Category Archives: Academic Writing

Alfred Hitchcock and the Introduction to a Book

Dr. Carey Newman

This post is the second in a series from Dr. Carey Newman, the director of Baylor University Press. In each post, Dr. Newman offers helpful advice on the publication process for researchers who are starting their academic careers. Baylor University Press has experienced a remarkable transformation under Dr. Newman’s leadership; his efforts have received the attention of such outlets as Publisher’s Weekly. Dr. Newman is the recipient of a Ph.D. from Baylor University and a master’s degree in theology from the University of Aberdeen. He is the author of Paul’s Glory-Christology: Tradition and Rhetoric (Brill) and the editor of Jesus and the Restoration of Israel (IVP).


I am often asked about how to revise a thesis into a book.  I look blankly at my questioner and state baldly: it is not revision, it is exorcism.  You don’t revise a thesis; you turn it inside out, wash it, grind it, and reshape it.  Very, very few theses make it as books without such totalizing.  The amount of transformation needed can be best measured in voice – a thesis typically speaks in but one voice, while a book speaks in four distinct voices – that of the introduction, the prose, the notes and the conclusion.

I want to be clear and not misunderstood.  Nothing I say below should ever take precedence over what your thesis director (and any committee members) say to you about your thesis.  Job 1 is to please them, to write something that they endorse and approve.  THEN comes the consideration of a book – and only then.  The best thesis is a signed thesis.  Period.

The introduction, though, is a very good example of the difference between a thesis and a book. The introduction to a thesis, for better or worse, has been influenced by the way that research takes place on the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Medicine) side of the ledger.  The introduction becomes a kind of kitchen drawer into which is placed the review of literature, hypothesis, method, limitations, definitions, scope, implications, and even the preview the whole of the work chapter by chapter.  By contrast, a book’s introduction has but one purpose – to get a reader to read.

Introductions to books are as movie trailers are to movies.  The whole purpose of a movie trailer, beyond that of giving late movie goers time to purchase the overpriced and sized snacks, is to get the public to come back, to spend money, on the next movie.  So, too, an introduction to a book.  The introduction to a book not only performs a logical function (what is the book about? what does it argue?; it also performs a psychological (what is really at stake? why does it matter?).  Analogous to the opening to any Hitchcock thriller, the reader must want to read on because of the first few pages.

On the wall of the far wing of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel – the glorious pink colossal that anchors Wai Kiki Beach – hangs travel posters from the 20s.  Minimalistic water colors of oversized ships creeping into the harbor.  Patrons leisurely sprawled on the clean sun swept beach.  Oh my.  Standing there, looking at the posters, it is so easy to see yourself (or what you wish might have been you): a world traveler before traveling was emptied of its romance.  Luxury, tranquility, sophistication, adventure.  You are tempted to dive into that poster and willingly be transported back to another, simpler world.

THAT is the function of an introduction to a book.  It leads the potential reader to want to read on.  The introduction puts in play what is really at stake regarding the subject and helps the potential reader to see why reading on is important.  Yes, true, something must be said about scope.  True, providing guard rails for misreading is important.  But, the purpose of the introduction to a book is to get a reader to read.  The voice entices, cryptically foreshadowing what journey is to come.  There will be time and space enough to drone on about this and that, to defend, deny and assert.  But, getting the reader to read on is task enough for an introduction.

 

The Value of a Writing Pipeline

 

Dr. Thomas S. Kidd, Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University, reflects in this post on how the use of a writing pipeline can increase one’s productivity. Dr. Kidd is a prolific author, having composed such works as American Colonial History: Clashing Cultures and Faiths and George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father with Yale University Press and American Christians and Islam: Evangelical Culture and Muslims from the Colonial Period to the Age of Terrorism with Princeton University Press. He frequently contributes to national media outlets such as the Wall Street Journal.

 


The writing and publishing process has lots of starts and stops. Say your first draft of your revised dissertation/book is done. Or maybe just your latest chapter. You submit the draft, and then you wait for feedback from readers, editors, or an advisor. Often you wait for weeks, or even months. What do you do during that time?

One of the keys to long-term productivity in writing is “pipelining” projects. That is, when you’re waiting for the next step on a completed manuscript, you should have an early-stage project you’re working on. This can be difficult when you’re suddenly required to drop everything and go back to the other project, giving you a bit of intellectual whiplash. But having at least two projects at different stages means that you’ll know intuitively how to fill the down time when you’re waiting on a response from a professor, editor, or commissioned reviewer. (I am definitely aware that here I am envisioning a work schedule, like mine at Baylor, that allows for – and even requires – ongoing writing.)

Maybe for you this is as simple as plowing ahead with your next dissertation chapter. Or maybe working on an article you’ve had on the back burner. One of my latest experiences in the writing pipeline involved the later stages of writing my religious biography of Benjamin Franklin. This book will be out with Yale University Press in May 2017. But in early 2016, I also signed with B&H Academic to write an American history textbook.

I delivered the Franklin manuscript to Yale in April 2016. Then I needed to wait to get a reader’s report back from them. It arrived at the beginning of July 2016. I had about two and a half months in between where I basically had nothing to do on the Franklin book, but to wait.

If I had nothing definite to work on book-wise, I could easily have found things to occupy time – blogging, prep for a new legal history course I was teaching at Baylor in the fall, etc. And I certainly did spend some time on those matters.

But I always want to be making progress on long-term projects, too. That requires consistent writing. I don’t have exact totals, but I am confident that I averaged at least 1000 words a day on the days I was working on the textbook. Let’s assume that was eight weeks, five days a week. That comes out to 40,000 words. That seems about right, since I finished five chapters on the textbook, at about 8000 words each.

Writing a textbook is pretty easy, as writing goes. Still, as a writer, grad student, or professor we often find ANYTHING else to work on besides actually writing, especially in those gap times when you’re waiting for someone else to do something. It is really helpful to me when I don’t have to wonder what else I should work on!

When the reader’s report came back in, I needed to shift gears and go back to the Franklin book for final revisions. It took a day or two to get back into the flow. And it took me another day or two to get back into the flow of the B&H textbook, once I was done with that latest phase of the Franklin book. But that is ok. It is far better than having just one project going at a time.

 

I am a Noun

Dr. Carey Newman

We are pleased to feature a new series of blog posts from Dr. Carey Newman, the director of Baylor University Press. In each post, Dr. Newman will offer helpful advice on the publication process for researchers who are starting their academic careers. Baylor University Press has experienced a remarkable transformation under Dr. Newman’s leadership; his efforts have received the attention of such outlets as Publisher’s Weekly. Dr. Newman is the recipient of a Ph.D. from Baylor University and a master’s degree in theology from the University of Aberdeen. He is the author of Paul’s Glory-Christology: Tradition and Rhetoric (Brill) and the editor of Jesus and the Restoration of Israel (IVP).


There are three—and only three—kinds of books in the world: nouns, verbs, and peanuts.  Nouns are academic books; they inform.  Verbs are professional books; they transform the practice of a profession.  Peanuts are trade books; they entertain.

I can’t count the number of proposals I receive that say this: “my book is intended for scholars, teachers, students, clergy, professionals, and general readers” (and I add in my mind, “small children and dogs”).  What I can safely say in response to projects that seek such a wide readership is this: a book intended for everyone reaches no one.

Years are spent becoming a scholar.  Heavy investments by family, friends, and self.  This process is not only necessary credentialing for a life in academics, it is also formative—scholarship is not what you do; you become a scholar.  You don’t just write nouns; you are a noun.

There is a deep yearning inside of a scholar to reach the world with her research.  In fact, there is a fair amount of chatter about the necessity of getting beyond the ivy to the city.  While I am, generally, in favor of such efforts, I do have some words of caution.  Scholars fantasize about obtaining such a wide readership, but have no idea the cost of climbing a second mountain.

Rule #14 in academic publishing runs like this: the same number of years, and the same amount of effort, required to become a scholar will be required to become a public writer.  Becoming a writer for a large general readership is not simply a matter of adverbs and adjectives.  Becoming a skilled and credentialed public writer means leaving the safe confines of the academy and learning to pay your bills by your writing.

There are ways to verb a noun and remain a scholar.  Yes.  There is also the process of making nuts out of nouns and still be a scholar.  True.  But the noun comes first.  Unless you have something to say you have nothing to say.  But having something to say does not mean you have learned to say it—and learning to make verbs and to shell nuts takes a lot of time and effort.

I say, be happy with being a noun.  Write them.  Love them.  Do not feel like you have to make an apology for writing, loving and being a noun.  You are a noun.  Your friends are all nouns.  You dream noun dreams.  When you drink beer with your friends, all you talk about are nouns.  Nouns are good.