This column was originally published in The Volokh Conspiracy on Reason.com.
In Part 1, I summarized the criteria that can help you decide whether you want to write an academic book in the first place. Part 2 addressed the issue of how to choose a publisher. The third post in the series offers advice on how to get publishers to accept your proposal. In this part, I offer some advice about how to get through the often difficult and painful process of actually writing the book.
If you write effortlessly and well, and have no trouble getting readers to understand your meaning, you probably don’t need need the advice in this post. If you’re well-organized and consistently hard-working, or have few competing commitments taking up your time, you can probably skip large parts of it, as well.
For the rest of you, the good news is that you can write successful books even if you’re not a naturally talented writer, and even if you’re as lazy and disorganized as I tend to be a lot of the time! If I can get a book done, you probably can too.
There is no one fool-proof way to write a book. But I can, nonetheless, offer a few suggestions that are likely to be useful for many academic writers. I’m far from an ideal writer, myself. But I have written six books, including some that attracted considerable interest and attention. I also have plenty of painful experience battling problems that often beset writers.
“Publishers will usually give you a substantial amount of time (six months to a year or more) to finish the manuscript after your proposal gets accepted.”
Getting the Book Done on Time
As emphasized in my first post in this series, writing a book usually takes a lot of time. To add to the problem, there is a great temptation to procrastinate and delay.
Publishers will usually give you a substantial amount of time (six months to a year or more) to finish the manuscript after your proposal gets accepted. And most will let you take some additional time even after the official deadline passes. This flexibility can be helpful. But it also creates incentives to put the project on the back burner while you attend to seemingly more pressing matters—or just waste time surfing the internet, watching TV, guzzling beer, or doing any of the many other activities that may be more fun than working on your book!
Before you know it, the submission deadline is approaching and you face a tradeoff between submitting a subpar, rushed work, or asking for more time. Extensions are fine, up to a point. But if you ask for too many, the editor and publisher will gradually lose faith in you, and your project may eventually get terminated (most contracts have a clause enabling the publisher to do that if the author doesn’t deliver on time). A good rule of thumb is that it’s a bad idea to stretch things out more than a few weeks beyond the deadline in your contract. If you go beyond that, you’re living on borrowed time—both literally and figuratively.
I don’t have data on this. But I would bet that more books and other academic projects have been killed by time-wasting and procrastination than by any other cause. Believe me, I know from painful personal experience!
There is no foolproof solution to this problem (at least none that I know of). But you should at least be aware of it, and develop a strategy for dealing with it ahead of time.
One possible approach is to develop better time-management skills, so you waste less time to begin with. Jason Brennan’s recent book, Good Work if You Can Get it: How to Succeed in Academia, has lots of excellent time-management advice for scholars. Read it and learn. But the fly in Brennan’s otherwise wonderful ointment is that following his advice requires considerable self-discipline. And inadequate self-control is one of the reasons why many of us procrastinate in the first place!
“If you’re unsure about whether your arguments and the connections between chapters are clear to readers, ask someone who is interested in the subject—but not an expert on it—to read it over.”
Another strategy is to recognize that you have some tendency to waste time, and try to work within that constraint. Thus, you can set aside more time to write the book than would be strictly necessary if you had strong self-discipline. Publishers will take it better if you ask for some extra time up front than if you request it at the last minute, after missing a deadline.
If you have trouble forcing yourself to sit down and work, you can partly compensate by pushing hard during those times when you do manage to force yourself. I often find it difficult to get started on writing. But when I do get started, I can push ahead for hours on end. Knowing this about myself, I try to create multiple time blocks when I can write, knowing in advance that only some of them will pan out. But those that do can be extremely productive.
Think also about what times you tend to work best, and under what conditions. I’m generally most productive in the afternoon or late at night. Thus, I try to set aside writing time during those times of the day (the latter of which is also convenient because the kids tend to be asleep). Others work best early in the morning, or some other time period.
Similarly, think about what conditions are most conducive to work. I work best in my basement at home, amidst as much quiet as possible. I spend enough writing time there that my two toddlers call the basement “Daddy’s office” and sometimes also refer to it as “where Daddy writes books.” Other scholars work best in their office at work, at a coffee shop, or some other environment. Figure out what works for you (by experimentation, if need be) and stick to it.
Ideally, you should both find ways to reduce the amount of procrastination and develop better strategies to work around whatever time-wasting remains. But if you succeed at even one of the two, that might well be enough. It works for me (most of the time…). And if you’re taking the time to read this post in hopes of becoming a better writer, you’re probably not nearly as lazy as I am.
Getting Your Point Across—Organization and Style
There is no one way to organize a book, and there certainly isn’t just one writing style that works well. Much depends on the topic of the book, and on the strengths and weaknesses of the writer. But there are a few rules of thumb that I believe apply to a wide range of academic books.
First, it’s important to be as clear as possible about what the thesis of your book is, and how the different parts fit together. If it’s hard to tell how Chapter 1 connects with Chapter 2, 3, and so on, readers are likely to get confused, and perhaps even stop reading altogether.
You can forestall this by giving an overview of what you plan to do in the book in the Introduction (including explaining how the different parts fit together), and then indicating near the end of each chapter how it connects to the next one. It can also be helpful if the conclusion of the book reminds the reader of its key points. As my father-in-law (a retired teacher) once put it: “Tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em, then tell it to them, and then tell it to them again.” The trick is to do this without being tedious and boring.
To avoid the latter problem, the introduction—and the beginnings of individual chapters—shouldn’t be just a dry “road map” of what you plan to say. You can also grab the reader’s attention with dramatic stories and examples that help illustrate your points.
“If you are advocating a specific point of view on a controversial issue, ask yourself what defenders of the opposing position are likely to say in response. In some cases, you can readily figure it out by reading their own works!”
For example, in my recent book Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration and Political Freedom, the Introduction includes a summary of the later chapters, which explain the advantages of different types of “voting with your feet” and offer responses to a variety of criticisms of expanded migration rights. But I also briefly tell the stories of Frederick Douglass—the great nineteenth-century abolitionist and African-American leader—and J.D. Vance (author of the bestselling Hillbilly Elegy). Their life and work dramatically illustrates the tremendous life-transforming benefits of mobility, which are the focus of the book. And they make the Introduction more exciting and attention-grabbing than it would be if I just gave a straight preview of my arguments in the rest of the book.
If you’re unsure about whether your arguments and the connections between chapters are clear to readers, ask someone who is interested in the subject—but not an expert on it—to read it over. If that person has trouble understanding your point, that probably means you need to make it clearer.
Make sure, also, to ask your editor about this issue. He or she is likely to have good insight into it, and offer useful suggestions for improvement.
Another useful point to remember is to try to avoid long, complicated, sentences and paragraphs. They make it harder for readers to figure out what you’re saying, and also make the book more tedious to read.
Don’t make a fetish of simplicity! I’m not suggesting you should never have a compound sentence or a lengthy paragraph. Sometimes, there may be a good reason for including them. But when you read your work, consider each such case carefully, and only leave in those that are strictly necessary. Simpler and shorter isn’t always better. But it is better most of the time.
Improving Your Argument
There are obvious limits to how much I can tell you about how to make the substance of your book better. I don’t know what your book is about, and—most likely—I’m not an expert in your field. That part is your job. If you need highly specific advice about substance, it’s probably best to get it from other experts. Still, there are some general strategies I can offer for avoiding pitfalls that regularly recur in many disciplines.
“Counterarguments might lead you to the painful conclusion that you need to discard or at least moderate one of your own claims. That’s OK!”
One that I find particularly useful is to think carefully about potential criticisms of your thesis. If you are advocating a specific point of view on a controversial issue, ask yourself what defenders of the opposing position are likely to say in response. In some cases, you can readily figure it out by reading their own works! But even if they haven’t specifically addressed the point at issue, you should ask yourself what they might say in response to your position. If you have the opportunity, ask one of them to read an early draft of the chapter in question, and give you their responses. If not, at least ask yourself what arguments you would make if you had to defend their position. If a good point occurs to you, try to develop a rebuttal. The issue may well occur to readers and critics, as well.
The more you can forestall possible objections, the more persuasive your work will be to those who don’t already agree with your position. Even if they aren’t totally convinced, they will at least take your arguments more seriously. And a good scholar should aspire to do more than preach to the already converted.
You can’t deal with every conceivable objection. But the more you can address counterarguments that are likely to be raised by intellectually serious advocates of opposing views, the better your book will be.
“In considering which objections to deal with, it’s obviously important to address major points likely to be raised by experts. But, in some cases, you may want to deal with arguments that are often made in public discourse.”
Occasionally, considering counterarguments might lead you to the painful conclusion that you need to discard or at least moderate one of your own claims. That’s OK! Indeed, if that happens, it’s good to point it out in the book, and qualify your argument accordingly. If you make such concessions when called for, the rest of your argument will have greater credibility with intellectually serious readers—particularly those not previously sympathetic to your views.
For example, in my book The Grasping Hand, which forcefully criticizes the Supreme Court’s controversial ruling in Kelo v. New London (2005), I had to admit that Kelo was consistent with some fifty years of prior Supreme Court precedent. Much as I wanted to do so, I couldn’t credibly claim that the result in the case was just manufactured by the Court out of whole cloth.
But that unpleasant admission probably added credibility to my argument that the Kelo majority nonetheless badly misinterpreted key nineteenth and early-twentieth-century precedent. Eventually, even Justice John Paul Stevens, the author of the majority opinion in Kelo, admitted I was right on that particular point (though he still differed with me on other issues related to the case). That might not have happened if I had obstinately refused to give opposing views the credit they were due.
In considering which objections to deal with, it’s obviously important to address major points likely to be raised by experts. But, in some cases, you may want to deal with arguments that are often made in public discourse, even if experts shy away from them. That’s especially true if you want your book to appeal to interested lay readers, as well as academic specialists.
For example, few academics are willing to argue that all or most potential migrants have a strong moral duty to stay home and “fix their own countries,” though many do make more modest version of this argument (such as that skilled professionals educated in part at public expense have such an obligation). But this sort of argument often comes up in lay public discourse. So I decided to address it in Chapter 5 of my book Free to Move, in addition to the more limited variants deployed by experts.
While it’s often good to err on the side of inclusion in dealing with potential counterarguments, it’s also important to avoid trying to do too much in your book. When you consider covering an additional issue, always ask whether it’s really necessary to do so in order to advance your main thesis. Sometimes, adding another issue just sets up another target for critics to shoot at, without doing much to buttress your own argument. Other times, the additional issue is so large and complicated, that addressing it effectively would make it a tail that grows so large it begins to wag the dog of the rest of the book.
If that happens, you should avoid the temptation to include that issue in your project. You might even include an explanation for why you chose not to cover it, so readers who think of it are not left wondering. In Democracy and Political Ignorance, I make the case that the problem of widespread political ignorance justifies making government smaller and more decentralized than might otherwise be preferable. But I also emphasize that the book does not advance a comprehensive theory of what the optimal size and degree of centralization of government should be. Including that issue would have made the book vastly longer, and overshadowed the focus on political ignorance.
Much more can be said on how best to write books on particular subjects. And, ultimately, you are in the best position to know how to make the most of your own unique skills. But I hope the advice I offer can at least help you get started.
Unless you’re one of those lucky people who is naturally hard-working or actually enjoys writing for its own sake, the process of completing a book is often painful and difficult. But if you do a good job of filling up those blank spaces with words, the high at the end will be worth the pain. Don’t listen to Taylor Swift—it really will be.
Ilya Somin is a professor of law at George Mason University. This piece is part 4 out of a series of 5.
In This Series:
Part 1: Writing an Academic Book
Part 3: Getting Your Proposal Accepted