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05/30/2015

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Axel Gelfert

Thanks for this excellent post, Marcus. Perhaps the most important take-home message is that it's incredibly difficult to arrive at general statements about what it's like to be writing a book. Some of your experiences mirror my own fairly closely, but in other respects my experience with book projects has been quite different. For example, I agree entirely that timing -- when to embark on a book project -- is an extremely important factor (and one that will vary considerably from one person to the other). I had been planning to write a book on testimony ever since I finished my PhD and had secured a (2-year) postdoc in 2006. However, other projects soon took over and I kept postponing work on the book time and again. It also became clear that the book I was planning really consisted of two projects that would best be pursued separately. In the end, I was happy to find that Bloomsbury was interested in one of the two projects -- an in-depth survey of the epistemology of testimony, which also develops my own positive theory of testimonial justification in more detail -- and based on my publications on the topic and a book plan they offered me a contract. (This, too, may be unusual, in that I did not have an entire manuscript before securing a contract.) In the end, I wrote the book only *after* having submitted my tenure application, over the course of about 9 months (not counting the work that went into journal articles, some of which I'm drawing on in some of the chapters -- though there is very little verbatim overlap). So, timing really is very important. It's much easier to take on a book project when one has tenure, or a reasonable prospect of gaining tenure; without it, it can be quite daunting.

Regarding the drafting/re-drafting process, however, my experience has been quite different. Sure, I've revised the book a number of times, and have gone over the full manuscript a few times to increase coherence and the way everything 'hangs together'. But I don't think I would have had the patience to revise everything 60 times! Perhaps this is just a matter of style: While I think it's important that a book has coherence and doesn't just consist of a series of 'stand-alone' article-style chapters, I do think it's sensible to aim for a 'modular' approach. This way, I think one can limit the extent to which changes in one chapter have a 'ripple effect' on other chapters. Sure, there may be a need for revisions, but ideally the structure of the argument would be such that it prevents changes from spreading uncontrollably. Of course, if one's views have fundamentally changed over the course of writing the book, things may be different. Perhaps, then, another important take-home message is that book projects are best pursued by taking the long view -- both by asking oneself what it is that one wants the book to achieve, and by being prepared to explore different bits of the argument via journal articles, conference preparations, etc., so that by the time one sits down and writes the book, one can be reasonably confident that one won't have to change one's mind (or at least not too much, or too often...).

Marcus Arvan

Hi Axel: Thanks for your comment. I actually agree with most of what you say. First, there's only one paper I rewrote 60-odd times. That case is not at all typical for me. It was just a particular project that I cared *very* much about. My point was simply that however difficult revising papers is, revising book manuscripts isn't incrementally more difficult. It's a different kind of difficult. Anyway, I agree with you on modularity. It is important to try to make books as modular as they can be, so that changes to one chapter have fewer ripples to changes to others. Indeed, I think this is a very nice point, indicating a unique challenge to book writing: making the entire manuscript modular in that very way. But notice: even that it part of a broader challenge, the one I describe in my post. For although "more modular" is probably good, the basic point still stands: there is only *so* modular a book can be. They still have to hang together in ways that you never have to worry about at the level of individual journal articles--so the whole question of how modular a book can be, and revising it to the extent that it hangs together, are some of the unique challenges of book writing!

Axel Gelfert

Hi Marcus, thanks for the clarification; I'm glad the 60-odd revisions were an outlier! And I agree that striking the right balance between "too modular" (which would mean "chapters could have been published separately as journal articles without any great intellectual loss") and "too interdependent" ("any changes in the argument will automatically affect all the chapters") is a unique challenge of book-writing. In fact, it seems to me that publishing ambitious papers -- those that cover some ground, rather than break everything up into "least pulishable units" -- is a good way of practicing how to strike this balance. Looking back, having explored the major themes of my book in a number of longer papers was excellent practice and helped me figure out various aspects of the larger book project...

Marcus Arvan

Hi Axel: Sorry for taking so long to respond. It's been a very hectic week! Anyway, I totally agree with you that publishing ambitious papers is a good way to practice these elements of book writing. I remember reading somewhere that a decade or two ago the average philosophy journal article was 30-40 pages of double-spaced type, whereas they are only somewhere between 20-20 pages today. I think this trend (if indeed it is one) sort of maps onto the trend of focusing on smaller, ambitious ideas and journal articles rather than books--two trends which I have raised concerns about in the past (I think philosophy should be ambitious, and that monographs are important for this reason!).

Josh Mugg

Marcus-

I am curious what a 'written draft' looks like. I can write rough drafts very quickly (I had a rough draft of my dissertation completed in a little over a year, while writing other articles as well). My revising takes (I think) longer than other folks though. I have an 'book length' idea (my diss was sort of the first half of it), but I am not sure I want to commit to having a nicely polished manuscript before I can do anything with it. So my question, to which I suspect there is only a vague answer, is 'how polished does the draft need to be before approaching a publisher'? When I send something off to a journal, I aim to send something that I think is publishable in its present form. Is that how polished a book draft should be?

book boy

Josh:
The more finished your manuscript is, the better. Certainly, the higher you aim with respect to publishers (Oxford and Cambridge on the high end ... etc. on the lower end) the more polished the manuscript should be. It also helps, certainly with the best publishers, to have a research record on the topic your book addresses. A research record is not only a few publications, but some response to your work (something that is not fully in your control).
I speak as one who has reviewed both proposals and manuscripts for book publishers.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Josh: I agree with 'book boy'. The more finished, the better. It also helps to have a research record or public profile in the discipline, as book publishers are interested in sales (this isn't to say that they won't consider proposals or manuscripts from early-career, but the more established you are, the easier--or so I understand it--publishing a book is). It's also worth noting that some publishers are resistant to publishing revised dissertations. Although it sounds like your envisioned project is much more than that, it is something to be aware of.

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