Publishing without Perishing

Several of my co-bloggers have commented on aspects of dissertation writing and academic publishing. Perhaps for some gifted individuals, books come forth with ease. For most of us, however, they are laborious endeavors, filled with stretches of angst and exhaustion. What follows are a few thoughts on how to minimize publishing stress and how to arrive at the best finished product.

1) Choose the right topic. This sounds like a no-brainer, but it hasn’t always been easy for me. When I was in graduate school, I spent six months working up a dissertation proposal that went nowhere (it was about the influence of certain schools of thought on twentieth-century “mainline” Protestantism). I thought I would find the subject of interest. It would have helped explain the trajectory of my own Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). But I was entirely unmotivated.

I contemplated what I would find of lasting interest. Having come to know Jesus Christ through Young Life and InterVarsity, I decided to write about the role of parachurch organizations within twentieth-century American evangelicalism. I ended up choosing to write about Campus Crusade for Christ, one of the most significant of such organizations. I’m not suggesting that biography is always a good path for the choosing of a dissertation topic. It’s not a rare path, though, and it worked wonders in terms of helping me choose a topic that would sustain my interest for several years.

Personal interest isn’t enough to make a topic a good choice for a dissertation or book. One has to choose something that will also satisfy one’s dissertation committee, future search committees, and a future press. For future book projects, one has to consider multiple audiences as well, namely one’s academic peers who will review the book and potential general readers. Personal interest is, however, the first pre-requisite. It makes the hard work worthwhile.

2) Start writing. I try to start writing as soon as possible. What I try to do is figure out what I need to know for the first chapter of a book, conduct that research, and get something down on paper. Writing helps me figure out what else I need to know, thus shaping future research. Also, since it is impossible to finish writing a book without beginning to write, it’s a good idea to do this as soon as possible.

3) Be prepared to revise and rewrite. Especially because I try to start writing at an early stage, I do a great deal of subsequent revision and elimination.

I compare this to a lot of hiking trails I’ve been on in Colorado and Utah. I used to complain when hiking up a mountain (in my case, these were small mountains) about stretches when the trail went back downhill. I called these “wasted steps.” They meant I would have to work harder to go back up.

There really aren’t any “wasted steps” in writing. I do not feel great pangs of regret when I delete large chunks of text (saving older versions in the event I change my mind!). It’s rather liberating to let go of sentences, paragraphs, pages, or larger portions of a manuscript.

Especially toward the end of projects, I try hard to make time to edit the heck out of my manuscript. I ask academic and non-academic friends to read chapters. I revise them, print them out, read them over, mark them up, revise them, and repeat this process. It gets hard to see the awkward phrases and logical impasses in one’s own writing after a while, but I try to do as many rounds of editing as I can. My goal is to polish the writing as much as possible.

4) Pay attention to the other things that go into making a successful book.

For example, if one’s publisher is willing to include illustrations, these go a long way to making the final product attractive. In my recent work, this has been easy. I’ve been writing about Mormonism, and the Church History Library, BYU, the Utah State Historical Society, and other repositories have a host of wonderful photographs and are easy to work with (and affordable). The Library of Congress is a great source for public-domain photographs as well, which is important because the acquisition of illustrative materials can get expensive and is usually the author’s responsibility. It never hurts to ask archives if they can reduce a use fee in light of this reality. Along the same lines, an appealing cover design is also important. Many presses will pay for a photograph or other image needed for the cover.

These end-stage matters are often very gratifying. At this point, one can more readily image one’s text becoming a book.

A final thought, which I often find especially hard to remember in the face of deadlines. One reason I find writing of most any sort gratifying is because it is a creative act. Any creative act allows human beings to partake of a key element of the divine nature. God creates. We also create, in many intermediary ways. We have children. We raise animals or vegetables (in my case, destroyed by malicious chipmunks). We create sounds. We build things or make works of art.

Writing is also an act of creation. That’s true of letter-writing, blogging, and texting. And of the writing of books. It is remarkable that we can create texts that others can read and perhaps enjoy. In my case, I love singing hymns at church and lullabies to my daughter, but that’s the extent of music for me. And that brontosaurus I drew in seventh grade deserved the distressingly low grade it received from my art teacher.

Most of us, though, can write. I love reading the diaries of ordinary nineteenth-century Americans who felt it was of great spiritual value to take pen or pencil to paper and write down their experiences, often with irregular spelling and in handwriting as poor as mine. So for me, writing is one way to tap into the divine act of creating. If I actually kept that in mind as I worked on projects, I would enjoy them even more.

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  • davidrswartz

    So what are you writing about now?

  • John Turner

    I’m finishing a book called “The Mormon Jesus: A Biography.” If all goes smoothly, it will be out next spring.

  • Paul Putz

    Thanks for this post, John. Very helpful, and even inspiring.

  • Steve Webb

    What a beautiful piece!