Writing Wednesday

Throughout most of the COVID pandemic, I’ve been slogging through writing and revision of my overdue book manuscript. Earlier this week, I released the first draft the final chapter (and the second draft of that chapter is almost complete). You can get a sense for the book here.

This was my first effort to write a buttoned-down academic book rather than an archaeological report or some kind of weird pseudo-academic book like my Bakken tourist guide. Among the many things that I learned is that I’m not really a book-length thinker or writer. As I’ve reflected on this over the last few months, I thought I might put together a little blog post that highlights some things that I might do differently if I had to write another book (and I sincerely hope that I never do).

1. Have a better plan. I started my book with a pretty “high level” outline that was part of the book proposal. This did not, however, provide much structure for the individual chapters. As a result, the structure of each chapter developed organically and by the second half of my book, I had settled on an organization for the chapters. Each begins with a 300-500 word “lede” and then a proper introduction of similar length before preceding to the chapter’s argument. The downside of this approach is fairly obvious. I am now attempting to retrofit my approach onto earlier chapters and this is not only a good bit of work, but also risks making the retrofitted chapters less effective. 

2. Figures. Despite being an archaeologist and ersatz architectural historian, I still struggle to deal with figures and images and their relationship to text. As a result, my book right now has no settled figures and only a handful of likely candidates. I am dreading the process of going through each chapter and figuring out where to located the 30-40 figures that I’ve requested for the book.

I realize that this was a classic rookie mistake and probably connected as much to my tendency in archaeological publications to write text on the basis of working figures (e.g. produced through GIS software or drafted in Illustrator) that serve more to visualize an argument in my own head than to convey visual information in a consistent and clear way to a reader.    

3. Citations. From the start of this book, I sought to be more deliberate in my citation practices (for some of my thoughts on this see here). At the same time, I struggled a bit to come up with a policy on how to register different levels of citation. For example, a citation associated with a sustained discussion of a work is different from a citation that merely recognizes the existence of a scholar’s work. I now have a bit of a mess where I will essentially have to run through my entire manuscript one more time to figure out the citation levels for various kind of scholarship and scholars. 

This carelessness on my part not only has made more work for me, but also prevented me from being actively reflexive in who and what work I cited. I remain committed to the value of citations as a way to create a more inclusive academic community and, in particular, recognize the value of citations in work like mine, which is largely a survey, to direct readers to an emerging body of scholarship. I hope to have some data to share in my citation practices (and perhaps to include in the book itself) in the future. 

4. Length. My book manuscript is too long. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure how this happened. Partly it is because my bibliography is longer than I expected and partly because my tidy 5000 word chapters tended to creep longer during revision. I suppose that I didn’t realize how many more words were necessary to take stand-alone chapters and make them into a coherent(ish) book.  

My hope is that the reviewers can make some suggestions on how to tighten up the manuscript in general.

5. Doing too much. I suspect the real problem with length is that I’m simply trying to do too much in this book and, as a result, it is not only over length, but also unsuccessful at doing anything. Originally I had this idea that the book would present a narrative arc that would begin with the excavations in Alamogordo where we documented the recovery of Atari games from the local landfill and conclude with our work in the Bakken oil patch. Between these bookends would be a series of chapters that expanded upon various aspects of these projects. 

I think this structure was too clever by half and left too much to the reader’s imagination. As a result, the book is not only too long, but also awkwardly organized! 

Finally, I never realized prior to working on this book how much writing and revising a book can take over everything. This book wiped out two semesters of other research and work, stalled various publishing and editing projects, and regularly competed with teaching for my attention.

In effect, book writing requires a kind of intellectual selfishness that I didn’t realize until its was too late. I cringe thinking about how my obsession with this manuscript has made me appear to my colleagues and collaborators on other projects.   

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