Manya Whitaker

Assistant Professor of Education at Colorado College

Writing a Book Pre-tenure

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Image: by Franz Bonn. Munich: Braun & Schneider, 1888.

I wrote a book before I earned tenure — a feat, given the heavy teaching and service load at my institution. But because my situation is very different from most tenure-track faculty, talking about my book’s journey isn't particularly useful for other academics. Instead, I want to share the most important things I learned that you should (and shouldn’t) do when writing your first book pre-tenure.

Make sure you have something unique to say. The time lag between finishing a dissertation and preparing a book proposal can be years. Before you start turning the dissertation into a book, make sure no one has scooped your idea. If that’s happened, sorry, but you need to change your argument. Otherwise, no press will be interested and you will waste a lot of time trying to convince publishers that your book does indeed advance the field.

Are you still passionate about your topic? What you decided to write about in graduate school four to seven years ago reflects your interests then (or perhaps your adviser's interests). You may no longer care that much about the topic, and that’s perfectly reasonable. Interests change. Or, after working intimately on a topic for so long, you may be sick and tired of it. Again, that's fine. But it means you need to change your book project because you will never, ever, ever, write a book you don't actually want to write.

If, for whatever reason, you are tied to your dissertation topic, despite waning interest in it, push yourself to produce a more exciting and intellectually rigorous version of your dissertation — because editors can tell if you don’t. Many editors will find your dissertation online and compare it to the book proposal in front of them. If your proposal is simply a regurgitation of something you wrote a year or two years ago, you won't come across as an innovative emerging scholar. Instead, you will appear to be a lazy academic who is phoning it in and hasn't kept up with recent developments in the field. Your book should be in conversation with other scholars in your discipline, not written for a graduate committee.

Try to write a book that's in your heart and mind, not the book that's on your CV. I was able to write my book in nine months while teaching a full course load mostly because: (a) I love the content, (b) I am extremely familiar with the material because much of it is was part of an educational psychology course I was teaching two to three times a year, and (c) I strongly believed that my book would make a difference for parents and families. The point is that it's better to write a great book in one year than to spend five years struggling to write the book you said you'd write only because you said you'd write it.

Review your tenure requirements. Does a book count toward tenure in your department and/or at your institution? For humanities scholars that’s almost always a given. But for social scientists and natural scientists, a book may or may not “count.” In my case, my book counts toward tenure but does not take the place of journal articles in my field. So writing a book is fine and dandy but I also need to publish in peer-reviewed journals.

If a book isn't required for tenure — or doesn't take the place of articles or other scholarly products — it may not be worth your time to write one.

Don't forget third-year review. While tenure is the ever-present shadow looming over junior faculty, we do have an earlier hurdle to overcome. Third-year reviews can be diagnostic or evaluative. In either case, to avoid a negative one, you need to be certain to demonstrate scholarly productivity in those first few years on the tenure track.

Most assistant professors don't produce a book in those early years, but you are expected to be doing something. It won't be enough to say, “I'm working on a book proposal” or even, “I have a book contract.” Committees want scholarly achievement, not just scholarly activity. To ensure you are indeed publishing, turn chapters of your dissertation into articles and then, for the book project, replace those chapters with updated or new ideas. What you originally wrote wasn't bad (I mean, it got you a doctorate), so don't throw stuff away. Be strategic about what chapters you keep and what chapters can be used for other scholarly opportunities.

You might also develop a secondary line of research that facilitates faster and easier publications. It needs to be related to your primary research agenda (coherency and all that), but make this secondary topic something you care about, are constantly interacting with, and can talk intelligently about. Like me, many young professors use the content of their courses to guide a secondary research line. That way, all your eggs aren't in the same scholarly basket and the pressure to get the book published in three years is lessened a bit.

Guard your time. Once you clearly understand your tenure requirements, be very intentional about how you use your days. The publish-or-perish mantra is a strong motivator for using as much of your nonteaching time as possible to write, write, write!

The internet is full of gimmicks about how to structure your days and weeks so you are most productive (e.g., write for 20 minutes a day) but the reality is that you know you best. You know when you are most productive, but everything that matters can't happen in that window. I am a morning person but I can't go the gym, teach, write, grade, draft lesson plans, and meet with students between a 5 a.m.-to-2 p.m window. Instead, I make my schedule so that each of my professional and personal tasks gets priority at least twice a week during the period of the day when I tend to be most productive.

Once you establish realistic goals and reasonable timelines, track your time use and your progress. That will help you see how much time you need to spend on certain tasks to accomplish what you want to get done. Once you know how you spend your time, you can be more intentional about setting smaller writing goals and balancing your available time to make sure you don't feel overwhelmed with “having to write this book.”

Pick a press for the job you want, not the job you have. It's important that you have an idea of what you want your book to accomplish. For me, I wanted my book to change how families went about choosing schools for their children. I knew from Day 1 that I was not writing a book that would help me get a job at an R1. But if you are at an R1, or hope to join one soon, you need to write a book that makes you a competitive and desirable candidate at that type of institution.

Read important books by leading scholars in your field and take note of their publishers. That will tell you if your book is even topically of interest to major presses in your discipline and give you information about how you should actually write the book (e.g., audience, tone, graphics, organization, etc). It will also come in handy when writing the book proposal and articulating how your book differs from, and is in alignment with, other texts.

Ignore other people. Everyone and their mama will have an opinion about your book. Colleagues who've published multiple books will have all kinds of advice for you. While many of them are trying to be helpful, their advice often serves to add anxiety to the book-writing process.

I advise you to keep your book progress to yourself. You don't need people judging you for a product you haven't yet produced. And you certainly don't need people sharing your book idea with strangers who might steal the concept (yes, that happens). If you need to talk with someone, confide in a mentor or a close nonacademic friend.

Write. That's it. Just write. Write now.

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