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05/06/2013

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Clement

I had three readers for my chapters. When I felt that I could not improve a chapter without some distance, I gave it to #1, whose Ph.D. is not in philosophy. After her comments, I made improvements. Then off to #2, then revised, then to #3, then revised. Then I returned to the chapter after I had written the next one. My advice: don't have more than one person reading the same draft at the same time. Improve the draft with comments from #1, before turning to #2, etc. This way your readers won't focus on the same mistakes, and each later reader gets a better draft.

elisa freschi

A specific answer: I would not focus now on the sequence of chapters. You might prefer to start with the central one, the one where you state your thesis, so that you can then better know what you need to say about other theories. And I would definitely write (or at least revise) the introduction at the end of the whole enterprise.
I am glad for Clement, but in my experience it is not that easy to find so many valuable readers. Thus, I would wait a little bit before exploiting them. But this, once again, has a lot to do with "knowing oneself" (I know that I easily reach a stage where I feel overconfident about my thesis and that this is risky, since I might oversee its weak points. When I reach this point, I therefore put my article in a drawer for a while and then get back to it with a fresh mind, and it always improves. Others might tend too much to perfectionism and to them I would certainly suggest to send their staff to colleagues and friends before they feel it is ready).


A more general point: I assume that one writes about something one is passionate about. Thus, why not taking the time to read more about it?
a) Because one thinks to know better ---» I do not think this is a safe move, for it precludes the possibility to enhance one's thinking. It is very likely that one will learn from one forerunners (at least from their mistakes).
b) Because one thinks one does not have enough time ---» But what does this mean? Suppose one writes a book in two weeks, has one "saved" time? Is not one rather running the risk of wasting one's and one's readers' time with too weak arguments?

Lisa

From my (limited) experience, the right balance between sticking to a plan and changing it when the writing process leads you somewhere new is crucial. You need a clear structure beforehand, but you will most likely have to change some things on the way, when you realize that certain arguments don't work the way you want them to work, or actually fit better into another part of the book. Keeping the overall architecture in mind is what is really different from writing a paper, in which the structure is much less complex, simply because it's so much shorter. Plan enough time, towards the end, for working on the overall coherence and consistency. What helped me a lot was to always keep a file in which I had a sort of analytic table of contents, to make sure I know how the arguments I make in one section hang together with the rest. Otherwise there is a certain danger of getting bogged down in details. And you can give it to people who read individual chapters so that they understand how things hang together.
Also, I think it's helpful to discuss with people what kind of feedback you (mainly) want from them - is it about making sure you have mentioned the most important secondary literature? Is it about overall coherence? Is it about how interesting and important the contribution is?
And one last thing (I'm struggling with this right now): often, one starts with one specific question, or some point where one thinks that the discussions in the literature somehow got something wrong. Of course it is important to clear up what one thinks the misunderstanding is. But it's also important (and interesting, and fun) to think about the wider context of the debate, and why people came to held the views that you think are wrong, and to think about why you yourself have a different view. If you can get some of these things right, and put them into the book, it becomes much more interesting, because it says something not only about the specific problem, but also about the wider intellectual culture in which certain problems are conceived in certain ways. (An example of what I mean is MacIntyre's After Virtue - I do not agree with his diagnosis, but I really like the way in which he puts the topic of virtue ethics into a much broader framework, asking what it tells us about our culture and our time more generally). It does not work equally well for all topics, and maybe it's not needed for all books. But if you write a book, you want to change the debate, right? So it's worth digging somewhat deeper into why and how it is that we have the debate we have.

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