Revising the Book: Still Thinking About an Introduction

One of the great things about a long road trip is that it gave me time to think about my plans for the fall. I used a good bit of that time to think about how I might revise my book manuscript this fall. My book is survey of recent work on the archaeology of the contemporary American experience. You can check out most of it here and discussions of my approaches to revision here and here.

 As so often happens two of the reviewers requested minor changes and one reviewer suggested that I re-organize the entire manuscript. The two commissioning editors split roughly along similar lines with one suggesting some revisions and other suggestion more significant work. 

To be clear, I respect the opinions of the reviewers, and as someone who has reviewed his share of manuscripts lately, I recognize how much work it is to offer substantive feedback to a book or article length project. As a result, I have a tendency to try to accommodate as much of the reviewer feedback as possible. I also tend to understand most publications, even single-author books, to be the product of groups of scholars who over time have contributed to the final results in explicit and implicit ways from the book’s initial stages of formulation to its final publication. 

One upshot of this is that most contemporary scholarship bears the marks of being written by committee. This has tendency to level the differences between most academic books. They might use different bodies of evidence, have different organizations, and make different points, but most authors ultimately write books that look very much alike and follow conventions of scholarship deeply (and often explicitly) etched in our collective consciousness (and training) as scholars. It strikes me that this is probably it is a fairly common recommendation, at all levels of writing, that authors reorganize their work. Because every academic book looks a good bit like every other academic book, it is fairly easy to imagine one book as another and suggest that the author make an exchange. 

This isn’t to suggest that this is an easy thing to do. In fact, it carries with it a series of odd contradictions. For example, most scholars tend to write into an outline and develop our work in a modular way. Few scholars I know write into single document. Instead we produce our chapters as multiple documents and even as sub-chapters making it easy enough technologically to shuffle chapters and sections around. That said, it is never simply a matter of shuffling chapters and arguments. The coherence in a book often comes from the myriad of little pointers in a text that serve as the arguments connective tissue. So in most cases, reorganizing a manuscript involves a massive amount of fiddly work to ensure that the new organization sheds any artifacts associated with its former organization or lacks the kind of cohesion necessary for the new organization to work successfully.

What is odd is that all the connective tissue that we build into our works to transform our arguments from chunks of text written over months and years into a coherent text likely offers only modest benefits to the work itself. After all, most of us think about academic books not as something to be read, savored, or even tasted, but to be digested in bites and chunks. While I try to read 40 or so books cover-to-cover each year, I digest two or three times that number in various less systematic, but no less significant ways. Cohesion in academic writing is largely the indulgence of the author and a concern for the small number of readers and reviewers who take the book as a whole. 

As I mull over how I might reorganize my book, I keep wondering whether the it might just be easier to write a strong introduction that makes the case explicitly for why the book has one organization over another. This is unlikely to convince everyone all the time, but it elevates the organization of the book from an arbitrary decision to an argument and reviewers have a tendency to critique arguments substantively rather than proposing alternative arguments. In the best scenario, this tends to produce stronger arguments. 

Unfortunately, my manuscript does not have a particularly strong introduction. This will be a major order of business this semester.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s