Writing a Book, From Start to Finish

One of my newsletter subscribers, Job Dalomba [jobdalomba.com] suggested that I write a post how how to do “book projects from start to finish, and share any ideas on how to get started.” Philip Jenkins and I have been posting lately about how to choose a research subject, but I loved this suggestion and want to sketch my book writing process here.

My experience as a book author is heavily shaped by my Ph.D. training as a historian and professor’s job at Baylor. Publishing a book that gets read by more than just a few people ordinarily requires some kind of platform. My platform is a combination of credentials, professional position, previous publishing record, and social media and web presence. My position at Baylor also means that I not only have time and support to write, but publishing is part of my annual performance review. I am mindful that many aspiring writers do not have this kind of built-in support, or platform. But if your professional situation does not necessarily come with publishing support, that does not mean you can’t publish. It can just make it harder to make yourself known to prominent publishers and the book-buying market.

The beginning of a book project comes with an idea of a gap to be filled, or a figure or topic that needs a new angle. In history, this requires expertise in the existing literature on a topic. For example, when I conceived the topic for my book on the Great Awakening (published in 2007), there were two main gaps I believed I could fill. One was about scope: no one had really written a comprehensive treatment of America’s Great Awakening, especially not one that took into account the specialized literature written on the Great Awakening in recent decades. The second was interpretive. I became convinced that the conventional Old Light vs. New Light framework for interpreting the revivals was inadequate, and it missed the equally significant conflict between moderate and radical evangelicals.

It came to pass that Yale University Press got interested in the project in the early stages of my writing it – they were hoping to find someone to do a new book on the awakening, and they had also had a successful experience working with my doctoral adviser George Marsden on his (brilliant) Jonathan Edwards biography. Before I knew it, I had a contract from them. This is not a typical scenario for academic writers, who normally have to present completed manuscripts to a press for consideration, especially when in the early stages of their careers. But it does speak to the value of having professional connections who serve as an introduction to a book publisher: doctoral students will often receive help from their adviser, or from colleagues at their first job, to get a hearing from a press.

With contract in hand, I began working through the  major topics that I knew I would need to cover: the Puritan background, George Whitefield’s ministry, missions to Native Americans, etc. This entailed reading  the relevant secondary sources by historians, and consulting primary sources such as ones in Early American Imprints, the definitive digital collection of colonial publications. I also visited about a dozen archives on the east coast to consult manuscript  materials, much of which I photocopied for reference as needed.

Writing the manuscript took about two years. My progress was aided by a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which funds academic projects in history and other humanities disciplines. Then I entered the peer review process with Yale, in which two other scholars give (blind) reviews of the manuscript, offering suggestions and corrections. I worked through those reports, then I worked with the press on smoothing out the prose. The last stage before physical production of the book was reviewing and correcting page proofs, an electronic file of what the book will look like in printed form. I got the printed book in fall 2007.

In the past seven years, I have learned a lot more about platform, and how much authors need to work on publicity. In a way, this is another whole component of writing a book. Of course, much has changed technologically since 2007 – Twitter had only launched in 2006, for example.

Writing different books requires different strategies, too – my book on American Christians and Islam probably cut the most new factual ground of any of my books, so it required creative searching in primary sources for little-known materials on Islam. Biographies (like mine on Patrick Henry, and my forthcoming one on George Whitefield) follow a more certain narrative path, because whatever your thematic focus, they tell a person’s life story.

These days I work with a literary agent, and we seek to get a contract for a book in its early stages, rather than at the end. Questions related to publishers and platform vary quite a lot depending on your professional status, but the mechanics of actually writing  the book remain fairly consistent.

Friends, if you haven’t already done so, I encourage you to sign up for the my newsletter. Each newsletter contains unique material available only to subscribers, incudling reflections on American history and the writer’s craft, and each will help you keep up with my blog posts, books, and other writings from around the web. [Your e-mail information will never be shared.] If you’re interested, you can sign up here.

  • Hillary Spragg

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