulted in me icing myself and the whole kitchen, including the ceiling. I didn’t feel quite the Nigella-esque image of domestic goddessery when I couldn’t see through my tears and icing-splattered spectacles.

This week there was none of the cake-anxiety drama. Baking and decorating were calm and enjoyable. Much of this was due to the knowledge and skills I have gained over time, as well as processes I have developed for this task. I knew to leave my ingredients out so that they were room temperature when I used them, preventing mixes from splitting. I knew to alternate mixing in dry and wet ingredients. I knew to take the time to cover the whole inside of the pan with carefully-traced-and-cut-and-placed bake paper so that the cake would slide out easily, with a now-practiced flourish, onto a wire rack. I knew to ice the cake while it was partly frozen to prevent crumbs in the icing, and to leave the extra decorations off until the icing was set so that the colours didn’t bleed. I had a familiar routine set out over a few days which made the process manageable. I also knew my materials better, what they could and couldn’t do. My expectations were managed. The cake was a bit lopsided, the icing a bit uneven, the drawn lines a bit skewwhiff. These imperfections were the marks of me as the maker, and I was ok with those idiosyncrasies. They were the ‘voice’ or the ‘me’ in the cake.

And so, from baking and decorating to writing …

My reflections on my journey as a novice baker and decorator remind me of my arc as an academic writer. The brief for each cake (footy! outer space! race track!), or each paper or chapter (this journal! that book! this field! that theory!), is different, requiring planning and consideration at the outset about how to proceed in order to reach a particular end point. Academic writing requires a nuanced understanding of its ingredients, materials and processes. The writer needs to understand, and be able to expertly manipulate, the language of particular disciplines and the language of particular journals. They build a growing knowledge of theories and literatures.

Like the baker, the writer develops a routine, a flow, an individualised writing process that works for them, including how to time their work, how to structure it, how to build layers of meaning, how to perfect and polish it in the final stages. They acquire tools and strategies for their work, things that make the work smoother and produce a better product. Some knowings and doings become internalized over time, with the writer having to think less about them, able to turn their attentions to refining their craft, developing deeper understandings and pushing the scope of their work beyond the limits of its previous iterations. Writers hone their voice, the ‘me’-ness in their writing, while watching out for their writing tics.

Like a cake made for a particular individual and a specific celebration, a piece of writing is often constructed with a particular audience in mind. Peer review of cake at a child’s birthday party is gentler than that in academia, but the party guest’s purpose is to appreciate and thank the host, while the peer reviewer’s purpose is to critically judge and improve the work. Once writing is published, more feedback comes in the forms of citations, downloads, reviews and social media shares. The audiences are different, but for both baking and writing there are accepted norms of feedback from others. A baker might dread the grimaced smiles of guests pretending to enjoy their cake while they leave slices unfinished, just as a writer might fear Reviewer 3’s scathing critique or the deafening silence of an uncited, un-clicked-upon piece, lying unread in physical and online spaces. Peer review is, after all, often like getting a punch in the face and a high five simultaneously.

While I am a sometimes-baker, I am a regular writer. I’m sure that if I baked with the constancy of my writing, it would improve markedly. I write something almost every day, for different purposes or different audiences. One distinction for me between baking and writing (obviously there are many differences!) is that I find I write my way into understanding, into knowing my own thinking and into interrogating my worlds and the writings of others. Writing is inquiry, identity work, illuminator. It is joy and struggle. And while a cake is devoured until only crumbs remain, writing lives on.